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Aston Villa
Posted by Kevin Hughes on 05/14/2012

Direct, decisive and damning.

Less than 12 hours after watching the 'highlights' of Villa's final match of the 2011-12 season, scowling at yet more defensive irresponsibility, player indifference and managerial culpability, before skulking off to bed to lie awake and inwardly fume at the sheer incompetence that had rendered the previous nine and a half months the most shambolic and miserable I've ever endured as a fan, news.

By the middle of Monday morning, strong rumours, with some foundation, that Villa were in discussions to dispense with Alex McLeish as manager. By 3pm, it was confirmed: McLeish's contract had been terminated. And the language in the official statement released by the club made no notion of mutual consent, such a fashionable phrase in today's football manager merry-go-round. It was direct, decisive and damning.

As far as these things tend to go, this, from Villa's owner and chairman Randy Lerner, was as brutal and uncompromising as it gets; at least, in terms of publicly sanctioned comments.

"Compelling play and result that instil a sense of confidence that Villa is on the right track have been plainly absent," he said.

That's strong. But not only is it accurate, it is also what Villa supporters deserve; for the best part of a year, their concerns about McLeish have been widely dismissed as sour grapes, petty comments stemming from the fact that the new manager was disliked because he was formerly Birmingham City's manager.

His CV was never going to endear him to the Holte End, that is true, but to continually peddle the myth that that was the sole reason behind the lack of acceptance from the Villa faithful was downright insulting.

Over the last few weeks, sections of the media have realised what many, many, Villa supporters already knew. McLeish was the wrong appointment.

He was not the man to reunite what was in danger of becoming a fractured dressing room under Gerard Houllier. He was not the man to nurture Villa's blossoming younger players, the group identified, and quite rightly, as being key to the future of the club. He was not the man to work with a reduced transfer budget - although spending close to the £18m mark cannot be termed miserly and certainly there would be several other Premier League coaches falling over themselves to play with that amount.

He was not the man to work with a modest group of players, and inspire and cajole them to something greater than the sum of their parts. Why? Because he has never been that man, that manager - at least, not during his time in England.

No; any success McLeish had achieved with Birmingham City - and he did guide them to 9th place, three seasons ago - was built on defensive football. Nothing, ostensibly, wrong with that. But that Birmingham team of his had two near ever-presents in central defence, in Scott Dann and Roger Johnson, and the outstanding Joe Hart (on loan) behind them. In front of the back four, the whole team was geared to defending from the front. The formula worked, but Blues averaged a goal a game, and the football was sterile.

Upon taking the challenge at Villa, McLeish was adamant he was more than a defensive-minded coach. He seemed to bristle at the very suggestion, aware that sceptical Villa supporters demanded more. The point he missed, however, is that Villa fans would have accepted a team built on firm defensive foundations, but he delivered anything but. During his tenure at Villa, his team displayed hapless and careless defending. Halfway through the season, Villa had an entirely fair reputation as soft touches from set-pieces. It seemed opposition teams only had to deliver a decent corner to profit.

So, what is an Alex McLeish team if it cannot defend competently? Answer - nothing much at all. Lacklustre at the back, bereft of craft and guile in midfield, and clueless going forward, Villa's season stumbled from mediocre, to poor, to diabolical. Along the way, the manager's mistrust of any flair, attack-minded players, grew. Marc Albrighton was marginalised, Barry Bannan, so promising a year ago, restricted to cameo appearances, Charles N'Zogbia, the manager's big signing at a sliver under £10m, ever frustrated and increasingly sidelined. Even Gabby Agbonlahor wasn't immune. Having started the season like a train, he gradually disappeared inside his shell and, by March, was commenting that he simply wanted the season over.

A manager with a lack of vision or a plan, McLeish's final few games in charge were mainly spent eschewing any kind of responsibility for performances and results, citing injuries to his squad, the difficulty of the job and then, desperately, even claiming he'd done a good job to keep Villa in the division with a game to go.

Sunday's final match of the season summarised his viewpoint perfectly. For a meaningless game at Norwich, with nothing at stake (save for his own immediate Villa future), he started with two players - Carlos Cuellar and Emile Heskey - who had confirmed a few days previously that they would be leaving the club in the summer, contracts expired.

The manager's midfield comprised Stephen Warnock, more recognised as a left-back, alongside Ciaran Clark, a centre-back who has, more often than not, been fielded in the middle of the park this season, and Chris Herd, the workaholic Australian equally at home at full-back. Strictly speaking, it could have been interpreted that McLeish fielded seven defenders, or seven defensive-minded players, in his first X1.

A group of more offensive players; Bannan, N'Zogbia, Gary Gardner, the raw but extremely promising Samir Carruthers, all occupied the bench.

If this was the future under McLeish, Villa's bosses decided they didn't like the look of it. It may have taken them 11 months, but they finally reached the point the supporters started at.

There may be some mud coming the way of Villa fans over the next few days - no doubt some will say they got McLeish the sack - but they did not. McLeish had the chance, and, despite some very obvious warning signs, he was given a season to prove himself. A record of seven league wins in 38 games, of 38 points - one fewer than relegated Birmingham finished on in 2010-11, of nine victories in 42 competitive matches, tells the true story.

McLeish tried, and was simply found wanting. Now Villa must find its third new manager in two years.


Posted by James king on 05/14/2012

Thank you Kevin you have hit the nail on the head, we have had to endure McLeish sucking the confidence out of our top young players and ruin our club's image for 11 months.

It was never about where he came from, it was about where he took us, in all this time we have been disrespected by the media - hope they read this and come to see the shocking records McLeish has set for the Villa this year, thanks m8.

Posted by Esteve on 05/14/2012



Posted by andrew kiken on 05/14/2012

I am an American and there are competent American owners like with Arsenal, Liverpool now, and Manchester United even. However, the Aston Villa ownership does not look great now. Liverpool will get it right eventually, Aston Villa seems to be on a long downward spiral like Portsmouth was a few years back.

Posted by Charlie on 05/14/2012

So true, very well summarised indeed.

The outpouring of relief in Birmingham and the Midlands at the moment must surely be on a comparable scale to that felt in Manchester right now, such was the misery we've been needlessly subjected to.

For a year, we've had to listen to continuous digs from supporters of other clubs - 'by far the worst team I've seen at (insert stadium) this season' has been a norm on internet message boards. Any other season our supporters have fought back till blue in the face, but not this season, we've had no retort, we've had to take it all on the chin.

For a club like Aston Villa to be brought to its knees in such appalling fashion is unacceptable, and for that, McLeish has no-one to blame but himself.

As for the future, my preferences would be Ranieri, Lee Clark, Eddie Howe, or, if I'm being optimistic, Villa Boas.

And here's hoping Blackburn follow our lead and do the same to their imposter of a manager.

Posted by Jacobes on 05/15/2012

Spot on article. Great read. Glad you're on board as the Villa correspondent.

Have to say after hearing that the firing was official, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. It's good to be a Villa fan again and can feel the renewed positive energy with the fans. hopefully it's not all for nothing and the board get this new manager hiring spot on.


Posted by Cliff Holdorff on 05/15/2012

Well at least they sacked him nice and early and a new guy has a pre-season to sort things out.

Posted by Cleveland Slim on 05/16/2012

Villa had 24 positive results out of 38 Premier League matches, 7 wins 14 draws, and this without Darren Bent.

I can't help but believe, with Bent, some of those 14 draws would have been wins and Villa could have been 12th or 13th maybe as high as 10th. The next team to have 24 positive results was Fulham. Everyone between Fulham and Villa had 21 positive results and each had their full complement of scorers.

Interesting, this tells me the defense was not as bad as many think. With Bent back next season and one or two well placed buys (for goal scorers), top half is not out of the question.

Posted by MAYANJA RONALD on 05/16/2012

I knew the Villa of Martin O'Neill, the Villa that brought people to the point of speaking about the big six, the Villa that almost brought Arsene Wenger and his guns to their knees, a Villa that was built on such a small budget yet had such attacking prowess that it was envied by many, a Villa that had many bigger clubs clamouring for its players.

Then came the Villa of McLeish, a villa that scored no goal from set pieces all season, a Villa that could not even master a good number of shots on goal in a whole match, a Villa that looked totally out of ideas everytime it came to the field to play.

I'm not good at predicting matches but week in and out I could predict Villa's draws and losses. Seriously, I knew Barry Bannan, Gary Gardner as being players who possessed much ability, N'Zogbia, what he had done at Wigan: surely you just couldn't bench such players for almost a whole season?

Surely he had to go, he had to go!

Posted by Lockhead on 05/16/2012

As another famous Scot once said: "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly". Who knew Macbeth was a Villa fan?

Now, let's get it right, I believe Martinez will be more available this time. Great article, it pretty much sums a forgettable, regrettable disaster of a year.

Posted by Kevin on 05/16/2012

Cleveland - I suppose you're classing draws as positive results? That's a subjective view, in my opinion. A point at Anfield could be termed positive, home draws against the likes of QPR and Wolves perhaps not, nor away draws against Wigan (as we played them before their improvement in form) and Blackburn. Wasted opportunities, arguably caused by a very cautious approach by the coach.

As for Bent, he played in many of the games you're referring to. Of those seven league wins, he played in six of them, I think, missing just that last one, v Fulham at home.

Posted by Adam on 05/16/2012

What about going after Bob Bradley?

Posted by Bongo on 05/16/2012

Perfectly summed up the season we've had. You hit the nail on the head. So sad it took the board so long to figure it out. Isn't that what they are paid to do?

I for one, wasn't part of the boo squad who was attacking McLeish when the announcement was made that he was going to be our manager.

I thought, "Sure, he was Birmingham's manager, but I want to see what he can do for us before I judge him". I was willing to give him a few months to get it right, then give him his first transfer window to try to get the team playing the way he wanted them to, then give him the rest of the season to clean up the mess. However, it became obvious, as you pointed out, with his last game in charge that he wasn't the man for us.

The Norwich game was a disgrace. We lost the chance to go into the off season with a heap of confidence for our young guys to build on.

Here's hoping the next guy get's it right...and he's not Mick McCarthy.

Posted by Ned Banda on 05/17/2012

Very well written Kevin and the passionate Villa supporters who have vented their frustrations all season long.

Villa have dug a hole for themselves with the help of a mediocre manager and a playing roster that looks for excuses, when the game is on the line. It's hard to believe that these professionals get paid a fortune to turn up and play week in week out no matter what the conditions are, no matter what the opposing teams and fans throw at them.

Yes AMC is rubbish and unworthy of his past Villa managers and the glory and history of the Villa name.

The players themselves have to take responsibility for their own actions out on the pitch. Remember they're professionals who get paid and train everyday for one reason and that's to win games of football.

I don't think it makes any difference who the next Villa manager is they face the same problem as this season. No money, players of contract and lack of quality in the squad.

Bring in Kevin McDonald and Gordan Cowans.

Posted by Kamal on 05/18/2012

If I had my way AVB would be it! What is your choice, Kevin?

Posted by Kevin on 05/18/2012

Kamal - my choice? Well, with the news about Ole Gunnar Solksjaer in talks breaking today, it may be a little late for me to answer. However, if it is OGS, he's the type of coach I would welcome - he's young, fresh, has already achieved a measure of success in guiding Molde to their first Norwegian title in over 100 years.

I'm impressed and interested in coaches who have shown they can build a good team, a successful team, and less concerned with a PL track record. I believe, fundamentally, that sound coaching skills can translate to any level. The prospect of OGS excites me - hopefully, he'll also have a good knowledge of technically strong players, in Norway and the surrounding Scandinavian countries, that may benefit us.

If it isn't OGS... well, I do like Lambert and Rogers, for the same principles. They've built well-oiled teams that function. Also Di Matteo, who liked at MK Dons and West Brom; and Poyet, and Brighton.

I'm still not totally convinced by Martinez at Wigan.

Posted by Kamal on 05/19/2012

The fact that Villa don't even want to shortlist AVB puzzled me. I think he fits the criteria set. Anyway I do agree with you that Martinez is not the answer. The fact that a big club like Liverpool even considered him as a candidate is a joke. He has achieved nothing except avoid relegation for the second year running. Well good luck to the 'Pool. I still say bring in AVB.

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Kevin Hughes Kevin Hughes spent the best part of ten years working and writing for the football magazine Match; once (sort of) inspiring David Beckham to copy his shaved-hair look, getting lost in Paris after the 1998 France v Croatia World Cup semi-final and other such nonsense. As Deputy Editor, he launched and established Sport, the London-based free weekly magazine, before moving on to become a consumer magazine publisher, a position he holds today. Introduced to Villa by his father and grandfather, he attended his first ever match at Villa Park as a seven-year-old in 1982… and has suffered almost constant disappointment since. You can follow him on twitter @KevHughesie

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