Season Preview: Aston Villa – New Face In Hell
By Luke Payne
It has been eleven long months since Martin O’Neill resigned the position of Aston Villa manager. His absence had been noticeable all season – the squad still bore his hallmark but the key ingredient had gone and the passion had faded. Only now are the ramifications of O’Neill’s departure becoming apparent as the empire he built in his few years at the club begins to crumble.
Personally, my interest in Villa had tailed off in the years before MON took charge. I was in my early teens and interested in other things. I kept an eye on how we were doing but there was no spark of passion. Prior to the appointment of MON – as I shall refer to him from this point onward – Aston Villa had been backtracking. Lost in mid-table limbo for the final two seasons of David O’Leary’s tenure, the wheels were coming off.
Changes were needed on and off the pitch, the fans clamouring for long term chairman Doug Ellis to stand down and for a rethink of the club’s strategy. In the August of 2006, on the promise that boardroom changes would take place, MON was appointed as Aston Villa manager. Instantly, my interest in the club was rekindled. I recall watching BBC Midlands Today intently as MON arrived at Villa Park to an outstanding turn out – we appeared to be a club on the up again.
I bought into the promise of success, and it seemed like MON would be around for a long time. He spoke of investing in youth and building towards the future. I listened intently to his press conferences and interviews, as he spoke intelligently about the club in a comforting Northern Irish accent, a warm voice that would be at home on Radio 4. He had a sharp wit and was unafraid to speak his mind – even if his targets were overweight Mancunians on the world cup sofa. He seemed like an interesting man to boot, with passions that lay outside of football and an intriguing enthusiasm for criminology.
As time went on my admiration for MON grew and I started to fall for the squad he was building. Exciting, attacking homegrown players, tall brick-shithouse Scandinavians – we were starting to look like a team with a real future and even, we dared hope, a team that could break into the hallowed top four.
This was the most I’d felt for my football club since the mid 90′s, the days of Savo Milosevic, Dwight Yorke and Mark Bosnich. When Ian Taylor bossed the midfield, Brian Little led us to glory at Wembley and I met my hero, Gareth Southgate when he opened my local branch of Burger King. Not for years had I so enjoyed the ecstasy of a win, nor experienced the horror of a defeat. Whatever happened, I felt something. This was my team and I cared about them.
Martin O’Neill had changed everything at Aston Villa. By the start of 2010 the only surviving player from the O’Leary days was Gabby Agbonlahor, the back room staff had been torn out and replaced with the likes of the terrifying John Robertson and MON had built a tough, talented squad full of cult favourites, like John Carew, Freddie Bouma and Nigel Reo-Coker. On top of it all we were playing good football having made consistent top six finishes in the league and progressed well in domestic cup competitions – the less said about Europe the better.
And then, in August 2010, the dream was shattered. MON resigned.
On the day O’Neill left I stared, open mouthed and dumbfounded as I read the headline on the BBC site. I felt hurt and empty. We were losing the promise of his legacy – I was too shocked for tears but it was a pain that cut deep. As deep as when we lost Dwight Yorke to Man United; when Lampard fired in Chelsea’s 7th and I just wanted to curl up into a ball, or when I cried my eyes out as Gareth Southgate’s penalty miss ended my 9-year-old hopes of an England victory at Euro 96.
In the aftermath we stumbled into last season with no permanent manager at the helm; in Kevin Macdonald we found a man who couldn’t look more like a caretaker. Although the players clearly cared about him and wanted to play for him, for Randy Lerner that wasn’t enough and Kevin Mac’s lack of necessary experience pushed him out of the frame. In his wake came Gerard Houllier, he cut a domineering figure but my feelings toward him were mainly of confusion and jaded ambivalence.
As the season went on our lack of passion – from both the players and the fans – was well evident. We slipped down the league, but told ourselves we would never be in any real danger – this was a transition season, far from impressive but it wouldn’t be a disaster. We came so close to a complete collapse, but despite the results I warmed to Houllier, he seemed to me a warm hearted buffoon with a streak of bad luck. Pagliacci. Frank Spencer. The tragic clown. His tenure stained by an injury crisis and ended by his own long term medical problems. My ambivalence had turned to sympathy, my confusion to relief that we had managed to dodge the bullet.
And with that the epilogue to MON’s reign was bought to a close, the squad – with the sale of Downing and Young, and the release of the likes of John Carew, Brad Friedel and Nigel Reo-Coker – is dying. With the appointment of Alex Mcliesh the future looks unclear, but bleak. The polar opposite to how I felt upon the appointment of Martin O’Neill. The comforting optimism of his Northern Irish accent and genteel nature replaced by a nightmare of a man, unmistakably a football manager but cut from a different cloth; more likely to be the defendant in a murder enquiry than the bespectacled criminology student sitting the gallery.
The branch of The Burger King that Gareth Southgate so triumphantly opened in 1996 isn’t there any more. Like Aston Villa it has passed into other hands, proving that, like a football team, even a fast food restaurant isn’t guaranteed success.