McLeish admits he is already feeling the heat
Villa have been selling their best players, so their new manager concedes it may be another long season
Wednesday 27 July 2011
"It's very hot, especially for ginger heads walking out in a place like this." By the shores of the South China Sea, Alex McLeish has been feeling the heat, but then you could argue he has been feeling it all summer in the Midlands. Leaving Birmingham to manage Aston Villa leaves you exposed.
Hong Kong is the home city of Carson Yeung, Birmingham's owner and the man to whom McLeish tendered his resignation by email, having given the club a bittersweet, lemon meringue pie of a season – their first major trophy since Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister and then relegation from the Premier League.
When asked if they have any plans to meet, McLeish tersely says he is here to talk about Aston Villa, although he is aware that talking about Aston Villa contains its own difficulties.
Nominally, they finished ninth, although for most of the latter half of the season they were wearily attempting to haul themselves clear of the relegation zone. Darren Bent's arrival for £24m in January was a statement of the owner, Randy Lerner's, intent, but it has been followed by the sale of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing to Manchester United and Liverpool, although some might say Villa have done well to squeeze out £37m for two men who are not regular internationals.
"Some of the prices are quite unbelievable," said McLeish, addressing the current transfer market as a whole. "We are looking at our finances within the club and trying to keep everything correct.
"The financial fair play rules come in in 2013 and so we have to get our sums right and whether every club will stand for inflated wages for too much longer is debatable."
At Birmingham, McLeish said he did his best business with "freebies or near freebies"; men like Barry Ferguson, Lee Bowyer and Stephen Carr, who was persuaded out of retirement and ended up lifting the Carling Cup at Wembley. Lerner has given him the resources to rescue Shay Given from his limbo at Manchester City and buy Charles N'Zogbia, a man whom his captain, Stilian Petrov, said "destroyed us every time he played Villa".
However, there is not much more to come and McLeish accepts he will have to rely on footballers, signed by previous regimes, who in one way or another have disappeared. Men like Stephen Ireland and Stephen Warnock.
"We will be looking at one or two of the players who have been a little bit gone," he said. "They are players in whom Aston Villa have made a massive investment and who have yet to make an impact. We need to see if some of the younger players can step up to the mark. Fabian Delph, Ciaran Clark, Marc Albrighton... I can see them making an impact. As for Stephen Ireland; a couple of years ago he looked an amazing player. Every ball he touched turned into goals.
"Now, all of a sudden, his game has not gone the way you would expect. However, since coming to Aston Villa, the player has looked like he has been making those piercing runs in practice matches. I'm looking forward to Stephen Ireland being fully fit and competing for a whole season. Stephen Warnock, too, has to resurrect his career. I mean he played for England and what do you have to do to do that?"
Logically, McLeish's previous club should be irrelevant, although like George Graham at Tottenham he may find it means there is no great reservoir of goodwill to fall back on. Aston Villa have a very straightforward start. From August until 21 November, they are due to meet only one club that finished in the top six last season; Manchester City away on 16 October.
However, McLeish is all too aware that the Premier League is a restless, uncertain institution. "We finished ninth last season, can we better that?" he said. "It will be extremely difficult, given the way that every team has been gearing up.
"Sunderland have signed 10 players while Stoke City are linked with many players on extortionate transfer fees. I wouldn't want to shout from the rooftops that we will be competing for the top four. I'd be a fool."
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