Summers at Villa Park have been tainted by a series of bitter, protracted transfer sagas in recent years. While they should have been bathing in the warm July sun, and counting the daisies in tranquil beer gardens with the rest of the country, most Villa fans were instead chained to their computers and televisions, waiting for the latest scraps of information in the unsavoury transfers of their star players.
This year it was the turn of James Milner. Welcomed as a returning hero when he completed his club record £12.5 million transfer after a previous spell on loan, he revelled in the central role handed to him by O’Neill, and was soon receiving a call up to Fabio Capello’s squad. With Villa’s core of British players and Milner playing the finest football of his career, everything pointed towards a long and successful relationship between club and player. Sadly, Roberto Mancini had other ideas.
After returning from the World Cup, Milner is reported to have met O’Neill and revealed his desire to leave, with Manchester City already circling. A £20 million offer soon materialised, but was instantly rejected. If Milner was to leave Villa would need a replacement, and in Stephen Ireland it seemed they had found the ideal candidate.
Ireland had been turning heads at Eastlands since breaking into the side as a teenager, and was Manchester City’s Player of the Year in 2009 following a scintillating season. Out of favour under Mancini, the consensus amongst Villa fans seemed to be that if Milner was to leave, Ireland should definitely be included in the deal. O’Neill’s sudden departure could have caused the transfer to collapse, but it appeared a new cash-plus-player offer had already been tabled, with the finer details being hammered out in the board rooms. Ireland, though, was clearly not taken with the prospect of a move to the Midlands outfit, telling the Sunday Mirror ‘I have never once said I wanted to leave or kicked up a fuss. The way it stands at the moment I am working my socks off in training and trying to prove to the gaffer that I am good enough to stay.’
Alarm bells should have been ringing at this stage. Villa were managerless, and the player the club were trying to acquire, essentially to replace their own departing star man, was vocalising his desire to stay at Manchester City to anybody who would listen. Nevertheless the transfer was finally completed, reported as being £18 million plus Ireland. The deal was only concluded, however, after City reluctantly agreed to pay Ireland the seven figure loyalty bonus he had been holding out for.
So who actually signed Ireland? The official line remains that he was a target identified by O’Neill, but the fact that the transfer was not completed until after his departure somewhat complicates the issue. The commonly accepted explanation is that Ireland was a player of such quality that the board simply had to complete the deal, particularly in the face of Milner’s determination to leave. But this represented a huge gamble. Signing a player for a fee of around £8 million when there is no indication of whether or not the as yet unknown new manager wanted, or even rated, him was a risky move. Any concerns of this nature, though, were simply swept under the carpet.
Fast forward three months and Ireland has not made the best of starts at Villa Park. Impressive against Chelsea in October’s 0-0 draw, he has since struggled to even get into the side, with Houllier selecting youngsters Bannan, Albrighton, Delfouneso and Clark ahead of Ireland in recent weeks. Houllier has also been critical of Ireland in the press, stating that the player has looked ‘lost’ and ‘needs to work harder’. In the last few days speculation has even surfaced that Ireland may leave Villa in January, with Fulham and Liverpool being rumoured as potential suitors in a £10 million transfer.
There is no suggestion that Houllier is willing to sell Ireland at this stage, but the midfielder clearly has to improve if he is to be Milner’s successor. On paper Ireland is a perfect fit for Villa. His creativity and surging runs from the centre of midfield should be the perfect complement to the dazzling wing play that has been the highlight of an inconsistent start to the season. The decision to move Ashley Young into a central role has limited opportunities for Ireland, and it seems to me that if he is to force his way back into the team it may yet be in a far deeper role than he is accustomed too. Whether or not Ireland will be a success in Birmingham could well depend on his ability to adapt to just such a new role.
Milner, on the other hand, has made a solid start to his career at Eastlands, despite being moved back out onto the wing. The problem he could face is whether or not he is a big enough name to hold down a long term place in such a star studded side. Regardless of how well he performs individually, if City do not break into the top four this season another summer splurge in the transfer market could well see Milner replaced by a more famous name. If this were to happen, Milner would surely have to seek a move away from Manchester in order to preserve his quickly developing international career. The thought that he may one day return to Villa is not entirely inconceivable.
Judgement on just how good the deal to sell Milner was for Villa will have to wait until the funds received for his services are invested in new recruits. But if Ireland is to be a success at Villa Park he has to step out from the shadow of his predecessor and play the kind of football that made him such a hit and Eastlands.