Villa's delaying tactics may prove costly
It may seem early in the season for talk of must-win games - yet Aston Villa are facing two in the space of four days. And they will not only determine the future of caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald, but also test the commitment of American owner-chairman Randy Lerner.
On Thursday night, Villa host Rapid Vienna in the second leg of a Europa League qualifying tie locked at 1-1 from last week's meeting in Austria. Then on Sunday they are at home to Everton in the Premier League. Only progress in Europe and victory over David Moyes' side is likely to persuade supporters that the 6-0 surrender at Newcastle was merely a blip.
MacDonald, the 49-year-old reserve-team coach and former Double-winner with Liverpool, had been modest, bordering on humble, after the 3-0 defeat of a woeful West Ham on the season's opening day. Events on Tyneside, where Villa collapsed against the team they condemned to relegation 15 months earlier, ensured he had much to be modest about.
The Scot was thrust into the front line by Lerner and chief executive Paul Faulkner after the ill-timed resignation of Martin O'Neill five days before the big kick-off. Now Villa have not only lost their manager of four years but also their outstanding player, James Milner, to Manchester City in the deal that brought Stephen Ireland from Middle Eastlands to the West Midlands. Viewed through the prism of such upheavals, Sunday's calamity seems less surprising.
Until Andy Carroll began running amok, the hierarchy must have felt things were going smoothly. They clearly felt in no hurry to fill the vacancy. Among those touted to succeed O'Neill there were several, including Sven-Goran Eriksson, Alan Curbishley, Phil Brown and Jurgen Klinsmann, who were free to take over immediately. Instead they trusted in the respected MacDonald, apparently giving him an extended audition for the post of permanent manager.
MacDonald proved refreshingly honest in the post-match post mortem at St James's Park, admitting he may have been "naive" and got his team selection "wrong". He is evidently not steeped in the ways of 'gafferdom', whereby managers blame referees, linesmen, injuries, malign fate and even the media rather than confess their follies.
With hindsight, he may feel the balance of his team erred on the side of adventure. Villa lacked a ball-winning holding player, such as Nigel Reo-Coker, especially with Ireland making a rusty debut after months spent warming the bench at City.
And while he regretted having persisted with Ciaran Clark and Marc Albrighton, two 20-year-olds whose progress he has overseen, he would have been criticised for leaving them out after their faultless contributions against West Ham.
In truth, they were "mistakes" that any experienced manager could just as easily have made. Less than five months earlier, O'Neill's team also suffered a six-goal thrashing, 7-1 at Chelsea, though that was against the champions-elect rather than newly promoted opponents.
What matters now is how Villa react, both on the pitch and at boardroom level. For all the glowing references for MacDonald from the players, and from the various Villa managers he has served, such as Brian Little, John Gregory and Graham Taylor, his work has tended to be the development of players and management of the reserves. He once suggested that he wondered whether he was a better coach than a manager, and if any uncertainty has transmitted itself to the first team, it could be reflected in their performances.
It is not, surely, simply a matter of whether he wants the job. Lerner and Faulkner must also decide whether he is the man to take Villa forward; a manager who can go head to head with Messrs Ferguson, Ancelotti and Wenger as well as making overdue inroads in Europe.
Their play-it-cool strategy seemed to be working well until Villa headed to the North-East. However, if results against Rapid and Everton are not auspicious and they come to accept the need for a manager to take the reins from MacDonald, they will have allowed the club to go to the very eve of the transfer window without the new man being able to reinforce one of the top flight's smallest squads by spending any or all of the £18 million surplus from Milner's defection.
By cashing in on the England midfielder for an exorbitant fee, the hard-tackling, goal-scoring lynchpin of last season's Carling Cup finalists and FA Cup semi-finalists, they may also have sent out a message to the players he left behind and future transfer targets that Villa are a club who lack ambition.
Lerner would point to their progress since he bought control from Doug Ellis in 2006 for £62.6 million. The billionaire former credit-card tycoon has been trying to "grow" the club, heed its great traditions and the expectations of the fanbase, rather than throwing money at the market in a way he regards as reckless and irresponsible during a global financial downturn.
Before O'Neill's exit, Villa could justifiably claim to have arguably the most popular manager and chairman in English football. Lerner retains the gratitude of the Holte End for delivering them from the monotonous under-achievement of Ellis' final years.
But respect may turn into restiveness should MacDonald's men falter in their two vital matches before the international break - potentially putting the man who also owns the Cleveland Browns gridiron team in the firing line for the first time on this side of the Atlantic.