When Mark Hughes walked out on the Fulham manager’s job – the popular narrative still holds that he did so the full expectation of being offered the managerial position at Aston Villa – it was, as has become abundantly clear since, as massive miscalculation. There were noises at the time that Villa called off talks with Hughes over the way that his departure from Craven Cottage was handled. What, then, is the difference between what Hughes did at Fulham with what Alex McLeish did at Birmingham City? It’s a question that Aston Villa supporters could be forgiven for having asked themselves this week, and the decision to appoint McLeish has threatened to become a decision that may well emphatically end Randy Lerner’s extended honeymoon period as the owner of the club.
Any football club that has a large fan-base will inevitably have some that represent, shall we say, the extremes of opinion. The most populous Facebook page that has been opened on the subject of McLeish’s appointment has already acquired over 17,000 members. It would be easy to take the most extreme views on display – the cloth hanging outside Villa Park with “McLeish Not Wanted” written on the side of it will probably be more of the more enduring football images of an otherwise quiet summer, and to assume that these are representative of anything like the majority of supporters of the club (as some in the press have chosen to do) is little more than facile.
The obvious thing to say would be that Aston Villa supporters are primarily angry about McLeish’s appointment because of his prior appointment with Birmingham City, but it seems considerably more likely that their anger is not only more pragmatic than this, but also more complex. The biggest complaint that the club’s supporters seem to have with this appointment is just as obvious as McLeish’s Birmingham City connection: Birmingham were relegated from the Premier League at the end of last season, and it was the second time in four years that they had been relegated under his tutelage. In addition to this, it would be stretching most definitions of the word to suggests that McLeish’s team did this playing particularly attractive football. One could be tempted to wonder what the senior management of Aston Villa saw in McLeish that made them stop and say, “that’s the man for us”. It is probably fair to say that there is something of a dearth of great available football coaches out there at the moment, but it is also true to say that, in our shiny new global culture, football clubs can look anywhere in order find a new manager. Of all of the men in all of the world, why did the club stop their search at, of all places, St Andrews?
There may be another reason behind the anger of so many supporters of the club. They made it very clear from the outset that McLeish was, broadly speaking, not wanted and the club pushed ahead and appointed him anyway. At a club like Aston Villa, of course, there is no obligation on the part of those that run the club to take any notice whatsoever of what the supporters think, but it is possible that a part of their ire is over the fact that the club has pushed ahead and made this appointment anyway. The feeling that one is not being listened to is a particularly frustrating one. Perhaps what Aston Villa need to do is issue a clear and concise statement regarding why exactly McLeish was chosen for the position. As things stand so far, however, the club’s Chief Executive, Paul Faulker, has only managed this powder puff on the subject:
Unquestionably, Alex meets the criteria we set out at the beginning of our search which was based on proven Premier League experience, leadership, a hard-working ethic and, most importantly, a shared vision for Aston Villa.
Of course, the biggest problem that both McLeish and Aston Villa have is that there will be no honeymoon period for the new manager at the start of next season. Once the whistle blows at Craven Cottage on the thirteenth of August, the supporters will, of course, get behind their team. Should things start to turn sour, however, the idea that he will be given time to fit into his new position by the supporters of the club would seem to be a fanciful one. McLeish, and by the extension those that run Aston Villa, are unlikely to be given much shrift in the event of things not running smoothly next season. Moreover, such an appointment gives the impression that Aston Villa is a club in decline. It wasn’t so long ago that they were pushing for a place in the Champions League. He may well prove his critics wrong, but this is an appointment that hints at satisfaction with a mid-table place in the Premier League and little more.
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