It seems that an almost universally unpopular appointment is about to be made, no, not Andy Gray as lead commentator on the forthcoming Women’s World Cup, but the arrival of Alex McLeish as Aston Villa manager.
The fury of Villa fans at the prospect of Big ‘Eck’s arrival is perhaps understandable. This is, after all, the man who has just taken Birmingham down (hold on… Villa hero by definition, no?), having produced one of the most dismally defensive and dour teams the Premier League has seen. Indeed, outside of the partisan provinces of Small Heath, despite the guffaw-inducing victory over Wenger’s desperate bottlers, Arsenal in the league cup, there will be few fans sorry to see the back of McLeish’s Blues.
The Villa Park faithful, who suffered a topsy-turvy season in 2010/11, must be racking their brains, trying to understand Randy Lerner’s thinking. The usually prudent, some might say overly-cautious, American fell out with Martin O’Neill, the club’s popular erstwhile manager, who took Villa to three 6th place finishes from 2008 to 2010, ostensibly over Lerner’s lack of financial support, which, O’Neill believed, prevented the club pushing on towards a coveted top 4 spot.
After the untimely exit of the Northern Irishman came the farce of Houllier. The genial Frenchman, having been out of management since 2007, arrived at Villa Park in September. Results were disastrous and the Midlands’ biggest club flirted with relegation for a large chunk of the season.
The January signing of Sunderland and England’s Darren Bent did a great deal to ameliorate Villa’s on-pitch fortunes, however Lerner’s personal fortune took a hefty blow, with the former Spurs and Charlton man costing £18M, possibly rising to £24M. This signing, or rather the policy behind the signing, strikes me as bizarre. How could Lerner refuse to provide adequate funds to Martin O’Neill, who had made Villa one of a few teams realistically looking to break into the top 4, yet suddenly smash the club’s transfer record when Houllier had acquainted Villa with the not so salubrious surroundings of the relegation zone?
There are those that would suggest that signing Bent and subsequently avoiding relegation makes the large spend valid, and yes, the acquisition of Bent helped lift the club clear of danger – but if such a player had been allowed to join under O’Neill, who knows, maybe it would have been a Champions League spot, not an undeserved 9th placed finish in the Premier League that Villa fans would have been celebrating.
Randy Lerner has caused consternation amongst some fans with his inconsistent funding but generally the quiet American (he is rarely seen or heard of in the national press, unlike, for example, self-publicist of the decade, Dave ‘Let’s name the stadium after me’ Whelan) is respected by the Villa Park faithful. However, the potential arrival of McLeish threatens that relationship, as vitriolic Villa fans spewing forth outraged bile over the possible appointment on forums and radio-stations all around have made very clear.
Little in football elicits such unbridled emotion as the heat of a city rivalry and while Spurs v Arsenal, Liverpool v Everton and United v City are recognised, particularly more recently, as high-tension, pride-at-stake games, the Second City Derby rarely receives equal media attention outside of the West Midlands. Maybe it’s Birmingham City’s position as a yo-yo club, far from established in the Premier League, maybe it’s the national stereotype of Birmingham as unfashionable or maybe it’s the South-Eastern/North-Western focus of football in this country – whatever the contributing factors, as someone who lives in Birmingham, I feel well-positioned to say, the emotion on display when the Villa and the Blues face-off is just as fierce as at any of the derbies above.
The appointment of a manager who has just had his team relegated from the league and who has spent 4 years with your biggest rivals is not an overtly appealing prospect, neither is the idea of your manager, having been backed by the board and organised three transfers in preparation for next season, suddenly resigning by e-mail. Villa fans aren’t happy, Blues fans are annoyed (although gauging the mood of many Bluenoses, there seems to be a feeling of good riddance, hope you continue your negative tactics at Villa Park).
It seems to go against all sense for Villa to appoint McLeish, if he is not immediately successful he will be hounded out of the club quicker than you can say Dr. Josef Venglos and even if he does bring any kind of success to the club, he will always be tainted by his association with the other side (see George Graham at Tottenham for a similar example).
Although many are unimpressed by Mark Hughes, his record is at the very least comparable with McLeish’s; after guiding Wales to the best period in their recent history, Sparky did well with Blackburn, two top 7 finishes in 3 years, and after a turbulent year at Manchester City, he came back to record an impressive 8th place finish with Fulham last term.
Rafa Benitez, despite his reputation for pragmatic, defensive-minded tactics won the Champions League and the FA Cup with Liverpool, as well as La Liga and the UEFA Cup with Valencia and has by far the most demonstrably high calibre of all the names linked with the job (except Carlo ‘The Lone Eyebrow’ Ancelotti, but he’s taken a year off to train his right eyebrow up to the standard of its counterpart).
With both managers available immediately, it is surprising that Lerner would want McLeish, who Birmingham are insisting must be compensated for. Perhaps the American is looking to return to frugal ways in the transfer market, the Scotsman is used to tight budgets after his spells with Rangers and Birmingham, or maybe the wage demands of Hughes and Benitez put him off, but after the mistake of Houllier, if Lerner offers McLeish the chance at a big club many think he deserves, he will be making a risky move that may put his relationship with the fans on a knife-edge.