Next two games will seal MacDonald's fate at Villa
Former manager Brian Little backs caretaker to make job his own ahead of tonight's decisive Europa League tie
If Kevin MacDonald's temporary stewardship of Aston Villa is an extended audition for the full-time post of manager, he has two opportunities in the next four days to show he can command the stage after admitting he fluffed his lines in Sunday' surrender at Newcastle.
Randy Lerner, Villa's American owner-chairman, clearly wanted to weigh up MacDonald's capabilities at senior level – after the 15 years the 49-year-old former civil servant from Inverness has spent working with the club's reserve and youth players – while allowing him the opportunity to decide whether he wants the job.
Before the 3-0 rout of West Ham, the acting manager suggested "positive results" might sway him. Villa then drew 1-1 at Rapid Vienna; so far, so good. But after the 6-0 loss on Tyneside, where he confessed to a "naive" team selection, the pressure on him to deliver victories in tonight's Europa League second-leg game with Rapid and at home to Everton on Sunday is even greater.
MacDonald will again mix-and-match fringe and first-choice players with the Premier League fixture in mind. However, he should be able to welcome back Gabriel Agbonlahor, Carlos Cuellar and James Collins after injury as Villa strive to atone for last August's expensive exit against the Austrians at the same stage.
Brian Little, the Holte End hero who managed the side that finished fourth and won the League Cup in 1996, brought MacDonald to the club from Leicester and hopes events at St James' Park will not panic Lerner. "Kevin won't be fazed by managing a big club, whether he wants the job or not," Little said. "He's a strong character, very determined, but he enjoys his work. I'd like to think he can show one or two people he knows what he's doing. Anyone who knows him would have complete faith in him."
Handling big names would not be a problem for MacDonald, Little added. "If someone needs to be told, he'll tell them, but he also has plenty of encouragement and time to pass on his knowledge. At the top level it's all about technique, choosing the right pass and movement off the ball. Kevin's steeped in that from when he played in Liverpool's double-winning team [of 1995-86]. It was drummed into the players there."
Could the seemingly laid-back MacDonald dish out rollickings? "Look at me. I'm a mild-mannered person," Little said. "But football makes you flip now and then. Kevin can look after himself. Whether it's a rollicking or not, he does what he needs to do."
Before the Newcastle debacle – where his unusual candour pleased Lerner and chief executive Paul Faulkner – MacDonald had impressed the hierarchy by showing that he is his own man. He had broken with Martin O'Neill's policy of announcing the team during the build-up to kick-off, working for two days before the West Ham match on a faster, more expansive style.
He also gambled, successfully, on James Milner when he was on the brink of a £26m deal which saw Stephen Ireland come the other way; handed Stiliyan Petrov a more positive role; and most excitingly, gave 20-year-old Marc Albrighton his chance, which the winger seized by having a hand in all four Villa goals so far.
Now he has to show he can lift a side after a mauling. Little, now managing Gainsborough Trinity, is confident MacDonald will learn from Sunday. "Kevin can work with players of all abilities. He's not just a development coach but someone who knows the game inside out, up to the highest level. He's not frightened to do anything. I've no doubt he could do the job."
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