And the award for Most Chaotic Pre-Season Build-Up goes to… Aston Villa. In a tale of intrigue and double-dealing that would do Ian Fleming proud, Villa’s pre-season has gone up in a cloud of smoke that reeks of intrigue, double-dealing and wheeler-dealing in the corridors of Villa Park. The in-fighting and back-biting are threatening to tear the club in two before the season has even started and, as ever in football, the big issue appears to be a matter of ego.
The central contenders are, of course, Doug Ellis and David O’Leary. In the red corner is Doug Ellis. Ellis is arguably the last of the old-style football barons. He runs Villa Park like his own personal fiefdom – he’s outlasted such wily old boys as Ron Atkinson, Graham Taylor and Ron Saunders. He’s used to (at least off the pitch) getting what he wants. He bulldozed the venerable Trinity Road Stand at Villa Park, and he named the other new stand after himself. He seems to take failure on the pitch as an almost personal affront – perhaps justifiably, considering the amount of money he’s put into them over the years. He is, having survived prostate cancer and a triple heart bypass in the three years, as tough as old boots. He’s used to being told that he’s not wanted at Villa Park, and he doesn’t seem to care very much.
In the blue corner is David O’Leary. I’m unsure what to make of O’Leary. When he talks, he sounds like an informed, erudite coach, but there are certainly question marks over his ability. He spunked away £100m of Peter Ridsdale’s money at Leeds, but gave them precious little in return. He certainly failed to keep control of his more, ahem, “exuberant” young players, and his decision to release the book “Leeds United On Trial” at the height of the club’s financial crisis was, to me at least, ill-advised. Added to that, his performance at Villa Park has been patchy. Sixth place in his first season seemed to bode well, but Villa have slumped considerably since then, and finished just two places above relegation.
The circumstances surrounding the current furore are somewhat extraordinary. First, the players apparently issue a statement criticising Ellis. Then Ellis launches an enquiry into how the whole mess became public. Next, the players claim to have made such a statement. Ellis now wants to see all of O’Leary’s telephone calls over the last couple of months, but O’Leary’s mobile phone providers won’t give it to him. I suspect that, if anyone goes, it’ll be O’Leary. If it was leaked and he was behind it, he’ll have no option. He’ll have no confidence of the players or the owner. If it wasn’t him… who was it? Ellis has seen off bigger fish than David O’Leary.
Elsewhere, in the Intertoto Cup on Saturday, Newcastle laboured to a 1-1 draw against Lillestrom. For those of you that are interested, their team was: Given, Carr, Bramble, Taylor, Babayaro, Solano, Parker, Emre, N’Zogbia, Milner, Luque. So… not a million miles from full strength, then. You’ll have to excuse while I stifle a giggle at this.