Over the past week or so, speculation regarding the appointment of a new manager to Aston Villa has dominated all of the Premier League headlines as Mark Hughes, David Moyes, Owen Coyle, Steve McClaren, and Roberto Martinez have all been linked with the role.
But the eventual appointment of Alex McLeish as the new manager yesterday was the most eye-catching piece of news and has been met with general disapproval by many, including most Villa fans.
There is no doubt that McLeish’s role as manager for arch-rivals Birmingham City the past four years has been a source of such dissatisfaction for many of the Villa fans for the same reason why we’ll never see Sir Alex Ferguson leave Manchester United to become manager of Liverpool.
But it is also clear that there are many other reasons why McLeish's leaving Birmingham and becoming manager at Villa Park simply doesn’t seem to make much sense.
For one thing, the fans at Villa will be displeased (to say the least) at the style of football that is promoted by McLeish.
From Birmingham’s last two years in the Premier League in particular, it is clear that McLeish places a great emphasis on disciplined defence, long-ball football, and a reliance on goals through set-pieces—football which doesn’t really catch the eye. This is demonstrated by the fact that Birmingham was the only team to score less than one goal per game last year, and even when they finished ninth the season before, Birmingham was only ahead of five teams in scoring.
This wouldn’t normally be a problem, as most teams would just admit that any tactics, regardless of their entertainment values, are good tactics if they result in victory.
But this clearly isn’t the case for Aston Villa, whose fans always expect their team to play football the way it should be played at the Premier League level. This is why there was such an interest when the likes of Roberto Martinez and Owen Coyle were linked to the job and such opposition when McLeish was appointed.
As well as the appointment being bizarre on Villa’s side, I also think that McLeish's leaving Birmingham was questionable, to say the least.
After McLeish took Birmingham down, he received a vote of confidence from Birmingham's acting chairman, Peter Pannu, who, according to Sky Sports, said that “manager Alex McLeish's job is safe but [that] the board will expect him to lead the side back to the Barclays Premier League in the 2011/12 season”.
Although this statement may not exactly sound too supportive, in the bizarre world that is the current state of top-level football management, where owners are usually quick to sack managers following failure, this is a very supportive message, especially for a manager who relegated Birmingham for a second time last season and who apparently didn’t exactly get on well with the Birmingham board.
With the higher expectations of the Villa fans and of owner Randy Lerner, it is clear that failure at any level will not result in such sympathy.
So why exactly have Aston Villa and McLeish agreed to work together?
For McLeish, the obvious incentive is to manage again a club in the Premier League, one of the best leagues in the world. This was exacerbated by the fact that getting Birmingham automatically promoted back to the Premier League was by no means a given, considering the inevitable fire-sale of a team’s best players that usually complements relegation.
Aston Villa was especially appealing to McLeish because, whether Birmingham fans like it or not, Villa are the bigger team in the nation’s second city. With a bigger fanbase, bigger financial backing, although they aren’t exactly the team they were during Martin O’Neill’s reign, they expect to finish somewhere in the top eight every season. This made the task of managing the club one of the more tempting offers McLeish had entertained up during his entire career.
And for Villa, perhaps they simply settled for someone partway down their list of ideal replacements for Gerard Houllier after they failed to get Roberto Martinez (among others) to take over.
After all, pre-season training does start soon, and it would be far-from-ideal preparation for the new season if the team didn’t even have a manager.
Despite this, there is no doubt that the appointment of Alex McLeish as manager of Aston Villa does pose questions that can only be answered by positive results and a climb up the Premier League ladder in 2011-12.