Glenn Moore: McLeish may need to go on offensive to avoid curse of Villa managers' graveyard

The Weekend Dossier

It is 21 years since a manager left Villa Park with his reputation enhanced. That was Graham Taylor, whose reward for promotion, and a second-place top-flight finish in 1990, was the England job.

Since then nine men have occupied the dug-out at Aston Villa: Josef Venglos, Ron Atkinson, Brian Little, John Gregory, Taylor (again), David O'Leary, Martin O'Neill, Gerard Houllier and, now, Alex McLeish. Of the departed only Gregory is in work, in Kazakhstan, though O'Neill's return to Premier League management appears imminent.

Aside from Venglos, under whom Villa dropped 17 places in a season, yet who later found work with Fenerbahce, Slovakia and Celtic, none of the others subsequently held a job of similar stature. That includes O'Neill's prospective appointment. Until Ellis Short's millions have a bigger impact, Sunderland cannot be regarded as commensurable with Villa – as the transfer of Darren Bent underlined. Last season was only the third time Sunderland finished in the top 10 in more than half a century.

Villa were European Cup winners 30 years ago and have been a top-flight team since 1988. They are financially stable with solid support, a fine stadium and an illustrious history. It is a desirable job for McLeish, with his connections to Sir Alex Ferguson; it could even be a platform to succeed his mentor, who brings Manchester United to Villa Park today. But it is also a dangerous job. Excluding personality clashes, managers tend to be fired for two reasons, because relegation threatens, or because they fail to meet expectations. The problem with a club like Villa is that, because of the setting and the history, expectations often outstrip reality.

This is especially so for a man associated with Birmingham City, as McLeish is. As Steve Bruce found, a manager deemed to have enemy allegiances gets no second chance.

The problem for Villa managers is that, more than any other club, they symbolise the "second tier" of Premier League clubs. Villa have finished inside the top 10 on 11 occasions in 14 seasons, but have never been higher than sixth. Relegation is unlikely, but so is Champions League qualification.

When Martin O'Neill and Randy Lerner first combined at Villa Park in September 2006, a determined effort was made to crack the top four. First they stabilised a club which had drifted in the final years of the Doug Ellis era. Lerner inherited a wage bill of £38m (a worrying 76 per cent of income) and a small annual loss after transfers. By 2008, Villa had climbed from 16th to sixth, made a £5m profit before transfers, and increased revenue from £49m to £75m.

Then came the push. Two further years on revenue was increased to £91m, but wages rose faster to reach a frightening 88 per cent of revenue. The club spent a net £58m in the transfer market taking total losses to almost £100m. Each season Villa threatened to break through, but on both occasions they faded and finished sixth as O'Neill's high-tempo style exposed a small squad despite sacrificing Uefa Cup campaigns. By this stage, Lerner's red ink had reached £180m, and to what end? With Manchester City fuelled by petro-dollars and Tottenham maximising commercial income, the prospect of making the top four was receding. Lerner decided to cut his losses. James Milner was sold for £26m and Stephen Ireland bought for £8m. O'Neill walked out.

Gérard Houllier arrived with a brief to develop Villa's impressive clutch of emerging young players. When ill-health forced Houllier out, Lerner was rejected by Roberto Martinez, who had shown at Swansea and Wigan that he could build an attractive team on a tight budget. Lerner hired McLeish, who had won the Carling Cup with Birm-ingham, but was also relegated.

It was not a popular move, and not just because of his association with the neighbours. At St Andrew's McLeish was perceived as a defensive manager. In the club's two full Premier League seasons under him, City scored less than a goal a game. It could be argued that was due to a lack of resources. After all, at Rangers a decade ago, McLeish oversaw a team which scored more than a century of goals in a season. However, even in the 2008-09 promotion-winning Championship campaign, Birmingham only scored 54 goals in 46 matches.

This season Villa have scored 16 goals in 13 games. McLeish has tended to field a 4-4-1-1 with two holding midfielders, two wingers, and Darren Bent leading the line. The youngsters have been largely sidelined, Fabien Delph, Barry Bannan and Chris Herd sharing the second holding midfield position alongside Stilyan Petrov. While the personnel have varied, McLeish currently plays Charles N'Zogbia and Gabby Agbonlahor on the flanks, both cutting in on to their stronger foot, as wingers are often deployed these days. This puts the onus on the full-backs to provide width, but while Alan Hutton and Stephen Warnock are athletic, neither are outstanding players. Between them are a pair of experienced, but ageing centre-halves. It is a solid team, but not one to inspire – attendances at Villa Park are falling – nor one likely to break into the top six, let alone the top four.

If Villa fans accept treading water, with the occasional cup run, as Evertonians seem to have done, McLeish might prosper. If not he will be in good company in Villa's management graveyard.

Heroes To Villans: Life after Villa Park

Josef Venglos (1990-91) -

Managed since: Fenerbahce, Slovakia, Oman, Celtic, JEF United (Japan)

Ron Atkinson (1991-93) -

Coventry City, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest

Brian Little (1994-98) -

Stoke City, West Brom, Hull, Tranmere, Wrexham, Gainsborough Trinity

John Gregory (1998-2002) -

Derby, QPR, Maccabi Ahi Nazareth (Isr), FC Ashdod (Isr), FC Kairat (Kazakh)

Graham Taylor (2002-03) -

Watford chairman

David O'Leary (2003-06) -

Al Ahli (UAE)

Martin O'Neill (2006-10) -


Gérard Houllier (2010-11) -


Five Asides

1. Liverpool's work in progress faces midfield challenge

With Lucas Leiva joining Steven Gerrard on the injury list, Liverpool could regret allowing Raul Meireles to leave, but it does offer Jordan Henderson a chance to meet the expectations engendered by his £20m move.

That Kenny Dalglish's rebuilding still has some way to go was underlined by Manchester City's approach at Anfield last Sunday. Until Mario Balotelli was dismissed it was clear they felt a draw was two points dropped. In Dalglish's first spell as manager, a draw at Anfield was a point gained for City.

2. Tough job market forces Boothroyd down the league

Aidy Boothroyd's decision to take on the task of reviving Northampton Town is a brave one which shows just how desperate this talented manager is to get back into the game. Four years ago he was in the Premier League. Boothroyd is the Cobblers' 10th manager in a decade, and it is hoped he gets longer to turn round the League Two club than his predecessors did.

3. No guarantee that young talent will mean success

Sam Hutchinson's return to fitness at Chelsea is a heartwarming tale. However, the fact the 22-year-old had to retire through injury once – and he is still a long way from proving he can sustain a career – is as much a warning to starry-eyed youngsters and their parents as the tale of John Megicks, the boy wonder tracked down this week by The Independent to Ryman League Wingate & Finchley. A professional career requires talent, application, and luck. It is not to be relied upon.

4. When it comes to taxation, should football come first?

There is an important case in the High Court this week with HMRC attempting to overturn football's Preferential Creditors Rule. This is the device by which football clubs who go bust pay players and other clubs in full, and leave small creditors, and the Revenue, with pennies. Most officials admit the rule is morally indefensible but necessary to preserve the League's integrity. Without it, they say, a club going bust will prompt a "domino effect". Others say it will help keep fees and wages down. We may soon see who is right.

5. Fifa have to take heat over ludicrous Qatar World Cup

The decision to award the World Cup to Qatar was ludicrous and Michel Platini is dreaming if he thinks the European leagues are going to get Fifa out of a hole by re-jigging three seasons, which is what a winter finals would require.

Glenn Moore's verdict on all the weekend action

Newcastle v Chelsea

Odds: Home 5-2; Draw 12-5; Away 11-10.

Kick-off: Today, 12.45pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC1 10.05pm)

Team news: Alan Pardew's Newcastle side are again without Cheick Tiote (knee), while Jonas Gutierrez is suspended after his red card at Manchester United last week. Leon Best has returned to training. Chelsea are without Josh McEachran (ankle); John Terry returns from a ban.

Blackburn v Swansea

Odds: Home 6-5; Draw 12-5; Away 12-5.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1 10.05pm)

Team news: Steven Nzonzi continues his three-match suspension for Blackburn, although Steve Kean hopes to have Christopher Samba, Martin Olsson and Michel Salgado back from hamstring injuries. Junior Hoilett (virus) is a doubt. Danny Graham (Achilles) could miss out for Swansea, while Angel Rangel (ankle) faces a month out.

Man City v Norwich City

Odds: Home 1-6; Draw 6-1; Away 14-1.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1 10.05pm)

Team news: Manchester City have Mario Balotelli and Gareth Barry back from suspension, while Aleksandar Kolarov (thigh) is a slight doubt. Norwich defender Ritchie de Laet (back) is a doubt, while Zak Whitbread (hamstring) could return to the squad. Elliot Ward (knee) is also nearing a comeback, but James Vaughan (knee) is sidelined.

QPR v West Bromwich Albion

Odds: Home 5-4; Draw 12-5; Away 9-4.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1 10.05pm)

Team news: Shaun Wright-Phillips is a doubt for QPR with the foot injury he sustained at Norwich last weekend, while Radek Cerny continues in goal. Joey Barton returns from a ban. West Bromwich are without Zoltan Gera (knee) for the rest of the season, although manager Roy Hodgson is hopeful Shane Long can shake off a groin injury.

Tottenham v Bolton

Odds: Home 1-3; Draw 4-1; Away 10-1.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1 10.05pm)

Team news: Rafael van der Vaart has been declared fit after again being troubled by a hamstring complaint and Roman Pavlyuchenko and Giovani dos Santos are available, although Sandro (groin) is doutbful. Bolton have David Wheater suspended and Nigel Reo-Coker (hamstring) is doubtful. Dedryck Boyata and David Ngog return.

Wigan v Arsenal

Odds: Home 5-1; Draw 3-1; Away 4-7.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1 10.05pm)

Team news: Wigan manager Roberto Martinez has no fresh injury worries, with Emmerson Boyce having returned to training. Antolin Alcaraz serves the final match of a three-game ban. Arsenal are without Abou Diaby (hamstring) and Tomas Rosicky (thigh), along with long-term victims Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson and Bacary Sagna.

Aston Villa v Man United

Odds: Home 4-1; Draw 11-4; Away 4-6.

Kick-off: Today, 5.30pm (ESPN; Highlights BBC1 10.05pm)

Team news: Stiliyan Petrov (hamstring) returns to Alex McLeish's Aston Villa side after missing the draw at Swansea last weekend, with Stephen Ireland (foot) also in contention. Dimitar Berbatov is absent for Manchester United with an ankle injury, while Rafael and Fabio are also out. Danny Welbeck (muscle) is doubtful.

Everton v Stoke City

Odds: Home 4-6; Draw 13-5; Away 9-2.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC2 10pm)

Team news: Everton could be boosted by the returns of Sylvain Distin (groin) and Jack Rodwell (rib), while Phil Neville (hamstring) may also return to contention. Stoke will make changes from the midweek draw with Dynamo Kiev, with Jonathan Woodgate returning to contention. Andy Wilkinson (calf/knee) is a doubt for Tony Pulis' side.

Wolves v Sunderland

Odds: Home 7-5; Draw 23-10; Away 2-1.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC2 10pm)

Team news: Wolves are boosted by the returns of Jamie O'Hara and Stephen Hunt (suspension), Kevin Doyle (knee) and Richard Stearman (wrist). Karl Henry is suspended. Caretaker manager Eric Black is unlikely to make wholesale changes for Sunderland after the departure of Steve Bruce.

Fulham v Liverpool

Odds: Home 5-2; Draw 12-5; Away 11-10.

Kick-off: Monday, 8pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights Sky Sports 1 12.30am, Tuesday)

Team news: Damien Duff (calf) could miss out for Fulham, but Moussa Dembele, Clint Dempsey and Bryan Ruiz should be in contention. Lucas misses the remainder of the season for Liverpool with a knee injury, with Jordan Henderson likely to come in. Steven Gerrard (ankle) remains out.

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