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All Change and Yet Still the Same?: Alex McLeish to Aston Villa…

June 21, 2011

The appointment of Alex McLeish as manager of Aston Villa has courted controversy, not least from the Villa fans over his questionable record, but also from Birmingham City over the disloyalty shown in moving to their local rivals. SportingBlogs takes a look at the appointment, the changing nature of the manager-club dynamic, and how Big Eck still ends up facing the same old obstacles…

When Gérard Houllier was unceremoniously dismissed by Aston Villa the other week, speculation immediately turned towards his potential successor. Steve McClaren’s name was quickly doing the rounds, with particular focus on his Eredivisie-winning stint with FC Twente and the relative success he achieved with Middlesbrough, notably a Uefa Cup final appearance and a League Cup triumph. Detractors however were more interested on his miserable stint with England (‘The Wally with the Brolly’) and a rather lacklustre attempt at revitalising VfL Wolfsburg in Germany where disappointing results led to him being sacked just over halfway through his first season in charge.

With this sacking and the Wally-with-the-Brolly moniker at the forefront of Aston Villa’s fans’ imaginations, it was little surprise there was a significant amount of opposition to the notion of McClaren being considered to replace Houllier. Consequently, and perhaps wisely given the unpopularity of Houllier’s appointment and reign at Villa Park, Villa’s chairman Randy Lerner moved to rule out the Eredivisie-winning manager from the vacant post, citing having been ‘influenced by the negative reactions of some Villa supporters on various fans forums.’ The fans had spoken, the Chairman listened, the club moved on and the search continued.

Then last Friday, amidst enhanced opposition and protests from the club’s fans, Aston Villa announced that their new manager would be Alex McLeish, a man with two Premier League relegations from three seasons to his name and, more pressingly for Villa fans, the recently-departed former manager of bitter local rivals Birmingham City. It was an appointment that surprised many, given his modest record and his previous club, but more so because the fans were so unashamedly opposed to his consideration, let alone appointment, and the fact that Steve McClaren – who, with irony, would probably have proved a more popular appointment – had been jettisoned for the very same reason; yet Lerner went ahead regardless.

In short, McLeish’s appointment appeared fraught with risk and mired deep in unpopularity. His mixed record features success with Rangers in Scotland and a League Cup with Birmingham, but – where it counts, Premier League survival – two relegations from three seasons in the English top flight. Quite how these two relegations match up with Villa’s criteria that their new manager should have ‘proven Premier League experience’ is a question Villa fans would certainly like answered.

Villa have undoubtedly taken a gamble on McLeish, but given their rejection of McClaren, their ruling out of Mark Hughes (citing ‘the manner of his departure [from Fulham as] unseemly’), and having been turned down by Wigan’s Roberto Martínez, the Midlands outfit were running out of viable options and – to the dismay of the Villa faithful – consequently jumped the moment McLeish ‘became’ available.

From Alex McLeish’s perspective however, the move made sense. The inter-Midlands shift would result in minimal upheaval for his family, whilst himself pocketing a sizeable pay-rise, up to £2m-a-year, having been faced with a relegation-induced halving of his pay at Birmingham to £800,000-a-year. Furthermore, by moving to Villa he remains in the Premier League (as opposed to the Championship) and has a young and talented squad at his disposal, not to mention a chairman more willing to invest in the side, rather than the cuts facing his Birmingham squad. It was a safe and logical move for McLeish, albeit controversial and in less-than-amicable circumstances, having resigned the Birmingham post by email and having left for their most bitter rivals.

But then again, why should McLeish have remained loyal to Birmingham? Were it not for the financial considerations of McLeish’s contract, they would most likely have sacked the Scotsman. Furthermore, given the abhorrent lack of loyalty shown by clubs and owners towards managers over previous seasons, perhaps most noticeably in the deplorable sackings of Carlo Ancelotti and Chris Hughton from Chelsea and Newcastle respectively, McLeish arguably had every right to prioritise his own considerations even if it meant returning a lack of loyalty back in the direction of his employers.1

Neither is he alone in this. Last summer Martin O’Neill left Aston Villa in a last-minute lurch after a disagreement with the club over the availability of transfer funds, whilst more recently Mark Hughes departed Fulham essentially because the Cottagers were unable to match his illustrious ambitions. Interestingly Fulham provide a microcosmic illustration of the changing nature of the club-manager dynamic, for whilst their managers in their Premier League years were once sacked (Jean Tigana, Chris Coleman, and Lawrie Sanchez), they now leave the club of their own accord (Roy Hodgson and Mark Hughes). As evinced most obviously by Alex McLeish last week, no longer it seems are managers willing to remain the whimsical playthings of power-crazy and sack-happy or insufficiently ambitious clubs and owners…

What has not changed, however, is the mentality of the fans. As Gary Megson proved during his ill-fated tenure with Bolton Wanderers, if the manager is not liked by the supporters then he will struggle to keep his job. Although Alex McLeish believes he will ‘prove [he is] the man for the job’ and that he ‘can be a success’ with Aston Villa, you get the feeling that he will need some seriously impressive results to appease the currently irate and sceptical Villa faithful.

European qualification will in all probability be a minimum, but with two Premier League relegations from three seasons, you would have to question the likelihood of that happening. His appointment could well prove a match made in heaven, but for now the doubters remain. Although the relationship between managers and clubs might have changed, the views of fans haven’t, and that, for McLeish, could prove the hardest obstacle to overcome…

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1 Then again, two wrongs don’t make a right, and an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind… but that, perhaps, is another debate entirely…

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