I think we can all admit that Alex McLeish was never in for an easy ride when he took the Aston Villa job. It was a club at a crossroads, having been damaged by Martin O'Neill walking out before the 2010-11 season and Gerard Houllier's tumultuous tenure (not to mention the Frenchman's serious health concerns.) Over the last few seasons, Randy Lerner had been left holding the cheque for an untenably large wage bill incurred in the days when Aston Villa were just one Nigel Reo-Coker away from the Champions League. It was a tough mountain to climb for any manager, let alone one who had just been relegated with crosstown rivals Birmingham City.
The season started with an uneasy detente, despite a smattering of empty seats (presumably due more to protest than general apathy, but who really knows.) Aston Villa were blandly effective. Gabriel Agbonlahor showed flashes of the form that got him on the shortlist for PFA Young Player of the Year a few seasons back. Richard Dunne and James Collins talked about how much better life was under the new gaffer. But the more jaded Villa fans among us remained unconvinced. The test, they said, would come in December. When the club had to face the class of the Premier League, and when the natural wear and tear of the first few months of the season had started to set in.
Well, we're here.
Aston Villa lost ugly at White Hart Lane two weeks ago, but the most recent indignity hit this weekend. All of the things that have grown to irritate about McLeish festered and boiled over. Shay Given was injured while rushing to clean up a mess made by McLeish's marquee signing and the only man (to my knowledge) that Kirsten Schlewitz has ever put a hit order on, Alan Hutton. Charles N'Zogbia, the presumptive replacement for the departed Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, was benched because he failed to show up to a physician's appointment to rehab a niggling injury. Emile Heskey performed the most ludicrous attempt at goal in the history of sport. The club was booed off the pitch at Villa Park at half-time, and even more lustily at the conclusion of the match.
In response, Alex McLeish, one of the most accomplished parkers in football finally turned the ignition on the bus and proceeded to toss his players under it. All quotes that follow can be found in two articles for the Guardian by Rob Bagchi and one from friend of the blog (whether he likes it or not) Mat Kendrick for the Birmingham Mail.
The big pull quote was obviously McLeish announcing that he is "not a quitter." This will come as quite a shock to Birmingham City supporters, considering the manner in which he left their club this summer. What manner was that, you ask? He totally quit. Lest you think that was a one-off, I would remind you that he came to Birmingham City by-here's the magic word again-quitting as Scotland national team manager while they were in the midst of attempting to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. This is just a crazy hunch, but when McLeish claims that he is "not a quitter," what he actually means is that only he gets to decide when and how he quits. And the answer to that seems to be "at the worst possible time" and "by e-mail."
McLeish then followed up by blaming the defeat exclusively on the players, in a move that absolutely drips with irony when you consider all the guff that was spouted at the beginning of the season about how Villa have a much happier clubhouse now that that awful Frenchman has finally buggered off (not my words, but Richard Dunne's. Probably.) He said that "It's not easy, I'm just juggling the balls and asking for players to give me outstanding performances to stay in this team." Well, golly gee Alex, if all football management requires is asking players to play well, I'll just sit here waiting for my cheque to show up. God knows we've all asked the Villa players a number of questions this season, namely:
- Why are you so terrible?
- Is Darren Bent crying?
- Can't you all go away so I can rediscover what happiness feels like?
A coda: According to a number of reports, Randy Lerner was at Villa Park on Saturday. One has to wonder what he's thinking about right now. Personally, I believe that the man's just trying his best to run a club without losing too much money, and in this landscape, that's difficult enough. But sooner or later, he's going to have to consider how long he can stand beside Alex McLeish before the long knives start coming out for him.