Any eyes that have not yet turned to Aston Villa in recent weeks will no doubt finally give in to peer pressure after this weekend when Gerard Houllier officially takes over as manager of Aston Villa. Houllier has been waiting for clearance to leave his current role as technical director at the French Football Federation and this is expected to finally come through in time for Villa’s League Cup match against Blackburn Rovers next Wednesday.
However, the announcement that the former Liverpool manager would be taking over the vacant Villa hot seat wasn’t exactly met with the enthusiasm that owner Randy Lerner would have hoped for. With the club’s morale rather on the low side following Martin O’Neill’s shock exit and James Milner’s rather less shocking departure, Lerner needed to boost the Holte End’s happiness with a well chosen successor to O’Neill and on paper at least, he has done just that. After all, there’s not really a great deal of decent managers available at the moment and precious few likely poaching options at other clubs, with the exception of Martin Jol at Ajax who looks set to carry off this season’s Terry Venables Award for having his name linked with every managerial vacancy going. Sven-Goran Eriksson’s name was also mentioned, albeit mainly by Sven himself, leading to some considerable alarm bell-ringing in the claret and blue half of Birmingham, but this rather predictably came to nothing and in the end Houllier was probably the pick of an admittedly small bunch of realistic candidates.
So why the pessimism?
Although in terms of trophies Houllier’s managerial career has been an overly successful one, there are still several question marks hanging over his managerial style, including criticism he faced at Liverpool over his transfers, youth policy, tactics and style of football. Criticisms that, tellingly, O’Neil rarely had to endure.
After taking charge at Anfield in November 1998, Houllier set about dramatically overhauling a Liverpool side that had criminally under-achieved for nearly two decades. The following summer, out went big name Brits, including Paul Ince, David James, Rob Jones and Steve McManaman and in came the new order of Sami Hyppia, Dietmar Hamann, Stephane Henchoz and Sander Westerveld. Although some traditionalist eyebrows were raised at Liverpool’s new foreign legion, it didn’t take long for them to pay dividends, as the Reds went on to win the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup treble in 2001 and the following season finished 2nd in the League, their highest final placing since the creation of the Premiership. However, whilst some of these overseas signings went on to become the new Kop idols, there were murmurings of discontent over the number of players Houllier signed who failed to reach anything like the same heights. With Houllier preferring to scour the familiar French leagues for talent rather than looking closer to home, some fans became increasingly unhappy with the number of seemingly second-rate foreign players passing through the Shankly Gates. It would take more than the League Cup to mask the fact that for every Sami Hyypia, there was an Erik Meijer, a Djimi Traore, an Igor Biscan, or a Bruno Cheyrou.
As Liverpool’s form faltered, fans grew tired of Houllier’s refusal to blood young English players, Liverpool’s famous Academy yielding precious little harvest during his seven-year tenure. They also became frustrated with his negative and unattractive direct football, his baffling substitutions and his one-dimensional tactics. Despite considerable and widely publicised financial investment in the side, Liverpool struggled to qualify for the Champions League, progress in the League or to add to the trophies they had collected in previous seasons. The writing was on the wall and Houllier finally stepped down in May 2004. In his final Anfield press conference, he hit out at his critics within the club, stating; ‘If they want to go back to the 70’s and 80’s, they can do that, but not with me.’
You can see why many Villa fans are perturbed. Under O’Neill they had enjoyed witnessing him build a side brimming with young English talent, who’s exciting, fast-paced attacking was seeing them creep up the Premier League standings and threatening to turn the sleeping Midlands giants into a footballing force once more. Houllier will want to bring in his own personnel and style of play and this will almost certainly mean big changes at Villa Park, many of which may not be to the fans’ liking. With Milner gone, Ashley Young is already the next Villa star being linked with a move away and fans favourites Brad Friedel and John Carew could also find their Villa careers in doubt under the man who deemed them surplus to requirements at Liverpool and Lyon respectively.
Even Lerner may find it difficult to cultivate a successful working relationship with Houllier, with the likely sticking point being, predictably, money. Houllier will point to the trophies he won in his early years at Liverpool and claim success, but other may also point to the many millions that were spent achieving this, with many of it going on what were generally perceived as poor signings. O’Neill allegedly quit Villa due to lack of funds being made available and Lerner’s decision to implement a ‘sell-to-buy’ policy that was apparently a key factor in Milner’s eventual transfer. Can Houllier really repeat his early successes at Liverpool on such a small budget? Or will Aston Villa fall away after seemingly promising so much? With local rivals Birmingham City continuing to impress in the League, the latter option is one that many Villa fans dare not even think about.
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