McLeish still hamstrung by history at Villa
New faces are badly needed as fans suspicious of former Blues manager demand entertainment
If league tables do not lie, they can occasionally distort reality. As Aston Villa finished ninth in the Premier League last season and have not been out of the top half for the whole of the current campaign, despite selling two England forwards in the summer, the forthcoming half-term report might be expected to read "satisfactory". A new manager is, in his own words, "still looking to maintain a bit of stability in the club" and admits "it'll take time obviously to stamp my personality on the team."
Yet the natives appear to be not just restless but close to rebellion, and the provenance of that new managerhas something to do with it. In joining last June from Birmingham City, Alex McLeish had an extra handicap from the start, as did those who appointed him. George Graham and Terry Neill, Arsenal men who attempted to manage Tottenham, and more recently Steve Bruce, a Geordie at Sunderland, could have told him that while results in the end count for just about everything, prior association with hated rivals, let alone a direct switch, can only make life more difficult. Glenn Hoddle and Ossie Ardiles at Spurs may have been unsuccessful ultimately, but as with Bruce's successor Martin O'Neill, allegiance to the club can prolong the honeymoon period. McLeish's ended in a noisy demonstration by hundreds of supporters who occupied the club car park to protest at his mere arrival.
Sensibly McLeish agreed to meet a delegation of fans, one of whom, the fanzine editor Dave Woodhall, found him receptive and personable, but could still not understand the appointment: "When he was at Blues there was some grudging respect for the determination the team showed, and all the last minute equalisers and so on. But it's a different game at Villa."
There's the rub. Rather like Tottenham in the days when "one-nil to the Arsenal" was a proud Highbury mantra, Villa have always wanted to do things with a greater style than their neighbours. If anything, complaints about negative, defensive football now outnumber the objections to having a "Bluenose" in charge. So much so that in a poll on a fans' website, Vital Villa, an astonishing 96 per cent want McLeish out. Its editor Jonathan Fear says: "A lot of us were prepared to give him a chance but the football is so negative that we're bored stiff. Apart from Norwich, the only teams we've beaten are the three at the bottom. We know we can't win the League, it's not 1981 any more, it's more to do with a total lack of entertainment."
Others will wait for the January transfer window, not least to see how supportive the American owner Randy Lerner is of his manager. Under O'Neill, a regular sixth place came at a cost: wages had reached 88 per cent of turnover, a loss of £37.6m was declared for the year he left, and in both 2008 and 2009 only Manchester City had a higher net spend on transfers. Last summer was very different. Having invested heavily in Darren Bent in January, Lerner saw a chance to claw some money back, and by selling Ashley Young and Stewart Downing Villa made a greater profit on their dealings (£20.5m) than any other club.
The repercussions were not unexpected. A fortnight ago Young returned with Manchester United, who comfortably beat a Villa side failing to score for the third successive game. Young academy products like Chris Herd and Barry Bannon are being given an opportunity but this afternoon Downing has an opportunity to inflict further punishment with Liverpool. "Some day I would like to think we will be in a position where we can keep our best players but it is going to take time," McLeish said. More time, perhaps, than he is likely to be given.
Aston Villa v Liverpool is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 2.05pm
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