Club Focus – Aston Villa – Villa to turn a corner under Houllier?

It has been just over a month since Martin O’Neill resigned as Aston Villa and his decision is still reverberating around Villa Park. However, in a move sought by the board to quell worries about the clubs future, Gerard Houllier was announced as the new manager of the Villains. The Frenchman is well known for his time at Liverpool and whilst he succeeded at the club, there are huge reservations about his appointment. One of the major concerns stems from the final year of Houllier’s time at Liverpool – ultimately poor signings such as El Hadji Diouf and Bruno Cheyrou tarnished what was otherwise a fruitful period of his managerial career.

He moves to Villa at a crucial time for both himself and the club – on a personal level, it will be his first job in management for three years and first in the Premier League in six. He will also want to re-establish his slightly muddied reputation in England. Just before his eventual exit from Liverpool, Houllier said of expectations from fans: “If they want to go back to the ’70s & ’80s they can do that but not with me.” This statement was in retaliation to criticism from fans that Liverpool’s tactics had become too defensive and were no longer reminiscent of the 70’s. Whilst he still garners respect for the trophies he won whilst in England and France with Lyon, Houllier recognises this as an excellent opportunity: “Aston Villa is one of England’s biggest clubs and has an amazing set of fans.”This is a tremendous challenge and one I am very much looking forward to taking on.” Indeed, since his appointment, and in the days prior, Houllier has endorsements from men that know his management style which is ultimately the biggest reservation that Villa fans have. Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard said of the Frenchman: “It has been no surprise to me that Villa have been interested in him because he is a top manager.”

As of yet, it is difficult to gauge or mediate the differing expectations of the Villa board, Houllier and the Villa fans. Houllier is in all likelihood on an even keel with chairman Randy Lerner but whether Lerner has the resources to help Villa reach the heights that Villa fans now want is not yet known. With logic and reason in hand, this season should still be no more than a transformational one – one that allows Houllier to decipher between players that are vital to the clubs cause and those that are dispensable. Villa are usually a patient club when it comes to giving managers time to settle in and hopefully that trend will continue with Houllier – there are few evident flaws in his appointment and the one that has been mentioned most frequently could be solved by holding onto the man usurped by Houllier, Kevin MacDonald. Despite concerns over his tactical abilities, MacDonald’s stock has risen hugely since he began his interim job in charge of Aston Villa. Two wins and two defeats have made sure that Villa became the first crisis club of the season and for that, Lerner should be grateful – Villa could have quite easily slipped into anonymity for the remainder of the season had they lost their opening three games of the league season. Yet with MacDonald guiding Villa to fourth place so far, Villa’s players have been imploring with the board to give MacDonald the job permanently – now that is impossible, some prominent coaching role must surely happen. The Scot has an excellent relationship with Villa’s playing staff and as history showed us, Houllier is often a reserved man. MacDonald could act as the voice in a team that seems set to include a former colleague of the Frenchman’s at Liverpool and Lyon, Patrice Bergues. Bergues is a year younger than Houllier and will be a familiar face for Villa’s new manager at a time that he will have to convince Villa’s players that he is the right man for the job.

One of his main aims will be to beat Stoke on Monday night in his first game in charge. After that, leading Villa to Europe, perhaps bringing in some of the talent Europe has to offer, perhaps proving the Premier League that he really is a good manager. Houllier was often quoted as saying that Liverpool were ‘turning a corner’. Now in charge of a transitional club, could Houllier and Aston Villa be about to turn a corner of their own?

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