There’s been a distinct lack of festive cheer surrounding Villa Park over the holiday period. As the initial excitement that came with the appointment of a new manager, particularly one with a CV as impressive as Gerard Houllier’s, has given way to repeated stories of player unrest and a slide down the table so dramatic that it could induce a case of the Bends, many Villa fans must be wondering if Santa Claus simply avoided the B6 area of the city altogether this year.
Still it’s gifts from another gentle, silver-haired old timer that are really needed to banish the ghost of Christmas Present from the bleakest corners of Villa Park. The extent to which Randy Lerner is willing to back his much maligned manager in the January transfer window could well determine whether this season descends into a relegation dogfight, or is reborn in the new year. Despite the current negativity surrounding the club, if Lerner provides Houllier with a significant percentage of last summers James Milner windfall it is not unthinkable that Villa could make a late surge for a Europa League place, such is the overcrowded nature of the most plentiful of Christmas tables.
And whilst results have not indicated a change in fortunes is coming, there is some weight to the argument that certain performances have. The significant spells of attacking-minded possession football witnessed against illustrious opponents such as Manchester United and Arsenal would have been unthinkable under the reign of Martin O’Neill, and though neither performance yielded the result it should have, the far-reaching, widespread and fundamental changes that Houllier promised when he was unveiled back in September are, if not exactly bearing fruit just yet, certainly sowing the seeds for change. The question on everybody’s lips of course, churlish though it may be, is at 63 years of age, and with significant health problems in the past, is Houllier really the right man to be leading such a long term project?
I believe it is this ‘square peg, round hole’ approach that is attracting the most vocal criticism from the faithful. Widely, and inaccurately, reported as an unpopular choice when he was appointed (a fan poll in September indicated 83% of fans were happy with the appointment), Houllier’s patient, methodical, continental approach to the game is the polar opposite of his predecessor’s. Though that predecessor oversaw the most successful period for a decade, this drastic change was actually a shrewd move by the clubs hierarchy. The thinking seems to be that if you have identified what you see as a problem, you should distance yourself from that problem as much as possible, and on the face of it who could argue. In this regard Houllier was the perfect choice, a manager capable of overseeing the development of youth as he proved so successfully during his time with the Clairefontaine academy in the 1990s, he had also undertaken a similar project to that which Villa offered, rebuilding the once great Liverpool side into a team that was able to challenge for honours both domestically and in Europe.
Sadly though the issue of Houllier’s age was largely ignored. Were Houllier ten years younger I am certain that he would not be receiving quite as much criticism as he is now, allowing as it would an increased likelihood of the prospect of him implementing long term change. But this is not to say that Houllier is incapable of seeing out the project, One only has to look to a certain Alex Ferguson, celebrating his sixty-ninth birthday today, as exhibit A in the argument of experience over youth. But it is not unfair to say that Ferguson is something of an exception. Whether or not Randy Lerner truly believes Houllier is capable of seeing his assignment through to completion may be quite a bit clearer when we see just how much is being made available for reinforcements. Many fans believe the time has come for Houllier to either be backed or sacked by the board, but with the notorious difficulty of signing players in January, and the continued failings of the current squad, it seems increasingly likely that even if Lerner’s festive cheer extends to the funds for a few new players, the New Year might not be an entirely happy one for Houllier.