Martin O’Neill’s resignation from the managerial position at Aston Villa just days before a ball was kicked in August came as something of a shock to many of the club’s supporters. Four months on, Villa supporters could be forgiven for pondering whether O’Neill saw this coming. Their form now feels more like a collapse than a slump and the question of whether this team at this time has the stomach for a relegation battle is now starting to come to the forefront of the minds of many supporters. Villa, however, remain stuck between a rock and a hard place. Replacing Gerard Houllier would, no matter how unpopular he is at present, be a gamble, and in the current economic climate Aston Villa can hardly afford to lose their Premier League status in this of all seasons.
Their recent form had been shocking – just one win in their last eight matches – but their abject performance at The City of Manchester Stadium this afternoon marked a new low in their season so far. There is no doubt that Gerard Houllier is exceptionally unpopular with the supporters of the club, and whether the appointment of Houllier, who was always likely to be a short-term fix rather than somebody coming into the club to build a new dynasty at the club, feels irrelevant at present. Talk of new dynasties is for another day. The troubles currently encircling this Aston Villa team are like a forest fire that is at the point of raging out of control, and there has been little evidence since he took over that Houllier has the required skill-set to tackle this crisis immediately.
The problem for the club is that replacing Houllier is fraught with risk. Who would be available with the ability to pull the club clear of a a relegation dogfight? Would supporters tolerate the, shall we say, “agricultural” style of Sam Allardyce if it saved them from the Championship this season and, even if it did for most this season, how long would it be before they did start to become dissatisfied with it next year? There are pros and cons to any managerial appointment, but the problem that the directors of the club have is that because the team is playing so poorly at the moment there is little room for manoeuvre in their decision. There is no time for a honeymoon period, or otherwise. Any new manager has to be an immediate success – the alternative for them is to become this year’s Alan Shearer.
With January just around the corner, the opportunity is there for a final roll of the dice with the transfer window. Familiar questions, however, raise their heads in such a situation. What sort of a gamble on the club’s future would be brought by bringing in players on new contracts with the stench of a relegation dog-fight in the air? New players would face the same enormous challenge that a new manager would – a pressurised environment, a requirement to perform with immediate effect and the possibility of an already tetchy support turning against them, none of which seems likely to promise much but a bumpy ride for the remainder of this season, at least.
This season has been a peculiar one so far in the Premier League, and it certainly has the feeling of being one in which an established club could find themselves being pulled into a relegation scrap that they are ill-eqipped for. West Ham United are – it occasionally feels in spite of themselves – starting to get their act together, but there are few such signs of life coming from Villa Park. With just three points separating Liverpool in eleventh place in the table from the relegation places, there are seven or eight clubs that could realistically be going into the new year with a feeling of something approaching a feeling of impending panic in the air. It will most likely be a little bad luck and some rank bad management that pulls someone down. The question is one of which club will be most likely to make critical mistakes and find themselves getting dragged under the waves.
In such circumstances, the prognosis for the rest of Aston Villa’s season doesn’t contain much to be positive about. Any of the decisions that could make – a change of manager, bringing in or not bringing in new players, changing the coaching staff – may or may not be the triggers to prolong their current bad run. They might yet arrest their decline and pull their way back up the table, which would at least buy them a little during the summer to reconsider their options. Right now, however, time is no on their side and, with pressure continuing to build up on the terraces (or, rather, in the tip-up seats) at Villa Park, time may even already be starting to run out if any changes are to make any difference to the clubs fortunes.
Randy Lerner has to make a decision over whether to stick with Gerard Houllier or twist, and either decision could yet be catastrophic for his club. Whichever it is that he goes with – and if he is to stick with Houllier, his club needs to make a public statement of support of him and, if he deems it necessary, give him the adequate funds to strengthen his club during the summer. If Houllier is an experiment that is due to be marked down as a failure, then Lerner needs to replace him immediately and appoint someone with the required experience to keep Aston Villa in the Premier League. The level at which a club can be considered “too big to go down”, as Leeds United and Newcastle United can attest, can be a lot higher than many Premier League supporters might be comfortable with.
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