It seems an age ago since the Martin O’Neill era at Aston Villa. When we look at the position of the club last season it is a far cry to that of a club that not too long ago had become perpetual top six finishers in the Premier League under the Northern Irishman. Under O’Neill’s stewardship Aston Villa had been transformed from a team that safely achieved mid table finishes to a club that regularly challenged the top four and consistently qualified for European competition. O’Neill brought out the best of all the players at the club with high significance being put on good, entertaining attacking football that brought the fans to Villa Park week in and week out. As a result of this philosophy, players such as Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young rose to prominence within the Villa side with their pace and nimble feet being fully utilised by O’Neill to cause defences significant problems whenever they came up against Aston Villa. Along with working well with players that were already at the club Martin O’Neill sought to bring in his own players as well, with Norwegian forward John Carew who was renowned throughout Europe as a result of his time at Valencia and unmistakable height, joining the Midlands club with O’Neill at the helm. As a result of O’Neill’s work Aston Villa were able to challenge the top sides on a regular basis.
However, with O’Neill and the clubs’ achievements came further expectation and desire to progress. Unfortunately O’Neill was, in his mind, not backed financially by owner Randy Lerner with the club often falling short in the transfer market and having to sell their key players such as Gareth Barry and James Milner. It is this that eventually saw the end of Martin O’Neill era at Villa Park after the conclusion of the Milner transfer saga in August 2010 saw relations between O’Neill and Lerner damaged to an irreparable degree. What followed for Aston Villa was a period of deterioration with Kevin MacDonald being appointed as O’Neill’s replacement as caretaker manager until a long term replacement could be found. Whilst there was a short period of success with the emergence of teenage wide midfielder Marc Albrighton, on the whole the Aston Villa-Kevin MacDonald partnership was an unsuccessful one with the Inverness born Macdonald being overlooked for the position of permanent manager when Villa appointed former Liverpool head coach Gerard Houllier, giving the Frenchman his long awaited return to English football. The eight month period in which Houllier was in charge of Aston Villa was once again a disappointing one with the Frenchman trying to do too much too soon in bringing in his own coaching staff and players. The most surprising was the signing of former Arsenal midfielder Robert Pires on a free transfer, an indication of what was to come at Villa was given when it was revealed Pires would not be moving out of his London home and would be chauffeur driven to training on the Midlands each day.
Despite breaking Aston Villa’s transfer record to bring in Darren Bent in the January transfer window, things did not improve for either Houllier or Villa, with the clubs league position contributing to discontent within the Villa supporters and also friction between players in the squad. The pressure of the Villa job seemingly engulfed Houllier when in April 2010 he had yet another health scare in relation to his heart which had ultimately ended his career as Liverpool manager in 2004. Despite finishing in ninth place, only three below what O’Neill had achieved the season before, it was confirmed that Houllier had left the club in June 2011 by mutual consent.
With Houllier gone and Villa once again looking for a new manger, many Villa supporters hoped they would bring in a coach who shared O’Neill’s ideals regarding attacking football and who would propel them back into contention for European qualification. However, these hopes were not met and the appointment of Alex McLeish, from newly relegated fierce city rivals Birmingham (under rather controversial contractual circumstances), caused uproar amongst the Villa faithful. It was the first time I had ever seen fans of a club protesting so passionately against the appointment of a new manager. Not only did the fans dislike McLeish as he was an employee of their rivals Birmingham but also his brand of football was known to be rather dull. Villa fans, after a year of disappointment, wanted to be entertained and it was clear that this would not happen under McLeish.
Despite the protestations the appointment of the former Scotland boss was announced in June 2011, just seventeen days after the departure of Houllier, and McLeish’s first action at the club was to bring in the rather unfathomable Charles N’Zogbia from Wigan Athletic and followed this up with the free transfer deal for Manchester City reserve goalkeeper Shay Given. On the face of it, the signing of N’Zogbia should have sparked excitement within the Villa faithful, however it was seen as somewhat of a papering over the cracks signing considering the club had just lost their two star wingers Ashley Young and Stewart Downing to Manchester United and Liverpool respectively. Villa fans approached the 2011-2012 campaign with a significantly lower sense of optimism than what they had been used to in recent seasons. Their pre-season fears were unfortunately to be realised in the 2011-2012 campaign with Aston Villa struggling in the league, finding themselves in twelfth place at the start of February. This was to only get steadily worse as Aston Villa became embroiled in a relegation battle, something which they had only heard of through hearsay in the Martin O’Neill days.
Villa managed to escape relegation and finished a lowly sixteenth in the Premier League, a whole seven places lower than the previous season. The mood throughout that season at Villa Park was at an all time low with Villa being knocked out of both the FA Cup and the League Cup whilst both competitions were still in their infancy. As a result of a combination of poor results and a dour playing style, Villa Park was often not full, even for Premier League games against the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea. This was a reflection of both the mood at the club and the direction in which they were headed if something was not done to change things.
This change was to be brought about in the form of a Linwood born Scotsman, after three remarkably impressive seasons at Carrow Road with Norwich, leading the Norfolk based club to straight promotions from League One to the Premier League, it was Paul Lambert who was the favourite candidate to take the vacant Aston Villa job. It came as little surprise when the UEFA Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund duly arrived at Aston Villa as the clubs new manager, hoping to replicate the success he had with Norwich in the claret and blue of the Villa. Following the days of uncertainty at Villa after the departure of O’Neill, Lambert appears to be the man to bring about a substantial structure to the club. He’s known to be a very organised manager from his time at Norwich and there are also several comparable similarities between Lambert and O’Neill. Both are advocates of attacking football, which will undoubtedly bring fans back to Villa Park with a hope of being entertained for the first time since the Northern Irishman’s days in charge at Villa. In addition to this both Lambert and O’Neill are fantastic at getting the best out of utility players and in some cases converting them into star players at the club. For example, Grant Holt and Wes Hoolahan at Norwich have both expressed their gratitude to Lambert for giving them the chance to develop themselves as players. If Lambert can replicate this achievement with some of the fringe players at Aston Villa like Steven Ireland, who has yet to find his way at Villa Park, then it could well be a profitable partnership for both Lambert and the club in years to come.
Lambert, having been given a three year deal with Aston Villa, has already begun to reshape the squad in relation to his desires. He has launched a double raid on the Dutch Eredivisie, capturing defensive midfielder Karim El Ahmadi and Australian forward Brett Holman from Feyenoord and AZ Alkmaar respectively. Whilst Lambert has not as yet spent the significant money that both Houllier and McLeish did, the signings he has made will benefit the squad considerably with El Ahmadi and Holman bringing European experience to the club as well as increasing the strength in depth at Villa which has long been a cause for worry amongst supporters. Furthermore it appears that Lambert will hand cultured midfielder Jean Makoun another chance with the Midlands club following a one year hiatus with Olympiakos in Greece. Whilst he did not have the best time in his first six months with the club before the aforementioned loan spell, it is foolish to forget that Makoun was once one of Europe’s brightest midfielders whilst he was at Olympique Lyonnais and Lambert is hopeful that this quality will shine through next season.
Lambert has also moved to sure up Aston Villa’s defence which conceded a high fifty three League goals last season, by making an enquiry regarding Feyenoord’s Dutch central defender Ron Vlaar, who was a key member of the Dutch squad that had a resoundingly disappointing campaign at this summer’s European championships in Ukraine and Poland. It is believed that Feyenoord coach Ronald Koeman has set Aston Villa a deadline for this week by which they must have made an offer for Vlaar before a deal for the centre half becomes infeasible. With Villa relying heavily on the ageing partnership of Richard Dunne and James Collins for much of the past two seasons the signing of Vlaar would be a very shrewd move from Lambert with the twenty seven year old Dutchman able to provide cover for the two starting central defenders or even become the mainstay centre half whilst Dunne and Collins are rotated as his defensive partner. However, with rumours regarding a potential move to Sunderland to be reunited with O’Neill for Collins, it may well be the case that Lambert signs an additional central defender as well as Vlaar should the Villains meet the deadline set by Koeman.
Aston Villa under Lambert have won three out of their three pre-season fixtures and whilst this is still pre-season, where the matches mean little, it is poles apart from last year where Villa won just two of their five pre-season fixtures under McLeish and this impressive pre-season form may well be an indication as to how Villa will look to play under Lambert in the Premier League, with his preferred 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formations having the potential to be revolutionary at Villa.
Lambert may well be the man to get the best of Agbonlahor whom has struggled to show the sort of form he did under O’Neill in the past two seasons. How much of this is down to the emergence of Marc Albrighton and the signing of Darren Bent rendering Agbonlahor an understudy in both positions is unclear, however Lambert is hopeful the winner of three caps with England will respond to the newly given responsibility of interim captaincy at Aston Villa in a positive way.
It is clear that Villa under Lambert are a work in progress but as yet the signs are all positive ones with fans seemingly more willing to renew their season tickets for the season ahead which may spell for a much more improved atmosphere at home games for Villa this season which undoubtedly has an impact on how a team performs. Lambert will use all the experience he has gained from his time at Norwich, and even earlier Colchester United and Wycombe Wanderers, during his time at Villa Park and is hopeful that given time by the board, he will be able to restore Aston Villa to the dizzy heights that they reached not so long ago. A lot depends on how Lambert and Villa start the Premier League season but should Lambert get things spot on from the start then it promises to be a stimulating three years ahead for Aston Villa and their supporters which is little more than they deserve following the two years of hardship and recurring disappointment of which they have had to endure. If the early signs are anything to go by it appears that the claret and blue of Aston Villa whom once again under the stewardship of a popular manager, are once again moving in the right direction.