Trouble in store for McLeish
Villa manager's fate may be sealed over Christmas as fans turn on him over string of poor displays
Tuesday 20 December 2011
They were champions of Europe, seven-time FA Cup winners, seven-time League champions and the most charismatic club in the Midlands. Now, under the increasingly unpopular stewardship of Alex McLeish, they are the team whose record buy would rather go shopping than watch them play.
Welcome to Aston Villa's festive nightmare. Darren Bent, the £18m striker who missed Sunday's home defeat by Liverpool because of injury and was then photographed browsing in a store during the game, ended his Twitter apology with the placatory initials "KTF".
If a season of transition lurches from bad to worse over Christmas and New Year, the club's American owner Randy Lerner may have to decide whether he can afford to keep the faith with McLeish as manager.
Villa stand an apparently respectable 10th, six points above the relegation zone. However, unless Bent's probable return can snap them out of their listless form, the "holiday" schedule would seem to offer scant hope of an upturn in fortunes. Tomorrow they host an Arsenal side vying again for a top-four spot; on Boxing Day they visit Stoke, where Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham have failed to win; and on New Year's Eve they go to Chelsea.
Alarm bells could well be ringing in 2012 at Villa Park. Lerner is a cautious, conservative businessman, not given to panicky reactions. To make another change at the top, so soon after illness forced Gérard Houllier to relinquish the baton dropped by Martin O'Neill, would be tantamount to admitting he picked the wrong person. That, in turn, might appear to him like bowing to pressure from the mob, few fans having welcomed McLeish's defection from Birmingham.
Opposition was initially split into those that did not want a "Bluenose" in charge of their club and those who argued that he does not espouse attacking football. Managers often have to overcome such pre-conceived notions, especially when the expectation levels are as high as at Villa. Lerner's hope must have been that McLeish might emulate Alan Pardew in winning over the sceptics; that the manager who brought Birmingham the Carling Cup, rather than the one who took them down barely three months later, would restore stability.
The only sides Villa have beaten in their 16 Premier League fixtures are the bottom three – Wigan, Blackburn and Bolton – plus Norwich. They are, with Stoke, the lowest scorers in the top half of the table. On Sunday, interspersed among the mock calls of "Olé!" when they strung together three passes, was the self-mocking refrain, accompanied by fake celebrations, of "Let's pretend that we have scored". The average attendance is down 2,800 per game to 34,380; the apathy is almost tangible.
In mitigation, his inheritance was a diminished one: two England players, Gareth Barry and James Milner, had already left, and another two, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, followed last summer. But two McLeish signings, right-back Alan Hutton and left-winger Charles N'Zogbia, have yet to impress, while Jermaine Jenas faces a long injury lay-off.
The Scot will want to go shopping during the January transfer window, with the priority surely a central midfielder with presence and an eye for a pass. Statistics released by Opta recently revealed Bent as the player with the fewest touches per game in the Premier League. Even allowing for his reputation as a single-minded finisher, rather than a player who links well with others, the figures pointed to a lack of service.
A commanding centre-back may also be on his list, assuming the funds are there. Villa supporters may have expected a McLeish team to be well-organised, if nothing else, but Richard Dunne and James Collins are not the authoritative duo they were under O'Neill. More than a third of the goals conceded have stemmed from set-pieces, including both of Liverpool's on Sunday.
At a service today, Villa will mark the centenary of the death of William McGregor, the former chairman who founded the Football League. Following the rebuilding of the derelict architectural gem that was the Holte Hotel, McGregor's nearby grave is to be restored. Lerner is proving an honourable custodian of Villa's past. The future, whether or not it includes McLeish, looks in similar need of investment and inspiration.
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