When Gerard Houllier does finally take over full time as Aston Villa manager he would do well to pay tribute to the work which Martin O’Neill has done during his time at the club.
The squad which Houllier inherits is packed both with experience and ability, something which could not have been said before O’Neill took over in 2006.
When his appointment was announced, he said, "I'm here to meet anyone who says it's not a good club, so let's try to make it better. The facilities are first class, the training ground is really good, there is a vision for the future.”
Yet the challenge for Houllier is one which O’Neill evidently felt incapable of achieving, managing to maintain Villa’s upward momentum while cutting costs and coping with rivals who outgun them both on and off the pitch.
A non-executive director at the club, General Charles C. Kulak, voiced his disapproval at O’Neill’s unwillingness to cope with a potential cost-cutting exercise.
Following the Irishman's departure he said, "No one person is bigger than our club. Not Randy, not Paul Faulkner, not Martin and not me. What is interesting is that, apparently, only three of those named understand that fact. A Premier League club must balance wages against revenue."
This can be taken as a criticism of O’Neill’s refusal to accept potential cuts in the budget, and his unwillingness to accept the sale of key players like James Milner and possibly Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor.
During his time at the club O'Neill opted to choose players from a small group of players, a policy which helped improve the first team, but often left players on the fringes of the squad, and also affected youth development—which often left his squad was vulnerable to burnout.
It is interesting that Luke Young and Nigel Reo-Coker have been drafted back into the first team fold under caretaker manager Kevin McDonald, while Curtis Davies spoke out against his former manager over lack of opportunities.
While this issue can be put down to a personal one rather than a logistical one, the issue regarding youth development is an interesting one as Villa have one of the most successful academy team’s in England.
During O’Neill's tenure the only academy graduate to be given an opportunity to regularly establish himself in the first team was Gabriel Agbonlahor. Meanwhile other promising players such as Gary Cahill, Luke Moore, and Craig Gardner were sold on, often to Premier League teams where they became first team regulars.
It has been noticeable that under Kevin McDonald, Villa’s reserve team manager, the more promising players academy have been granted opportunities in the Premier League.
Marc Albrighton, someone who has caught the eye during his brief spell in the Villa first team, said, “We've had lots of young players, the reserves over the last couple of years have been absolutely fantastic—we've got a great bunch of players."
When Houllier takes over from McDonald and seeks way to help Aston Villa maintain their upward momentum, he must continue the good work which his caretaker carried out, and continue to promote more young talents from the Villa academy at every opportunity.
Albrighton in particular is a fine example, having made his first team debut in 2009, but being reduced to substitute appearances under O’Neill. Now, he has proved himself in the first team and proved he is ready to command a regular place in the club’s long-term plans.
But the midfielder is not alone. Young defender Ciaran Clark started the first two games of the season before James Collins’ return, and has done enough to suggest he could find himself pushing for a first team place sooner rather than later.
Others include Barry Bannan, a young winger who impressed during Blackpool’s promotion push, could emulate Albrighton’s success in the first team, while Nathan Delfouneso’s potential has led some to predict him as a future England international.
These are players who could eventually become first team regulars at Villa Park providing they are given opportunities and support, which is no guarantee under their new manager.
The easiest temptation for Houllier would be to make his mark with a raft of new signings, which may help the club in the short-term but risks the development of these players, and could eventually see them forced out of the club. Plus given the relatively close-knit nature of this Villa squad, a systematic overhaul of the squad could backfire on him.
But if the Frenchman is looking for simple ways to develop his squad and continue the upward momentum which O’Neill built up at Villa, then he could do worse than help promote Villa’s next generation and trust in their potential.
For all the good work his predecessor did at Villa Park, his unwillingness to promote from within eventually proved costly. Houllier must realise that if given a chance Villa’s kids really can be alright.
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