I've spent a lot of time defending Gerard Houllier over the past few months. I wasn't entirely convinced that he was the best man to lead Aston Villa when he was hired, but I certainly thought the club could have done worse and of those rumored to be serious candidates for the job I found him to be the preferable choice. Once hired, Houllier began saying all of the right things and I was encouraged by his tactics and emphasis on younger players. The results weren't great, but that was to be expected. Houllier inherited what I believe most people recognize was a pretty terrible situation and his ideas of how the game should be played are clearly different from those of his predecessor. Adjustments take time, and Villa weren't exactly lighting the world on fire in the first place.
Fast forward to January. Things had gone from bad to worse; Villa were mired in the thick of the relegation battle and each day seemingly brought with it rumors of yet another Villa star being made the target of a bigger club. Calls for Houllier's ouster reached new heights. Aston Villa were a team in crisis and it it didn't appear as though things were going to improve any time soon. And then came Jean Makoun and Darren Bent. Makoun came first and people were excited, but there was also an air of distrust; some folks went so far as to question whether Ligue 1 players were all we could expect from Houllier. Those kind of charges seem absurd now (and to most of us they seemed absurd at the time) but people were so unhappy with Houllier's tenure to that point that they had little faith in his ability to do anything correctly. Darren Bent's acquisition changed that, at least to a large extent; Bent had been on the wish-list of many a Villa fan for quite some time and the fact that it was actually happening seemed almost too good to be true.
At the time I thought the respective reactions were fairly amusing, and I still do. Jean Makoun was almost certainly a Houllier signing all the way, and it was an excellent one; the style Houllier seems to envision Villa moving towards requires players that can move the ball quickly along the ground, and there were precious few of those in the center of the pitch. Houllier identified a very high-quality talent that was available for a reasonable price from a team which he had in the past developed an amicable working relationship. And while I don't have a great deal of proof, I have a hard believing that Darren Bent was Gerard Houllier's idea. In my head, this is how I have always envisioned the conversation:
Paul Faulkner: "Gerard, we've been thinking. We think that the club could use some serious help up top."
Gerard Houllier: "Yes, I absolutely agree. It's why I've been looking at Hugo Rodall-"
Faulkner: "Yeah that's splendid, Gerard. Great player. Listen, how about Darren Bent?"
Darren Bent is something of a no-brainer; if you need help scoring goals, you're trying to avoid becoming relegation threatened and you have the money that it takes to get a deal within reason finished, you do it. That's not to say Houllier doesn't deserve some credit, because he very easily could have told Faulkner he wasn't interested or that he'd prefer to use those funds on multiple players (which I think would have been a mistake on many levels) but Darren Bent coming to Aston Villa does not make Houllier a savvy worker of the transfer market.
The goodwill lasted for a bit. Bent scored against Manchester City and Villa held on for an improbable 1-0 victory. They snagged three points against Wigan just three days later and spanked Blackburn in the FA Cup. The mood at Villa Park began to improve, and three less-than-ideal results (a 3-1 loss to United away, a home draw with Fulham and an away draw with Blackpool) were quickly forgotten after a 4-1 thumping of Rovers that showed Houllier's ability to identify problems with his initial tactical approach and adjust things at the half. Villa weren't completely clear of the drop, but they were closer than they'd been for the majority of the season and at the very beginning of a stretch of eminently winnable games. Many who had been calling for Houllier's head just a month prior were, at the very least, forced to admit that perhaps he should be given until the end of the season to prove his worth.
And then the Manchester City FA Cup tie came along. This was fresh on the heels of Birmingham City defeating Arsenal to take the Carling Cup and many Villa fans were desperate not to be outdone by their bitter rivals. City were certainly a huge hurdle, but Villa had taken them down once and on the other side was a home game with Reading and a trip to the semi-finals on the line. Not surprisingly, a lot of people were none too pleased when Houllier opted for a weakened lineup, seen (and probably fairly seen) as punting the game in favor of the upcoming clash with Bolton. And if people weren't already furious after the FA Cup loss, they most certainly were after the fall-from-ahead loss at to Bolton. That much was evident when a banner reading "Had Enough; Houllier Out" was displayed in the Holte End before the 0-1 loss to Wolves on Saturday.
So what changed between the Blackburn and Wolves games? Well, Villa went out of the FA Cup and lost a league match they almost certainly should have won. The decision to play a weakened side against Manchester City wasn't a popular decision, but it wasn't exactly universally derided either. I was outspokenly in favor, not only because I thought the league should be of a higher priority at that moment but also because I thought the lineup chosen for that game was chosen in a manner that gave Villa a realistic chance of earning a draw and bringing the tie back to Villa Park. This isn't really the place to go into those intricacies, but in my opinion while the lineup was far from full strength it wasn't the complete white flag it's been made out to be. And in any event, Manchester City weren't going to leave any cards on the table. Roberto Mancini would probably like to be employed beyond this season, and that's going to be a tall order if he is unable to deliver a trophy. If we're being honest, do we really think that even a full-strength Aston Villa side (minus the key figure of the cup-tied Darren Bent) would have stood much of a chance against a full-strength City at the Eastlands? Even if you feel there's just a glimmer of hope, is it worth putting out a weakened side against Bolton in league play? I'm of the opinion that there's no one right answer in this case. It's a tough call, the kind of call Gerard Houllier is handsomely compensated to make, but it's far from clear cut. Some would point to the Bolton as evidence that Houllier made the wrong decision against City. And at the risk of contradicting my previous statement, I find that to be severely faulty logic.
In any case, the Bolton result was the final straw for more than a few Villa fans. The things that have plagued the club all season long-poor finishing, goals allowed shortly before either the half-or-full-time whistle, horrendous set-piece defense-were the culprit. Aston Villa should have won that game, and they should have won it easily. They were the better side by a sight, but they weren't good enough to beat a determined Bolton. It's not every day that Darren Bent and Stewart Downing will miss sitters or Ashley Young will miss a penalty, but all of those things happened in that game, and Bolton were resilient enough to capitalize. I'm sure that some people are tired of me talking about the role of chance in the game, but it was undeniably a major factor on the day. But in terms of their play? I thought Aston Villa looked phenomenal; I'd go so far as to say it is the most dangerous I've seen their attack look so far this season in fact. It was an incredibly frustrating game to lose, but that was largely because there was no way they should have lost and I've yet to hear anyone make a convincing argument that the result could plausibly be pinned on Gerard Houllier.
The Wolves game was an entirely different story. I'm not sure what happened to the Villa we saw at the Reebok, but the only parts that remained were the bad. The defense was certainly makeshift, but they also weren't the problem. The attack was completely impotent and all of the progress that was on display against Bolton was missing against Wolverhampton. I don't know who to blame for that, but those in attendance certainly did. When Gabby Agbonlahor was brought on in favor of a sloppy, ineffectual Marc Albrighton the cries of "you don't know what you're doing!" rang out from all corners. This despite the fact that Agbonlahor's name had been on the lips of those in attendance just seconds before. At full-time, with Wolves still ahead 1-0, the "sacked in the morning" chants were in full swing.
You might have noticed that there was no recap after that game. Quite frankly, I was so furious that I couldn't even fathom attempting to write it. Furious at the players, because as a team effort it ranked near the top of the worst I have ever seen. Furious at the fans, for what I considered to be an absolutely shameful display. And furious at Houllier, for bringing on Robert Pires and abandoning the fluid, attacking style we saw against a far more dangerous Bolton side away from Villa Park. I am not one to question the level of effort being put out by professional athletes, and this isn't any exception. I don't for one second believe that the players weren't giving their all, or that they weren't every bit as disappointed as their fans. But none of that changes the fact that their performance was horrendous.
On an errand that required a long drive not too long after the game ended, I couldn't think about much besides the game and the state of the club. My concerns about relegation have been lessened all season because of the stretch of games of which Villa are currently in the midst. But it should go without saying, things aren't going as well as I'd hoped. I still think the odds of Villa going down are slim, but I find the plausibility much higher now than I did a month ago, much higher even than when Villa were actually in the relegation zone. And of course, that's terrifying. It's far, far worse than I thought would be possible even in the days before any managerial interviews were held and Bob Bradley was being bandied about as a legitimate possibility. And in those thoughts, I had the realization that in all the time I've spent defending Houllier, I've largely ignored his shortcomings.
That's not something that's easy for me to admit, because it's the kind of thing that makes me furious when it's done by other people. I don't regret my defense of the embattled manager, and I still stand by him today because on the balance of things, I think he's capable of having success at Aston Villa. But there's clearly something wrong with the defense, especially where set pieces are concerned. There's a tendency to play inexplicably conservative football at times Villa should be going all-out in the attack. Houllier seems to be more than willing to give young players a chance to succeed but at the first sign of struggle it seems as though he gives up on them far too quickly and while I think the impact to their development is vastly overstated it's frustrating to see players that have performed well at times sitting on the bench (or starting for Leeds United.) And I have absolutely no doubt that Houllier isn't very popular with the players. The affects of their not caring for him are almost certainly massively overblown, but on top of the rest it's certainly not a positive. And while I think people that want Houllier out are being rash and short-sighted, I've been just as guilty of not acknowledging the entirety of the facts at hand.
In reality, I don't think Gerard Houllier will be the manager of Aston Villa when next season starts. I think that's unfortunate to a certain degree, because I think that given a full off-season to more fully flesh out the squad he could achieve a fair amount of success. But the movement against him has so much momentum at this point, I'm not sure there's any going back, even if the team has a strong finish and end up well clear of the drop. And while I still support him, I don't think tat the club moving in a different direction at season's end would in and of itself be the end of the world. I personally think that Houllier would be outstanding in a Director of Football role, handling things on the personnel front with the manager position going to a younger, tactically gifted candidate brought in to learn underneath him. My admiration for Robertos di Matteo and Martinez is well known and I'm also a fan of Gianfranco Zola, but the names aren't important; it's the idea that matters. Unfortunately, I don't think there's much chance of that type of thing happening. If Houllier's hiring (and Martin O'Neill before him) showed us anything, it's that Villa place an emphasis on pedigree, experience and name recognition in the position. Perhaps the past few months have persuaded them that a different, more unorthodox direction is worth exploring, but I'm skeptical of that being the case.
More realistically, I fear the appointment of a Mark Hughes or Sam Allardyce style retread, a manager that would undo all of the work Houllier put in towards moving the club in the direction of playing a more modern, continental style of football. Would the odds of a relegation fight the likes of what we've seen this season be less likely in such a scenario? Probably. But so would any real progress towards moving past mid-table mediocrity and boring football. And while winning is the objective, the real purpose of the game is to entertain and I don't think I'm alone in finding nothing entertaining about the style employed by Sam Allardyce.
With all of that said, the one thing Aston Villa cannot afford to do is panic by sacking Houllier before the season is out. Gareth spoke about this far more eloquently than I could have hoped to earlier this week, and he's absolutely correct. Relegation is a fear now, but if Houllier goes and the club is once again thrown into flux, I'd consider it to be all but a foregone conclusion. And while I appreciate that there are a lot of people that don't care for the man currently in charge at Aston Villa (to put it mildly) I think that many of them are allowing their feelings for the man to cloud their judgment. I simply don't understand how anyone could overlook the fact that mid-season managerial changes tend to have far more of a negative correlation to performance than positive. For every Kenny Dalglish, there are ten Steve Keans.
When Martin O'Neill resigned in August, I think most people viewed it as one of the biggest moments of crisis the club had faced in decades. By the looks of things, it wasn't even the biggest moment of crisis of the year. This is a turning point for Aston Villa, for better or for worse. There really aren't any easy answers; if Houllier stays and the team goes down, people will call for Randy Lerner's head. If Houllier goes and the team goes down, people will call for Randy Lerner's head. If Houllier stays and the team doesn't go down, the odds are good that people will still be calling for Randy Lerner's head. It's a difficult position to say the least. I hope that reason prevails and the club chooses to stay the course, but it's certainly more complex than that. And frankly, I'm glad I'm not the one that has to make the decisions.