Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Lambert rescue mission must be funded
One word has emanated from Aston Villa's hierarchy since the seemingly inevitable and somewhat cold sacking of Alex McLeish three weeks ago: reinvigorate.
On the day of McLeish's departure, in a statement which contained none of the usual platitudes reserved for such occasions, Villa owner Randy Lerner declared: "Compelling play and results that instil a sense of confidence that Villa is on the right track have been plainly absent."
The search for a new direction and fresh impetus led the club to East Anglia and Paul Lambert, the Norwich City boss who inflicted a terminal defeat on his fellow Scot on the final day of the Premier League season.
The match at Carrow Road, which ended in a 2-0 defeat for Villa, and the limp performance which accompanied it, hinted the end was nigh for the man known as Big 'Eck. The contest ended with disillusioned Villa fans joining the Norwich faithful in singing, "There's only one Paul Lambert."
It brought the curtain down on an 11-month spell which began with protests against the appointment of McLeish, poached from archrivals Birmingham City to replace Gerard Houllier, and ended with the Villa Park crowd displaying a curious mix of anger and apathy as the club endured their worst ever Premier League campaign.
The former Scotland coach guided the 1982 European champions to just four home wins in 19 league games - the lowest total in their 138-year history.
A damning statistic, but far from the only new depth plunged by McLeish's charges. They amassed just 38 points, their lowest total since being relegated from the First Division at the end of 1986-87 campaign. Villa also drew 17 games, equalling the highest total for a 38-game Premier League season, while also conspiring to lose 22 points from winning positions - the most in the top division.
But it was not just the depressing numbers which contributed to an entirely forgettable season; it was the performances.
A campaign filled with negative, unimaginative and deeply defensive football was characterised by a 2-0 defeat to Tottenham in November, a display so devoid of attacking intent it will live long in the memory of those unfortunate enough to have witnessed it.
So, is Lambert, who has overseen Norwich's rapid ascent from the lows of League One to a 12th-place Premier League finish in just three seasons, capable of restoring the faith of a Villa Park crowd not only light in numbers, but also short on patience?
Ottmar Hitzfeld, Lambert's coach when he won the 1997 Champions League as a player with Borussia Dortmund, is convinced he has the necessary skills to succeed.
"I have always followed Paul since he left Dortmund, and I congratulated him on his promotion to the Premier League with Norwich City," the veteran Switzerland coach told Villa's official website. "He didn't cost a fortune when I bought him (from Motherwell), and no one expected him to become a key player - but he did.
"So it is no surprise that he has become a successful manager. Paul was one of the players responsible for keeping a good mood in the dressing room before a game. And after a defeat, he was one of those who knew how to address a situation or any problem."
Lambert's problem-solving abilities will be severely tested in the early days of his Villa reign. The former Colchester manager has inherited a squad which is short on personnel, confidence and experience. High-earners like Emile Heskey and Carlos Cuellar have been cleared from the wage bill, leaving further holes in Villa's already threadbare ranks.
The club's thin resources were certainly a major factor in McLeish's brief tenure, with injuries to senior players like Darren Bent and Richard Dunne, and Stilian Petrov's saddening leukaemia diagnosis, depriving the team of key senior figures. Youngsters such as Chris Herd and Gary Gardner found themselves thrust to the fore, while the development of promising talents like Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan and Ciaran Clark suffered under the weight of increased responsibility. McLeish also saw his acquisitions underperform, with Charles N'Zogbia and Alan Hutton failing to impress, while the ever-enigmatic Stephen Ireland offered too few glimpses of his lesser-seen talent.
Lambert will clearly need to invest. Villa are desperately short of a leader in midfield and the uncertainty surrounding the futures of defenders Stephen Warnock and James Collins could lead to short numbers at the back.
Fit-again goalscorer Bent will also need support if the club are to avoid another battle against the drop next season. Teasing the best out of the lightning-quick, but frustratingly goal-shy, Gabriel Agbonlahor will be one of Lambert's biggest challenges. It is no surprise the 42-year-old has already been linked with a raid on his former club for the imposing Grant Holt - who scored 15 Premier League goals during his debut top-flight campaign.
But for Lambert to rebuild an already depleted squad, he will need funds.
When Lerner purchased Villa from Doug Ellis in 2006, he bankrolled a spending spree which saw Martin O'Neill bring in a raft of exciting young talents like Ashley Young and James Milner. After three successive sixth-placed finishes, O'Neill departed under a cloud on the eve of the 2010-11 season. He has since been followed out of the door by Milner, Young and winger Stewart Downing.
O'Neill's exit ushered in a new era of austerity for Lerner, with the American eager to reduce Villa's spiralling wage bill. But with the owner anxious to avoid another flirtation with relegation and keen to re-energise the club, fans and players, he will need to hand Lambert a considerable war chest.
The next month could prove to be the defining period of Lerner's stewardship. If Lambert is not given the necessary apparatus to perform major surgery on Villa's squad, it could prove fatal for the club's Premier League aspirations.