Many Aston Villa fans have spoken of their disappointment that recently appointed manager Gerard Houllier has not been given permission by the French Football Federation to take up his post as boss. In a sense, therefore, there is a feeling that the club have been cheated in some way – they have a manager that legally cannot manage the team because of a longstanding contractual obligation to the FFF. The man in question, Houllier, and Villa fans will have witnessed their club be cheated in another fashion on Monday night. Villa’s performance against Stoke was admirable and suggested that their profligacy in attack is strong and that their defensive mishaps against Newcastle United will be a rarity this season. However, the foul (or dive, depending on allegiance) that led to Stoke City’s ultimately goal-assisting free-kick in injury time was an event that not only tarnished an otherwise good display from Villa, but also added to an ever-growing reputation of diving within the game.
Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov was adjudged to have fouled the newly returned Stoke winger Jermaine Pennant in the last attack of the game. Whilst the referee can be slightly excused for being tricked by Pennant, the vitriol of Villa fans should be aimed at Pennant rather than Lee Probert. On first view, it looked like there may have been minimal contact but replays show that Petrov made no contact whatsoever with the winger. Pennant’s immediate reaction was not one of remorse or shame but one of success. Of course, things like this happen in football but should Pennant not be punished for such a blatant act of cheating? Such an occurrence is becoming more frequent in the Premier League, as Villa’s neighbours Birmingham know (last season Liverpool’s David N’Gog deceived the referee with a dive that led to a penalty) all too well. There is an argument that Villa had ample time to clear the resulting free-kick but that should not have even happened – perhaps Pennant was anticipating an incoming challenging from Petrov and merely tried to jump out of the way but the fact still remains, Aston Villa have been cheated out of a well deserved point.
Whilst this result may have come as a disappointment, Villa showed many promising signs and did not appear to be a club that could easily be feeling sorry for themselves – the players are still none the wiser as to when Houllier will be in charge and this could have been an excuse for an abject display. Rarely do teams succeed when they have uncertainty surrounding the whereabouts of their manager. Although there will be annoyance for the next few days at the way Villa were defeated, the future has a tantalising air of the unknown about it. No one is quite certain how Houllier will change the dynamics of the squad – since he eloped to France, his name has become almost synonymous with defensive. He was accused of being too negative on occasions – however, his Liverpool side were a side trained in the school of counter-attacking, a lesson that Martin O’Neill often taught his players. Because of this, Ashley Young et al may not find too much of a difference between the current regime and that of Houllier’s.
With Villa currently lying in seventh place and no real consistency to their play yet found, the fixtures before the arrival of Houllier may not show us anything new. It is expected that caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald will be in charge when Villa face Bolton Wanderers on Saturday and perhaps even the club’s League Cup tie against Blackburn Rovers. Neither should be too strenuous and whilst victories would put Houllier in a better position, the league table at this stage of the season is so fractious that current placing should not be given too much reverence – it is highly unlikely that Blackpool will finish the season in fourth place. Any Villa fans that find themselves worrying about this season should remember that individual performances of their team have been good and that cohesion and a permanent manager may be all the club needs till they find stability and consistency.