I've generally been a supporter of Gerard Houllier; even if I think there might be better options available I think that he's been unfairly maligned and capable of success at Aston Villa. I'd be pleased to have him back next season (though I'd prefer Gary McAllister not be part of the deal) and think that the results of this season are largely a fluke that aren't likely to recur should he retake the helm. With that being said, he's most certainly not without his faults. I think it's reasonable to say that he tried to change the team's style of play too drastically all at once without having the personnel necessary to carry out his tactical approach. He can be a bit too conservative with a lead for my taste. He's said some things that almost certainly weren't meant the way they were taken but were just as surely ill-advised.
More than anything though, his handling of some of Villa's younger players has been incredibly frustrating. I wasn't especially thrilled with Houllier's appointment, but one of the things that made me more willing to give him a chance was his seeming willingness to give young players a chance. Marc Albrighton was already ensconced as a regular when Houllier arrived, but he remained an important piece in the manager's early days with the club. Ciaran Clark's early season performances made it seem as though he was on the verge of regular action in the starting XI. Barry Bannan made the leap from being one of those players you've been hearing about for years making a legend of himself on various loan spells to becoming a full-fledged member of the Villa squad. Eric Lichaj went from being a relative unknown (outside of American circles in any case) to impressing in the pre-season, working his way into the rotation and eventually earning a start in league play. Nathan Delfouneso looked as though he was finally beginning to be bled into the regular striker rotation.
And then...nothing. Gabriel Agbonlahor and then Ashley Young forced Albrighton to the bench. Clark's time on the pitch has been similarly erratic. After receiving favorable comparisons to Xavi and Paul Scholes from no less than Darren Fletcher, Bannan soon found himself relegated to the bench and eventually dispatched to Leeds for an uneventful loan spell. Lichaj had a few strong performances as a substitute before his nightmarish game against Manchester City and he rarely saw the bench again before joining Bannan with the Whites where he impressed the supporters with his efforts. Delfouneso was shipped off to Burnley and is now presumably dead seeing as no one has seen him since his being recalled. The lack of live game action for the youngsters wasn't limited to the players that began the season with Villa, as American international Michael Bradley arrived on loan from Borussia Monchengladbach to much fanfare and has barely gotten a sniff of action in the time since.
It's probably unfair to hold all of this against Houllier. Bannan, Clark and Lichaj all got their chance due to a massive injury crisis, and most managers the world over would have made the decision to favor returning veterans over unproven youngsters given Villa's place in the table. Delfouneso is a promising young player, but he struggled to find time behind Agbonlahor and Carew and once Darren Bent arrived at the club his opportunities grew even more sparse. And as far as Michael Bradley is concerned, well, good luck figuring that whole thing out with the information currently at hand. Point being, Houllier's decision to play the kids was likely less of a conscious one and more likely borne of necessity. The emotional part of me wants to criticize Houllier for his casting aside of the youth, but the rational part of me recognizes that few in his position would have done things any differently. And well, it's tough to argue with results.
That's not to say that I've lost faith in the youth. I think that Marc Albrighton has the potential to be an absolutely thrilling player. If I had my way Ciaran Clark would be one half of Villa's first-choice center back pairing several weeks ago. Bannan and Delfouneso are both a bit tougher to get a read on as they've had to deal with a great deal more positional competition than the others while Fabian Delph is likely a rotational player whenever healthy. Eric Lichaj is the furthest from making major contributions but it's reasonable to expect a slightly longer development curve for a defender. The larger point is that while I don't necessarily agree with Houllier's decision to move away from the young players I understand it and don't find it all that surprising. With that being said, the club need to make a decision-and make it soon-about what will be done with their young players next season.
There are few courses of action with which I would be dissatisfied. It's a fine line between hoping to find the right time to bring young players into the rotation and allowing their development to be stunted, and if Aston Villa do not have a clear plan for handling their young players and maximizing their growth from the outset they run the risk of wasting some very talented youngsters. If the powers that be aren't convinced that any of the kids are ready to contribute as regulars at the Premier League level, loans need to be arranged from the outset. When new player acquisitions are being considered their impact on the development of the youngsters must be taken into consideration. If Ashley Young goes does it make sense to spend a great deal on a replacement, or is the better plan of action to find a rotational player at the position and let he and Marc Albrighton battle for time while investing more at positions with less promising players on the horizon?
Fans of Aston Villa and the club itself are generally pretty outspoken about the strength of their youth system and reserve teams, and for good reason. There's a tremendous amount of promise there. But that promise can't be wasted. Management must make an appraisal of what they have in their younger players and decide how to bring those players along. The decisions that make the most sense might not be popular in the near-term, but they're a great deal better than indecision. Promising young players a valuable resource and Aston Villa have wasted enough resources as of late.
Either the youngsters are part of the club's 2011-12 plans or not. I'm willing to put a fair amount of trust in their appraisals. But I cannot abide inaction. Play them, loan them, sell them. But don't let them whither away on the bench or in the reserves.