Having worked for one manager for nine years at two different clubs, a player might be expected to regret bitterly his departure, and to treat the new incumbent with some suspicion. If that is how Aston Villa's captain Stiliyan Petrov feels about Gérard Houllier replacing Martin O'Neill, he is doing a good job of hiding the fact.
There is the expected tribute to O'Neill, under whom he served for five seasons at Celtic and four at Villa – "a great manager... sad to see that he's gone" – but also an old professional's acceptance, somewhere between reality and cynicism, that life goes on. In addition, being retained as club captain brings a responsibility to offer public support to the new man; and having seen him start with a victory, albeit in the Carling Cup, adds a positiveelement to take into the derby today at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
So Petrov's attitude is summed up in one sentence, expressed in a Bulgarian accent modified by more than a decade in Glasgow and the west Midlands: "It's our job, and we need to get on with it."
It is an attitude that could fairly be said to mirror his own playing style, as demonstrated even before moving from CSKA Sofia to Celtic as one of the more successful signings made during John Barnes' unhappy reign. These days, having lost first Gareth Barry and then James Milner as midfield accomplice, he sits deep in front of Villa's back four and must now adjust to a new partner in Stephen Ireland, who may or may not be fit to play at Molineux.
Adjustment to a new manager is already under way, and Petrov loyallyclaims to be enjoying the experience. "It's very good, very exciting," he said amid the sprawling acres of the club's training centre near the Belfry golf course on Friday.
"I was looking forward to meeting him and he came in and was very positive. He's got some different ideas, different ways of speaking to players and he's got his own ideas but every manager is different. He knows what he wants, the way he wants to play. He was really looking forward to his first game. He showed he's passionate and hungry again."
Villa's players will need to demonstrate the same qualities in what could be a difficult period, their mixed results already reflecting the turmoil that overtook the club as O'Neill walked out five days before the new season with his two principal coaches.From an apparently encouraging3-0 start against West Ham, the team collapsed 6-0 at Newcastle, and the results so far suggest things could go either way: two wins, one draw, two defeats; safely through in the Carling Cup but already out of Europe.
Petrov insists: "We've got potential but it's up to us to move to the next level and I think Houllier will do that for us. We were doing things right but not being very clinical in front of goal. We were creating a lot of opportunities but not taking them and if we manage to do that we've got a good chance to move forward."
Since it is hardly a secret that O'Neill left, after three successive finishes in sixth place, because the owner Randy Lerner was not prepared to bankroll his plans to move up to the next level, talk of doing so now may sound like so much pie in the claret-and-blue sky, redeemed mainly by the stuttering start of expected rivals like Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham.
It is true that in some ways Villa are in better shape than Liverpool were when Houllier arrived at Anfield in 1998, for a brief period of joint management with Roy Evans that was never likely to succeed: the structure and facilities are more advanced, the dressing-room is more disciplined.
Yet Liverpool had just finished third in the table and were prepared to splash cash; Emile Heskey for £11m being one of the new manager's purchases. Re-energising Heskey, whose arrival from the bench helped transform the Blackburn tie in midweek, will be an important task. Houllier, as he admits in a metaphor illustrating his command of English, has "joined a moving train" that has left the transfer deadline behind six matches into the season. O'Neill will not be the only observer keen to see how much financial support he receives from Lerner when the window opens again in January.
Interesting too, to see where Villa sit in the League table by then. In the meantime, Petrov suggests that the supporters, whose welcome for Houllier has been on the tepid side of lukewarm, should live up to their name, starting in the hostile derby atmosphere at Molineux today: "As fans, they should support. It's a new manager, they should be right behind the team. We will go through difficult times but we go through them together. That's the main thing. It's been shown in the past that if you stick together there's more chance to have a success than if you don't."
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