Despite what our name might suggest, I was actually pretty close to the Holte End when it happened. Closer than I usually am, anyways. The premise of the blog is that we all live far away from England, and yet we ardently follow an English club that has been relatively undistinguished for most of our adult lives (I don't know if any of us was alive the last time Aston Villa won anything bigger than the League Cup. The last time Aston Villa won the league, my parents didn't even know each other.) And yet there I was, sitting in a mediocre cafe near the Victoria underground station, less than a month after standing in the away end at the Emirates as Aston Villa beat Arsenal 2-1. Gerard Houllier was not in the Villa dugout for that fixture, and was out of the club by June. Steve McLaren was the initial favourite for the job, but that prospect had been shouted down by Villa supporters jaded by his embarrassing tenure as England manager. Around the same time that Houllier was shown out the door, Mark Hughes left Fulham in an almighty lurch, leading many to believe that he would step right into the vacancy at Villa Park. However, Randy Lerner wasn't ready to be charitable to a manager leaving his club in a fit of pique, having been a victim of that near the end of the previous summer. Besides, Lerner was friendly with members of the Fulham front office, and didn't exactly hold Hughes in the highest regard. So there I was, in the top floor of that London cafe, waiting to board a train to Luton and fly home. I was idly chatting with erstwhile Friend of the Blog Chris Nee, and we were joking about the prospect of Alan Curbishley taking the reins at Aston Villa. And then it all happened so fast.
Alex McLeish quit Birmingham City with an email, while he was on holiday. In the "Dick Move Hall of Fame" this is right up there with dumping a girlfriend via text message. While you're with another woman. And in this case, the other woman was Randy Lerner. An unpleasant image, but a considerably less pleasant reality. Lerner and chief executive Paul Faulkner were described as "huge admirers" of McLeish's work at Birmingham City. Considering that Alex McLeish had just relegated Birmingham, that's a bit like saying you're a huge admirer of John Travolta's work just after seeing Battlefield Earth. As it turns out, McLeish was so quick to leave Birmingham because Lerner had offered to break the bank for him. He would later say, in private, that he took the Villa job because he couldn't turn down the money and the records seem to back that up. In the moment, we didn't know any of that. All we knew was that Alex McLeish was coming across town to manage Aston Villa. And we were terrified. And we were right.
While it may not have been quite as ugly as what lay ahead, the backlash to Alex McLeish's hiring at Aston Villa wasn't the proudest moment in the history of the club and its supporters. McLeish and the front office were besieged by death threats, protests, and a general howl of disgust from supporters and non-supporters alike. It was considered one of the most bizarre managerial appointments in the history of the Premier League, an underachieving big club stealing the architect of their hated local rival's relegation. Out of undeserved charity, it could be said that McLeish had also led Birmingham to their greatest triumph in their anemic history, beating am inept Arsenal side on the strength of a comical mix-up between two Poles (Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny) and a man that looks like a pole (mouth-breathing oaf Nikola Zigic.) Notable age cheat Obafemi Martins called it "the easiest goal I've ever scored in my career." But a trophy's a trophy, and you can't take that away from its victors, no matter how unmerited their success may be.
That trophy victory, and a thoroughly irrelevant career spent managing one of the two Scottish clubs that actually exist and a national team that pretty much doesn't, was often cited by pundits that hate nothing more than a football supporter with an opinion (for more of this, see all the victim-blaming bullshit that Blackburn fans were put through this year.) Aston Villa fans were chided by sweaty fat men that spoke about the club's lowered expectations and dulled ambition. We were admonished for "lazy tribalism" and informed that we were meant to uncritically back the bacon-faced longball merchant we'd had thrust upon us. Aston Villa were fundamentally a small club with delusions of grandeur, and cup competition was our only chance at meaningful success, unless you count anything our players won after we'd ceded them to "big clubs" like Liverpool (speaking of delusions of grandeur.) These people are easily ignored, but the seed of conventional wisdom was planted there. Alex McLeish had won something with Birmingham, but he did it with Birmingham, so any ire McLeish drew on the job with Aston Villa must be due to his past club, not his present ability. People talk about how the devil's greatest trick was convincing people he doesn't exist, but that doesn't hold a candle to Alex McLeish tricking professional journalists into thinking all of his faults actually lay within Aston Villa's supporters.
You all know how it went. There are very few stats I could list here that would surprise you. I could say that under McLeish, Aston Villa were the first club ever to concede on a majority of their set pieces, and you'd say "well, that makes sense." I could tell you that McLeish's Villa could be beaten by the Second Division Villa side from the 1930s and you'd say "granted, they've all been dead for years, but at least they're not starting Alan Hutton in midfield." We could talk about the embarrassment at White Hart Lane, where Emmanuel Adebayor had the opportunity to lock up the Golden Boot for the season in November but only converted two of his many scoring chances. I could demonstrate yet another example of McLeish laying down for a big club by mentioning December's humiliation to Manchester United in front of the fans at Villa Park. It may well have been the worst game Manchester United played all season and they still won easily, in a game best known for Emile Heskey's ludicrous attempt on goal that ended up rolling out for a United throw-in. Not only did he cower in the face of big teams, his inept management allowed Villa to throw away winnable games simply because it didn't occur to them that attacking was an option.
There were dark days this year. Aston Villa were appointment television, but the appointment was a root canal. People (including some supporters) openly wished Aston Villa would be relegated, because they didn't deserve to be in the Premier League. The club had gone from being a likeable dark horse, nipping alongside Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City at the heels of the Big Four, to a joke. Not a particularly funny joke, like Newcastle in the era of Kevin Keegan's Football Circus, but a sad joke where a man falls in a hole and someone asks you why you're not laughing at the bleak hopelessness of it all. Aston Villa beat Fulham on March 10th. They would not win any of their ten remaining games. They failed to score in almost half of their matches away from Villa Park, although the word "failed" suggests that they might have been trying. They were outscored at home for the first time since the 1985-86 season. The season after that, the club was relegated. On Aston Villa Central's manager rankings, Alex McLeish is far and away the worst manager at Villa Park in the club's history. If it wasn't for his affinity for unwatchable draws, Aston Villa would have likely been relegated. In fact, it's a minor miracle that the quality of the Premier League has winnowed to a point where there were four teams that finished beneath Alex McLeish's Aston Villa. To hear him tell it, though, he may have been the only one not to blame for this historically poor performance.
We've talked about Alex McLeish's attitude before. He has an ego two sizes larger than his managerial talent, and as a result he has a pathological inability to accept any responsibility for the failures of his clubs. When confronted by the barefaced truth of his defensive approach, he inexplicably cited his record at Hibernian, where he won less than half of his games in a competition that's vastly inferior to most beer leagues (Wikipedia credits him with developing Kenny Miller into the striker he is, which is to say a striker that hasn't really been good enough for Wolves, Derby County or Cardiff City.) He would often complain Randy Lerner wouldn't give him enough money to buy players, but then when he was given money to buy players, he spent it on terrible players like Alan Hutton or decent players that he then immediately fell out with like Charles N'Zogbia. Before he was mercifully terminated, he even threatened to buy Karl Henry, which I'm reasonably certain is a crime in most of the developed world.
If it wasn't the money's fault, or his boss's fault, it was the players' fault. McLeish would spend most of his post-match press conferences castigating his players for being inept, accusing them of laziness, questioning their commitment, and all the while claiming to sympathize with the Villa fans that hated him while he artlessly dodged their reasons for doing so. He would complain that Villa needed to be more "street wise" (whatever that means) and suggested that criticism was the irrational action of a "knee-jerk culture" that needed to "examine the facts" before they call him a defensive manager. Alan Hutton nearly ended Shane Long's career, and Alex McLeish whined that football was becoming a non-contact sport. Even in an interview before what would become his last match, he reacted angrily to suggestions that he had been a failure.
So this is it. Our waking nightmare has ended. Alex McLeish was promptly (and correctly!) fired immediately after Aston Villa's limp defeat at Carrow Road finished the season. And it's up to me to properly eulogize him.
Alex, we hardly knew you. Don't get me wrong, it's certainly more than I ever wanted to know you, but I think we all were a little taken aback that you weren't given a little more time to redeem yourself. Not because you deserve it, you emphatically do not, but because we both know that Randy's a little bit strapped for cash these days. Probably even more so now, depending on the sizeable compensation that I'm certain you received. I hope you enjoy that. It's not often that Americans pay people this much money to do so little of value, or at least when they do, the person in question usually has way nicer tits. I'm sure you'll go back into management sooner or later, since you say it's in your blood and all. There are certainly enough suckers that own football teams for you to con your way into another clubhouse. You might consider the Villa/Bluenose rivalry too tame, and consider crossing town in Glasgow. God knows Rangers couldn't afford you anymore (word of advice: keep an eye out for crossbows. You never expect them, because who the fuck owns a crossbow?) I'll remember you by the festering sense of self-loathing I felt all year for being dumb enough to support Aston Villa, and by Alan Hutton, whose mere presence on the payroll of the club I love is also festering in its own way (like a wound.) Please stay the hell away from Aston Villa forever and let's never speak of this again.