Houllier struggling to replace O’Neill as Aston Villa fight against decline

Since taking the reins at Aston Villa, Gerard Houllier has never been far from controversy. From his initial appointment, his desire has been questioned, his methods criticised and his words scrutinised. From the day he was announced as the successor to Martin O’Neill in September 2010, Houllier faced immediate criticism, with confusion as to when he would be in the Villa dugout, owing to the small matter of his current employment, a role within the French Football Federation. In his very first press conference after taking the Villa Park hot seat, Houllier added fuel to the fire by stating that he was still yet to sign a formal contract with the club, not the words Villa fans would have wanted to hear from the man filling the sizeable shoes left by his popular predecessor, a man who took Villa to European qualification in two consecutive years, with a squad built on a policy which would seem unconventional in today’s game.

O’Neill had spent the early part of his time at Villa Park constructing a side lined with young, English talent. By 2009, O’Neill cut an almost mythical figure, a Premier League manager who could boast legitimate options to field an all-English, senior starting line-up. However, O’Neill’s belief in nurturing England’s finest is not shared by all coaches, with many believing high-quality English footballers are something of a rare commodity, commanding inflated high transfer fees. However, such treasures were continually being discovered at Villa Park. In consecutive summers, Manchester City’s considerable financial muscle managed to lure two players from Villa Park to Eastlands, at a time where the stock of both players was rising considerably.

By the summer of 2009, Gareth Barry had just completed a season as an ever-present in a Villa side that had qualified for the Europa League. Fabio Capello had auditioned him for the England captaincy in a friendly against Trinidad and Tobago and Liverpool were being linked as potential suitors. Barry, citing his desire to play in the Champions League, declared his wish to depart for pastures new. A £12m transfer to Manchester City duly followed. A year later, Villa were in a similar predicament once again. A young midfielder with a season of impressive performances was attracting the eye of the national coach. Just two absences in the league season combined with an FA Cup semi-final and the opening goal in the League Cup final, he would even secure a starting place in the opening game of his country’s World Cup campaign. In the summer of 2010, Manchester City announced a deal worth around £26m to sign James Milner.

By this point, the manager was becoming frustrated. Disillusioned at the club’s transfer policy, O’Neill found himself at loggerheads with the board. On the eve of the new season, O’Neill’s resignation was confirmed. The official line from the club was that they “no longer shared a common view as to how to move forward.” Villa now found themselves without the man who had guided not only the club to what had become unfamiliar heights, but also the mentor to many of Villa’s young talents, and eventual money-makers to the club. Enter Houllier.

While Aston Villa had spent the latter part of the last decade rebuilding the club on various levels, in an attempt to return the club to the more illustrious days of its past, the varying attitudes of key figures across the Villa Park hierarchy could threaten to derail the entire operation, with potentially devastating effects. The takeover by American businessman Randy Lerner, the appointment of O’Neill and the subsequent investment in playing staff had taken Villa to the brink of Champions League qualification.

However, now the club find themselves losing key players, with their ultimate failure to stand alongside Europe’s elite combined with their willingness to cash in on prized assets ultimately costing them the man that had been so important in striving for the successful return on Lerner’s investment. In Houllier, Villa have appointed a man with undoubted experience in football across the world, but as senior players find themselves unhappy with methods and high-profile players find themselves growing impatient with the club’s stalling potential, results have been affected. While the team’s alarming struggle for form resulted in the signing of Darren Bent from Sunderland, some Villa fans may fear that the club’s best opportunity to challenge for honours has slipped away. Others, however, may feel the club are once again rebuilding in preparation for a new challenge for success. One thing Aston Villa fans will agree on is that improvements must be made if the club hold ambitions to challenge for honours.

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