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Goodnight Vienna; a troubling season so far

It felt like a bad dream. Hearing that Martin O’Neill had walked out on the club just five days before the start of the season sent me into a state of shock. I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t accept it, and I wasn’t alone. Message boards, phone ins and fanzines were consumed by despair. What was happening to us? After four years of what felt like sustained growth we were suddenly back to square one, and it hurt.

The news of O’Neill’s departure was devastating

But just five days later everything had changed. As the season began at a Villa Park bathed in late summer sunshine, the mood was surprisingly optimistic. In Kevin MacDonald we had a caretaker manager who was hugely popular with fans and players alike, and who had put some faith in the youngsters who never got a look in under O’Neill. James Milner, the subject of a summer long transfer row between Aston Villa and Manchester City (deja vu, anyone?), was almost certainly playing his last game for the club, but you would never have guessed it, such was the quality of his performance. Milner scored and went off to a standing ovation, Randy Lerner’s name cascaded down from the stands, and we were reborn. Our finest performance in a long time saw us dismantle West Ham 3-0, with Downing and Petrov the other scorers, and suddenly everything was well with the world.

But surely this wasn’t right? Off the field we were in chaos, several members of the coaching team had left with O’Neill, we were yet to add a single player to a squad that fell short of achieving Champions League football last season, and players were lining up to criticise the former manager. Questions were being asked, and few were happy the answers, it seemed all wasn’t as well as we had thought.

Predictably, over the next fortnight the sky fell, and it wasn’t just the weather. Milner departed for Manchester City, before Villa were dumped out of the Europa League in qualifying by Rapid Vienna for the second year running, losing MacDonald’s protege Andreas Weimann to serious injury in the process. Between the Rapid Vienna ties was a trip up north to welcome Saint James’ Park back to the Premier League, and we didn’t disappoint the locals. Following a Carew penalty miss at 0-0 we capitulated, Newcastle barely broke sweat in strolling to a 6-0 victory, and we were at rock bottom. MacDonald told the press the defeat was his fault alone, a remark that given the lack of progress in our search for a new manager was as worrying as it was brave.

Heartbreak as Villa exit Europe in qualifying for the second year running

Against this backdrop of gloom the lowest home league attendance of the season to date welcomed Everton. Encounters with the blue half of Merseyside under O’Neill resulted in several spectacular games, but this game will not be grouped with them. Everton had started badly, as they now seem to, but came into the game thinking three points were likely, given Villa’s up and down start to the season. However just nine minutes into the game Luke Young, one of the chief beneficiaries of O’Neill’s departure, cut inside and curled a superb finish around Tim Howard for a 1-0 lead. Everton dominated the game after this, but their lack of a striker was exposed as they failed to capitalise, thanks in part to a fine display from Friedal.

The international break was a welcome chance for Aston Villa to get their affairs in order. The search for a new manager was stepped up, and the names of those interviewed so far were revealed. MacDonald threw his name into the hat, but on September 8th it was announced that Gerard Houllier was the man chosen. This though, presented a problem in itself. Houllier was still contracted to the French Football Federation, and had not yet been able to negotiate a leaving date.

So with O’Neill’s successor named, though conspicuous by his absence, the team travelled to Stoke for a Monday night game. MacDonald, we were assured, had picked the team without interference from Houllier, but this was nothing to boast about as Stoke seized the initiative from the off. However Villa recovered, Albrighton was again proving to be dangerous on the wing, with his pace and wicked in-swinging crosses causing all sorts of problems in the Stoke defence. With Villa in the ascendency Downing capped of a well worked move with a superb diving header for a 1-0 half time lead. Sadly in the second half Villa revealed their shortcomings, utterly unable to build on our lead we sat back content to try and catch the home side on the break. Stoke, buoyed by the arrival at half time of manager Tony Pullis despite a family bereavement, dominated possession and equalised in the 80th minute, before grabbing a winner deep into injury time.

Many believe Houllier can drive the club forwards

It was a difficult defeat to take, but it was far from unexpected. Houllier has a lot of work to do in addressing the issues that continue to hinder our progress. Villa remain uncomfortable with the ball, and have an over reliance on the still developing Agbonlahor for goals. There is, however, a growing belief that Houllier is the right man to address these issues and move the club forward, now that he is, finally, in charge.

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