On the verge of losing arguably their star player, Ashley Young, to Manchester United, goalkeeper Brad Friedel already released to Tottenham Hotspur, without a manager and rejected by Wigan Athletic boss Roberto Martinez, Aston Villa’s pre-season preparations have taken a series of blows since Gerard Houllier’s departure, yet positives still remain. Whoever fills the vacancy left by the Frenchman will have a supportive board to work with, a collection of talented youngsters and the almost-guaranteed goals of England international Darren Bent.
With Martinez choosing to remain at Wigan Villa’s next move is unclear, but the priority has to be appointing a new manager – only then can Young and Friedel be properly replaced. The new boss may choose to dip into the transfer market with the reported £20m United will pay for the England winger, or put his faith in the likes of Marc Albrighton and Barry Bannan, two talented young midfielders who impressed at the start of last season. Stepping into the shoes of Young is another matter, however, but the gap left by the former Watford player – and possibly Stewart Downing, who has also been linked with a move away – could be the making of both youth team graduates.
As much as replacing Young will be towards the top of the new manager’s to-do list, so too will identifying a new goalkeeper after Friedel’s move to the capital. Jerzy Dudek is one name mentioned strongly in connection with the Villa Park outfit, but replacing the consistency of Friedel, ever-present last season, as he has been for the last seven, will not be an easy task. Brad Guzan and Andy Marshall are the senior goalkeepers remaining at the club, but Villa have been linked to a host of custodians since Friedel’s switch to Tottenham. Manchester City’s Shay Given, Ali Al-Habsi of Bolton Wanderers and Reading’s Adam Federici have all been suggested as Friedel’s replacements, with Dudek just the latest in a long line. However, a new No 1 may have to wait until a new manager is in place.
Villa are due to begin pre-season training on July 7. Reports suggest they are ‘confident’ of having a manager in place by then, with Mark Hughes, Owen Coyle and David Moyes amongst the names on the wish list of owner Randy Lerner. Coyle and Moyes would both be protracted moves, with their current clubs, Bolton Wanderers and Everton, reluctant to let them leave, and likely demanding a hefty fee to be persuaded. Hughes and fellow free agents Rafael Benitez and Alan Curbishley could arrive imminently and without compensation, perhaps making them more attractive propositions to the Villa hierarchy. Alex McLeish is the latest name to be linked with the post following his resignation from arch-rivals Birmingham, but the strength of feeling against such a move from the Villa fans would appear to make such an appointment a non-starter. Lerner is understood to be in the market for a young and ambitious manager, a description Wigan’s Martinez fit to the letter, but having missed out on the Spaniard, anyone targeted next may feel they are the club’s second choice.
Having been an early favourite after resigning from Fulham, then drifting when it became clear Villa’s attentions where elsewhere, Hughes is again the bookmakers’ choice to replace Houllier. Hughes’ tough, physical – but still relatively stylish – brand of football would appear in tune with many of Villa’s existing players, not least Richard Dunne in defence and the athletic Bent in attack and, should Young join United, there will be a substantial transfer kitty to make any additions to the remaining squad. Lerner sanctioned the big-money purchase of Bent in January – although some Villa fans argue it was merely the money received for James Milner that paid for Bent. Should the new manager get the full Young transfer fee and a little more from Lerner’s pockets, there will be the money to significantly improve what is already a decent roster.
The £20m about to come Villa’s way in exchange for Young would more than pay for a new goalkeeper, winger and a centre-forward, another position Villa need to strengthen to take some pressure from Bent’s shoulders. Despite only being in the Midlands from January Bent ended the season as Villa’s joint-top scorer on nine goals, level with Young, and one ahead of Downing. Villa’s other senior strikers – Gabriel Agbonlahor, Emile Heskey and John Carew – managed just 11 goals between them, and the club ended the Premier League season with just 48 goals from their 38 games, seven fewer than relegated Blackpool and only five more than bottom of the table West Ham United, and a goal difference of -11. A full season with Bent may cure Villa’s goal-scoring ills, but the most immediate concern remains the managerial vacancy.
Nigel Reo Coker – free
John Carew – free
Robert Pires – free
Harry Forrester – free
Shay Given – GK – Manchester City
Jerzy Dudek – GK – free
Charles N’Zogbia – MID – Wigan Athletic