When Paul Lambert was named as the replacement for Alex McLeish almost two years ago, the reaction from Villa fans was largely quite positive. After leading a Norwich City side that seemed lost in the wilderness to two straight promotions and outperforming expectations in his first season in the Premier League, Lambert's stock was rising and his demonstrated history of doing a lot with very little made him a natural choice to lead the aggressive rebuild that Villa so desperately needed. But now, after nearly two full seasons, consecutive relegation battles, questionable transfer dealings, and few-if any-signs of progress, Lambert has seen his stock among Villa supporters plummet, to the point that it's reasonable to believe that his position has become untenable.
Perhaps that's the case. Randy Lerner and the board were making public statements of support for Alex McLeish right up until the day he was sacked, and it's reasonable to assume that if the club is sold in the offseason-as seems to be an increasingly more likely occurrence-Lambert will not be asked to continue in his role. But no matter your opinion of Lambert's managerial acumen, it must be acknowledged that he was put in a position to fail. And perhaps more worryingly, he was put in that position due to the club's inability to learn from their past mistakes.
When Randy Lerner purchased the club in 2006, it quickly became apparent that he was more than willing to spend the money necessary to bring Villa into English football's elite tier. Martin O'Neill was given a hefty transfer budget, and he set about to building a team very much in his own image. And to be fair, it was a very good team. It just wasn't quite good enough to deliver Champions League football and the-much needed, given Villa's wage bill and transfer spending-revenue that came with it. The call for belt-tightening contributed to the departure of O'Neill, with Gerard Houllier eventually named as his successor.
Gerard Houllier is a very good manager who came to the club with a very impressive resume, but his preferred style of football and approach to the game could not have been more different than his predecessor's. By the time Houllier was forced to step aside due to health problems Villa were beginning to come together and the team finished the season on a high note, but the purchases of Darren Bent and Jean Makoun coupled with a failure to make any real progress in lowering the wage bill once again lead to a call for financial prudence. A demonstrated ability to get by on a budget was seemingly the most important thing to Villa when evaluating candidates, which led to the appointment of Alex McLeish.
And again, Aston Villa's new manager brought with him a dramatically different approach than that of the man that came before him. Jean Makoun and Michael Bradley were both cut loose, and several young players that featured regularly under Houllier found themselves on the fringes of the first team. After just one season McLeish was replaced by Lambert, and Aston Villa had a brand new philosophy and approach to football for the third time in three years.
Aston Villa has hit the reset button three times in four years now, and it's quite clearly not working. And it's not working because the concept of the all-controlling football club manager is outdated and in all but the rarest cases self-defeating. The game is completely different than it was in the days when it was an effective model; managers were given more time to produce results. That's not the case now for a variety of reasons; it's a high-pressure job, and fans, pundits, and boardrooms alike won't suffer unmet expectations for very long. And when one goes, a change in philosophy is sure to follow.
Doing things this way is madness. And in Villa's case, where the manager is quite literally the only person with any real football acumen authorized to make decisions that impact the first team, it's a complete disaster. Money gets wasted, egos are bruised, buyout clauses are paid, and it all starts over again. And if it keeps going like this, eventually Villa are going to be relegated, and the odds of them bouncing back quickly don't seem especially high.
If Randy Lerner sells the club this summer, Villa fans should hope that the new owners recognize that the antiquated all-powerful-manager model isn't long for this world and choose to look to clubs such as Tottenham and Liverpool for inspiration. A long-term vision and strategy that isn't tied to a single individual coupled with renewed investment could see Villa return to respectability in very short order. But even if the rumors aren't true, and Lerner maintains control of the club, it's not too late to turn things around. But for that to happen, Randy Lerner has to take the right lessons from the past four years of futility.