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What's Going On?


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A New Year's Eve look at the various intertwining factors at Aston Villa, to try and work out what needs to change.

Clearly things are worryingly wrong at Villa. The results have been poor, the performances, particularly away from home, have been a disgrace. And all this from a club that in recent years has been a top 6 regular and last season also reached one cup final and had a good run in the other cup.

Us supporters have various theories and scapegoats so let's look at the various characters and parties in turn

1. Gérard Houllier - The manager was brought in after some fairly extensive consultation and interviewing. His remit, we believe was to develop young players through into the first team, to play entertaining football, to operate with a wage bill and budget that is within the natural scope of the Club's ability to raise revenue. Partly this was because of the UEFA ruling which is due to come into force in a couple of years, partly because Randy Lerner never intended to continually pump money in to the club - either in loans or in equity (basically giving the club money in return for shares).

So how has Gérard got on? Very badly. The results and performances have been largely very poor. 2 league wins, against Blackpool and against West Brom. Neither comfortable. And a win against Burnley in the Cup. Also far from comfortable. The odd decent draw, and a lot of defeats.

He's fallen out with players, or they with him. The defensive organisation is an utter shambles and nothing's been done about it.

Transfer targets have been identified, yet all the credible rumours point to foreign players, for the long term, rather than the type of player needed to reverse the alarming decline in perofrmances. It's like he's been concentrating on the horizon, while ignoring the car crash happening in front of him.

And then there's the way he has related to the Club - badly. The fiasco at Liverpool, ignoring the Villans, applauding the Kop, plus some pretty unwise post match comments, badly explained away. At least he's stopped digging, now. But he's still publicly commenting on individual players in a counter-productive way. At the CoMS on tuesday, it was clear that most of us lot in the away end have had enough of him.

On the plus side, the team is trying to play a more appealing style of football, and at times, albeit too few, there have been bright spots. And by and large the kids that have been brought in have been well handled and have done their best for him. He's got Emile Haskey playing well (when fit).

Countering this of course are the actions and performances of the more senior players. John Carew has been shameful, and while there are two sides to every story, Richard Dunne and Stephen Ireland haven't looked to behave well. NRC and Ashley Young are running down their contracts, but at least put the effort in for the shirt when they play.

In summary Gérard was dealt and accepted a poor hand, but has used it very badly.

2. Randy Lerner & Paul Faulkner - It's a difficult one this, it's hard to be fully objective with Randy, as he's done so much for the club over the past 4 years or so. But mistakes have been made that have contributed to our current plight. Martin O'Neill was given too much control and just left to get on with it. He got results Martin, but at a high cost. As a result, the idea of taking over the club, getting it back on it's feet and then letting it look after itself hasn't been possible. Martin left a high cost, low value squad, in need of some major rework. Partly that's down to the naïvety of our owner.

The other area where they have been poor is in the PR side of the club - dealing with the fans through the various media. The idea of communicating via the General, on this board and others was a good one. That link has now gone, victim of Gérard Houllier's comments at Liverpool, and the words by the General basically agreeing with the fans reaction. GH was not happy with the General, and whether through co-incidence or not, the link has been broken. Us supporters are now back to hearing platitudes from the manager and the odd carefully chosen (but well spoken) words from Paul Faulkner. Randy's said in the past that he wants his actions to speak for him. The actions and performances of the club under his control these past 8 months or so do do him little credit, at face value.

3. Martin O'Neill. As identified above, he had total control over the playing side of the club, from transfers and wages, to coaches, even to some non-football appointments. His drive and enthusiasm allied to Randy's backing was terrific for the pretty much the full time he was here - up until about the end of March. But the manner of his leaving, his change of mood and his legacy do him little credit. There's no doubt in my mind that a fair part of the blame for the current plight lays with Martin - the timing as much as anything seemed deliberately vindictive towards the club and the fans and players. One reading of the situation was that he waited until he knew that the club would be in the worst possible position before resigning. Another reading, lawyers, is that he was totally blameless, and nigh on perfect. You takes your choice.

Martin's transfer dealings were too often very poor value. The likes of Marlon Harewood, Curtis Davies, Steve Sidwell, Nicky Shorey and Habib Beye at high cost in fees and wages were pretty much unmitigated failures, a whole other bunch have proven a real burden in wages, without the consistent performances to match - Carew, Maloney, Zat Knight, Heskey, Luke Young, Stephen Warnock, Scott Carson, Dunne and Collins for one reason or another were poor value. Ashley Young and James Milner were inspired signings and many others were good sturdy value - Stan Petrov, Fabian Delph, Stewart Downing and so on will or have already proven to be excellent buys and left the club with a core of good players, plus of course the excellent youth set up. There's much to thank Martin for, but serious doubts about the darker side of his character linger in my mind.

4. The players. In many instances the players seem to get off from blame when things go badly at a club, but I can't let them off here. When a manager and a player fall out, whoever is at fault, the player - being paid a fortune every week - owes it to his employer, to the shirt, to the supporters and to his colleagues to put in the effort. Too many of ours have sulked, shirked and shied. Carew, Dunne, Ireland and Beye, in my eyes have behaved appallingly. Too many pies, too many nights out, too little professional pride and dedication.

So where do we go from here? It looks like Randy has decided to stick with Houllier as manager, to hope and trust that he will get a grip of the situation, bring in players that can revitalise those we keep and to ship out those living on (lavishly rewarded) borrowed time.

Me, I'm not at all confident that he will be able to do so. I can't see how he is going to be able to stiffen the defence, I can't see how foreign youngsters coming in will bring about an improvement, while they struggle in new surroundings with a foreign language. I can't see Houllier changing his people skills for the better.

We do have enough to stay up, but I don't see the current manager using those resources wisely. I'm not even sure he knows, really, why he's here.

So looking at all that, the question boils down, really, to "stick or twist?" doesn't it?

What if we stick, as seems the most likely choice from Randy? What needs to happen?

We've more or less got an injury free squad, at last, now. So there's the chance for the manager to set up the team using the players he feels are committed, able and willing. The others need to be moved on sharpish, which should help with the wage bill, if not with recouping much in the way of transfer fees. But if he does stay, his bad apples need to go to stop the rest going bad, too.

I'd also like to see someone brought in to coach the defensive play of the team. There are strong rumours that the players are themselves unhappy at the lack of defensive coaching. And clearly we let in far too many goals, and soft goals at that. Houllier has a friend, McAllister as first team coach, and the sainted Sid to work with, but neither of them are defensive experts.

We need to look at the training and the number of injuries and consider whether changes need to be made there.

So if Houllier stays, then Randy needs to make it crystal clear that he has his full backing. Anything less, any thoughts or rumours that the manager could be out the door will prolong the problem, and the players will sense the uncertainty and take advantage.

We need back up at left back, and ideally we need a reliable forward to finish off the chances we do create.

My personal choice however would be to change the manager. It may seem "unfair", in that many of the problems are not of his making, in that he's had no transfer window to work with. But for me, it's not about fairness or blame, it's about who will do the best job for Villa, about who will best resolve the problems. For me that just isn't Houllier. I don't think he has the people skills, the coaching skills or the personality to change things around. It's easier perhaps to change the manager than so many players - Friedel, Warnock, Carew, Ireland, Dunne and a number of others are not bad players, but they've apparently got little respect for the manager and despite in some instances, their bad behaviour, they could all do a job, given a chance and the desire to do so.

Signings are going to be limited and January is a poor time to recruit. So wouldn't it be wiser to have someone who will work with what's there now than stick with someone who seems unable or unwilling to do so?

The players need to be brought back into line, and Houllier will not do that. If he could, he'd already have done it. If things continue to drift, we're stuffed. The problems caused in the summer by MO'N are still going to be around - the lack of a replacement for Milner, the clear perception that the club is downsizing will remain, and the better players will look to leave. So if we stick, the risk of relegation is high, if we twist, the long term plan for the club, which is a good one, will have to go out of the window, at least for a year or two. But there's more chance of salvaging things properly in the summer, than Houllier staying, either long term, or just till the summer. I don't trust his transfer record, I doubt his attitude towards the club and fans, despite the recent more mollifying comments and the conversion to wearing a club tie and so on. The Liverpool escapade revealed much to dislike. For all that players are picking up money for not much in return, he's not exactly immune from that criticism himself.

Of course because of the lack of football experience that Randy and Paul have, they used an agency to identify the choice of Houllier. It took a long time, too long, and that can't happen now.

I think the club should look at the currently available managers and assess who is best able to break the spiral of decline that the club is in. I wouldn't ideally want the likes of Fat Sam, with his percentage based, statistical, uninspiring football, chewing gum and that bloody earpiece, but maybe on a short term contract, for 6 months, he'd be able to organise the team and instill some discipline.

Martin Jol may have a reputation that exceeds his achievements, but he's got to be a better bet, now he's available, than Houllier. Or maybe the club should aim higher still. There are options, but it depends on finances.

If the rug has well and truly been pulled, then the fans need to be told. Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way, but really it's no way for a football club to be run. You need clarity and a common understanding. We need to be told the truth about the realistic aims and ambitions of our club. If there's no money, then there's no money - Fine. But tell us. We can set our expectations and demands accordingly. I think we supporters know that too many players are on too much much money. Those we can't shift need to be contributing till they go, not sulking because the manager isn't to their liking.

If there is money, then for heaven's sake use it to rectify the problems right now.

What is the plan for the club. The ground improvements look to have been kicked into the long grass - is that indicative of the state of the club and the long terms plans, or does it reflect that money earmarked for the ground needs to be spent on the team?

My new years' wish is for the club to be straight with the fans about the plans and aims and to be clear what they want to do, be it stick or twist, and give everything to make it a success. Recently I feel this hasn't been happening.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

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Excellent Post

Yes I agree that a change in management would be money better spent than on the current opportunities of the Jan transfer window. As you quite rightly said we have many players (back to full fitness now) of great qaulity. If their performance is being dragged down by the manager then the only option for Randy is to ask him to leave asap. I am in no way a fan of his but I firmly believe that Big Sam would keep us up if he was appointed. Because of his current circumstances I think he would be willing to agree to a short term contract with a big club such as Villa. As for the ground improvements, I am quite pleased that this has been called off for the moment. Sorting out the teams performance and our current situation should be the clubs finacial priority. The ground can come later

I am positive that however bleak things seem at the moment that we will not end up relegated. It should only be a matter of time before our defensive issue is resolved. West Ham, Wolves, Wigan and even Blackpool concdeed a lot more than us, when their defence are playing 100% at their best.

Up the Villa !

Happy New Year everyone !

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I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I would take Fat Sam happily right now. His football ain't pretty but he would keep us in the Premier League (and increasingly I doubt our ability to survive if the Houllier slide continues) and he would get the players onside again.

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Excellent article Blandy and for the first time I am beginning to think that GH needs replacing. I haven't previously sought his removal but how can things turn so bad so quickly? There has to be a reason for this and Randy doesn't pick the side. My only concern is that we'll move too slowly in getting this done, just as we did in GH's appointment. Just for the next six months, Sam, Martin Jol, hell, even Brian Little for that period just to stabilize things. As it stands, I really cannot see where the next three points are coming from. This really does smell of 1986. I followed Villa all over the country that year and saw some of the limpest performances ever, no better than what we are currently seeing.

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If GH was sacked after the Chelsea game, how long would it take to get a replacement? I could envisage another transfer window without any activity. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks this might suit Randy & co. (and would it mean no players out? Ashley for example)

But I would rather see GH gone anyway. The siege mentality of a being managerless club would be better than the current situation. It would at least improve the performances of some players who are unhappy under GH.

I think it is more important to start thinking of the AVFC manager after GH, because when you think of it, what is the longest GH could possibly be around at this rate? We need the next AVFC manager to have something to work with.

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An excellent analysis, Peter, but a bit premature is my feeling. If anything it probably fans the flames against the current regime when in a month or two everything might be hunkey-dorey !! :|

Nobody's giving the January window and recovery from injuries chance to see how things will pan out.

Some may argue that that may be too late, but as sure as eggs came before chickens (!!) changing the structure at VP at this moment is equally likely to end in failure.

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If we are to sack GH we need to go all out for Coyle who could also build a long term legacy with a very good footballing philosophy. He would also instill a lot more discipline and fight into this current team.

I'd agree with that. Slightly less proven but again capable of building a long term legacy would be Di Matteo, Lambert or Grayson.

We need some real vibrancy in the club. Someone with a real hunger about them who sees us a massive opportunity to really build something and get a real rapport going with the supporters. Bring the club together fighting as one again.

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Coyle would be my first choice. If he is truly ambitious then he should see that we are a bigger club (infrastructure and revenues) than Bolton with a very good youth set up and a better catchment area than Bolton. He has seen what the club is capable of under MON and, if he trusts his abilities, will know that he should be able to at least replicate this and possibly do better.

He would be a very exciting appointment.

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Great post Blandy.

I think that is a pretty fair summation of where we are. The club are clearly backing the manager. Perhaps I should caveat that by adding 'at the moment'. If the results continue to be bad, and I firmly believe we can get something out of the next two games, I think GH's position is virtually untenable. If we lose in the FA Cup and then to the Unwashed it's definitely untenable. If that occurs I will definitely be in the GH out camp. Until that happens the manager and the players should get our full support.

There are a lot of us, including me, who are pinning a lot on this transfer window. Ideally I would like us to ship out 3-4 of the mistakes and bring in 2-3 inspired signings. Back in the real world January is a really bad time to bring in players and any half decent player will see that GH is likely to lose his job and there is a real possibility that we could be relegated. Hardly a great advertisement.

This leads me back to if its not GH then who? We are staring relegation in the face and I'm not sure RL and PF quite see this just yet. For me and I swallow hard before I say this it has to be Big Sam. We need a manager who can come in and kick arse with our existing players and maybe bring a couple of decent old players in the steady the ship. If he does this forget six month contracts, which I doubt he would accept, he should get the job full time. The boo boy fans were always on MON's case over the style of football but sadly it will be groundhog day.

As for MON I was never anti him. I felt he had this season to prove he could take us to the next level and if not after five years in charge it was time to move. As it was we never got the chance to find out.

I do however think that he chose, quite deliberately, the timing of his departure to cause maximum disruption to the club. It was clear, maybe with hindsight for the fans, that there was some sort of parting of the ways back in May. RL and PF and I particularly blame the latter failed to suss out what MON was really thinking and call his bluff. His decision to go when he did was unprofessional and frankly childish and will hopefully serve as warning to any future employer.

I don't doubt RL's good intentions and I think he is someone with enormous integrity. What he does suffer from is naivety regarding football in England. I have never subscribed to the idea that there was a formal five year plan but I do think there was a broad objective to be playing Champions league football within a few years. The changing nature of the Premier League and perhaps relying to much on MON in all footballing matters coupled with that naivety has meant that we have not achieved that. Yes we have got close but there are no prizes for nearly making it.

If we do avoid relegation this season and I hate to say this but unless we see a dramatic improvement in the next few weeks I think that is what will happen it would not surprise me to see RL sell the club. He will get his money back and make a very healthy profit besides as I can see the club being worth £200m plus.

I'm not over enamoured with that prospect as I can see us being acquired by a 'money bags' owner who will destroy all the good things that Aston Villa Football Club represents, a legacy that RL, to his credit, has both respected and nurtured. Exciting in the short term maybe but long term destructive as the plastic fair weather fans flog to B6.

Overall sitting here on the 1st January I'd love to say I'm full of hope. Sadly I'm not. Actually I'm full of dread as I can't see where the next point will come from. Its a horrible horrible situation. Who is to blame? I think blame is a harsh word. I'd rather say its the naivety of the Board of our club. What they really need on that Board is someone who really understands the game and its nuances and really call it how it is. Sadly PF is not that man. I don't doubt his commitment I just think he is perhaps too much of RL's bag man and maybe just a little out of his depth.

As for the stadium, yes its lovely now, but a white elephant in the Championship. As for enlarging the ground what is the point if we never sell out a game. I don't put any significance on the apparent shelving of the expansion plans. That is just common sense in the current economic environment and where the club finds itself.

Yes I am fed up and depressed with where we are but my support remains and I will still buy my two season tickets even if we are playing the likes of Hull next season.

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Agreed, excellent post.

Interestingly I heard David Pleat on the radio this morning (5Live).. he basically intimated that the people who made the decision to hire Houllier did not have enough 'football' experience, enough pratical knowledge around them and that issues such as the existing style of football played were not taken into consideration when appointing him.

On a completely unrelated note, I see that Ralf Rangnick has left Hoffenheim - his ethos of building up a club (as he did with Hoffenheim) has had him compared with Wenger.

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On a completely unrelated note, I see that Ralf Rangnick has left Hoffenheim - his ethos of building up a club (as he did with Hoffenheim) has had him compared with Wenger.

Defiently wouldn't say no to him, if you look at what he has done at hoffenheim.. great manager.

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I've been out of the VillaTalk loop for a few months and not been on. I'm a bit surprised by the lack of General Krulak's thread and suggestions that this link is now broken? What's happened? Any updates on the reason for the absence would be appreciated?

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Great post Blandy, much to agree with. I disagree on your analysis of the MON situation, primarily because I think more blame can be laid at the door of Randy, especially given the concerns you have expressed with how he has been running things for the last few months (I'd add ten months to the 8 you have identified)

I still agree with your recommendations, even given what many seem to think was an earth shattering result yesterday.

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