Losing two of the three main threats will have hurt Aston Villa severely, but new manager Alex McLeish is determined to bring former glory back to Villa Park. Stewart Downing’s £20m transfer to Liverpool and Ashley Young’s £18m switch to Manchester United have undoubtedly depleted Villa of a certain amount of quality and Villa fans were disillusioned at where Randy Lerner, the owner, was leading the side.
Critics believe that the Midlands side will struggle to finish in the top ten this season, but that will work perfectly well for McLeish. In the 2009/10 season, when Birmingham City had just been promoted, everyone expected them to participate in a relegation battle. McLeish steered the Blues to a ninth placed finish and earned plaudits for the way his team played football and battled into safety and more.
The Scot can do the same at Villa. Villa still hold quality with England international forward Darren Bent leading the line and the assured central defensive partnership of Richard Dunne and James Collins. McLeish has also brought in some talent to Villa Park, splashing £9.5m on French winger Charles N’Zogbia from Wigan Athletic and bringing in veteran Irish goalkeeper Shay Given on a free from Manchester City. N’Zogbia is expected to be recovered from his slight injury for the Premier League opener against Fulham on August 13th. Given has shown the quality that he has during pre-season and could become an astute transfer from McLeish to replace Brad Friedel, who left Villa Park for north London and Tottenham Hotspur.
Disruption derailed Villa’s campaign last season with the resignation of Martin O’Neill at the start of the season and the ill-health of Gerard Houllier forcing him to leave charge with Gary McAllister towards the end of the season. The stability McLeish provides will be able to get Villa back on the right path, despite the heavy protests against the Scottish manager’s switch from royal blue to claret and blue. McLeish knows he has a difficult task to win over the Villa fans, but if he starts the favourable beginning Villa have been given with a string of victories, those at the Holte End who had protested his name on their steps will ring the cheers of his name around Witton immediately.
Another positive sign for the Villans is the emergence of midfielder Barry Bannan as a potential threat this season. With N’Zogbia replacing the talents of Ashley Young on the left side, Bannan could easily slot into the right side role that Downing enjoyed great success in during his time at Villa Park. Bannan impressed in Villa’s pre-season preparations as part of the Barclays Asia Trophy in Hong Kong and should definitely be in line for a starting berth against Fulham on Saturday.
Last season’s turbulence will not be an issue at Villa Park this season. McLeish will make sure his squad is ready and with the financial backing of Lerner, he could forge a dynasty at Villa that will get them back to the European heights O’Neill led them to.
Key signing – Shay Given: Given signs from Manchester City, where he had been frozen out by England No 1 Joe Hart, and will provide similar levels of stability that Brad Friedel showed at Villa Park. The 35-year-old will keep many shutouts for Villa over the course of the season.
Key departure – Stewart Downing: Last season’s Villa Player of the Year, the departure of Downing will affect Villa considerably. Barry Bannan could be a possible replacement, but the 26 year old Downing’s runs and directness forged the path for Darren Bent to benefit from.
Young – Dunne – Collins – Warnock
Bannan – Petrov – Makoun – N’Zogbia
Heskey – Bent