Three played, one point earned. It certainly hasn’t been Steve Bruce’s best start to a season, and given the quality he has in this Aston Villa squad, the football on display has been shocking for the last five Championship halves. He’s managing for his job right now, and he knows it. Bruce might not have two months in him, let alone one, if things continue down this path.
I’ve seen people argue Bruce should stay because there aren’t any good candidates for the gig — and that simply isn’t true. So the next time you get asked, “Who’d you want in?,” well, I’ve created a neat handy reference for you.
Some of these names are serious, others are me having a bit of a laugh, but all 24 are at least somewhat plausible candidates to take over the Villa gig right now. (And, if Sheffield Wednesday sack Carlos Carvalhal, add a 25th name.) One rule, though: no Premier League managers here. Well, except one man who cares a whole lot about Aston Villa Football Club.
Oh, before you ask, my targets? Paul Heckingbottom, Slaviša Jokanović and Dean Smith. If none of them want to leave their current gigs, I’d inquire about Markus Weinzierl and Dirk Schuster before “settling” for Aitor Karanka.
Let’s get going.
Section 1: The easy, realistic, available candidates
We start with guys who are available, have recently managed in the English game, and are the perfect profile to take over at Villa.
Aitor Karanka (unattached)
If we’re being honest, Karanka would be an appointment in the same vein that Bruce was — a “proven” manager with “Championship experience” and a promotion to his name. And, if we’re being honest, he wouldn’t necessarily be an exciting opponent — he was sacked at Middlesbrough last year after his team scored just 19 goals in their first 27 league matches.
But Karanka’s Championship record is pretty superb — he’s won 52.3 per cent of matches in the division, and in his two full seasons, Boro finished fourth (play-off finalist) and second.
Given he’s a free agent, Karanka could be the early favourite for the job if Bruce goes.
Alan Pardew (unattached)
When Pardew’s name came up in conversation in our site Slack chat, I had a quick reaction: “Pards is an enigma.”
I’m constantly torn between thinking Pardew is an actually good manager or if he’s the sack of trash many make him out to be. Sometimes, he looks great (like when he took Newcastle United to the brink of the Champions League) and others he looks horrible (like when he took Newcastle United to the brink of relegation a season later).
Hey, he does have Championship promotion experience: 2004/05 with West Ham United. He was also sacked 18 matches into the 2008/09 season with Charlton United. The Addicks were relegated that year.
David Moyes (unattached)
For a number of years, especially right after he left Manchester United, Moyes was floated as a “dream” manager for Villa — and for good measure, his work at Everton was great.
That talk has quieted a bit, though, after Moyes’ Sunderland went down disastrously last year, with just 24 points over the whole Premier League season. If Moyes wants back into management, though, he could do worse than the Villa gig.
Nigel Pearson (unattached)
Pearson is a Championship manager through and through, and that’s why I think so many Villa fans clamoured for him after the club went down. He ended up at Derby County instead, and his appointment there went about as well as Roberto Di Matteo’s did here — six points, nine matches, then sacked.
But Pearson did architect one of the best seasons this level’s ever seen when his Leicester City side romped the division with 102 points in the 2013/14 season, and that’s the type of pace Villa aren’t far from needing to achieve automatic promotion.
Sam Allardyce (unattached/retired?)
If we’re to believe “Big Sam,” he’s a non-starter — but we’ll keep him here anyway in case he is, because he’d be a likely fit.
But if he would do a U-turn and decide he’s interested in a club job after all, he’s another available candidate who’s won promotion from the Championship, going up via the playoff with West Ham United in 2012. Allardyce’s record has always been solid (he’s never been relegated from the Premier League, either), but it’s not worth investing too much thought in his stock as long as he’s not interested in another club job.
Section 2: Inspired, long-term, attractive options
With promotion such a huge key for this year, a long-term build probably isn’t what the board are looking for if they sack Bruce. That doesn’t, however, mean Villa shouldn’t look toward a promising young manager with an aim toward a long-term arrangement — Sean Dyche and Eddie Howe are your templates here. Most of these guys are already in jobs, many of them in this division, which could pose a challenge, especially so early.
But this is the group of targets I think Villa should go after in some capacity — be it straightaway, or once the promotion push is failed and a more proper rebuild is necessary.
Slaviša Jokanović (Fulham)
Jokanović’s record in this division shouldn’t need to be disputed. He took Watford up in 2015, and since has turned Fulham into a promotion contender, playing the most attractive football in the division.
In truth, he could’ve just as easily been in the first section, too, as his clashes with the Fulham board over transfer deals could help pry him away from Craven Cottage.
Paul Heckingbottom (Barnsley)
I’d take Heckingbottom in an instant, because he ticks so many boxes. He’s young, knows how to get the best out of Conor Hourihane, and plays attacking football; only six Championship sides scored more often than Barnsley last season. He’s also been damn impressive with the Tykes — he arrived in February 2016, taking over a mid-table side, and ran them all the way to promotion via the play-off, then survived comfortably in last season’s Championship.
Heckingbottom with Villa’s talent would be a joy to watch. Certainly not the dire dross we’ve seen so often from Bruce.
Lee Johnson (Bristol City)
*copy and pastes Heckingbottom description*
It isn’t hard to see why Barnsley replaced Johnson with Heckingbottom when the former moved to Bristol City in 2016. Johnson is young (36 years old), and his Bristol City teams have done well while playing attacking football — they’ve already scored six times this year.
Six goals in three games? When’s the last time that happened at Villa?
Dean Smith (Brentford)
In just under two seasons at Brentford, Smith has posted a pair of upper mid-table finishes, placing ninth and 10th. He did well up the road from Villa at Walsall before he left, too, taking the Saddlers from relegation fodder to early promotion candidates, before leaving prior to the halfway point of the 2015/16 campaign. Brentford are a club that do their work with the data, too, so you know I’m a big fan of that.
He also knows how to get the most out of Scott Hogan. That shouldn’t be written off as insignificant.
And he grew up a Villan. Our perfect candidate?
Graham Alexander (Scunthorpe United)
Again, we have a building trend: Alexander is 45 and has been incredibly successful playing attacking football at his current gig. He took over at Scunthorpe near the end of the 2015/16 season, leading the Iron to a 7-1-1 finish (including six wins from the final six matches) as they just missed out on a play-off spot to Heckingbottom’s Barnsley on goal differential.
Section 3: Other current Championship managers
Other good options for the club that are managing in our division — whether or not any of them are worth the compensation is another topic, though.
Mark Warburton (Nottingham Forest)
Imagine being the dude to win promotion to the Championship with Brentford, then make the play-offs in your first season up and get sacked. That was Warburton’s life when he didn’t go along with the board’s plans to move to a numbers-based management style — and he would’ve been sacked even if he got the Bees to the Premier League via the play-off.
Since, he’s had success at Rangers, before joining Forest and helping them stay up last year.
Mick McCarthy (Ipswich Town)
McCarthy isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, but it’s hard to argue he isn’t a manager with that Championship pedigree. He finished third with Sunderland, then went up as champions, in 2003/04 and 2004/05; finished fifth, seventh and first with Wolves from 2006 through 2009; and has generally had solid success at Ipswich Town.
Things are clicking for the Tractor Boys this early, though, with three wins from three. Would he go?
Phil Parkinson (Bolton Wanderers)
Remember Phil Parkinson? The dude who gave Paul Lambert the crowning failure of his Aston Villa career?
Parkinson got the big headlines for taking Bradford City to the League Cup final in 2013, but what was more impressive was how he built the Bantams from a bottom-half side in League Two to a play-off team in League One by the end of 2016. He then moved to Bolton, where he won promotion with the Trotters at the first ask.
Section 4: Looking abroad for inspiration
To this point, all the options have been English-based managers. What if Villa choose to look beyond home for the next head man?
Ole Gunnar Solskjær (Molde)
Want to talk about a man most people — including me — wanted in the Villa job a couple years ago? Solskjær built up a reputation in his native Norway, winning the Eliteserien (then the Tippeligaen) with Molde in 2011 and 2012, his first two years on the job. But his move to Cardiff City didn’t go so hot, and he couldn’t keep the Welsh side in the Premier League after being appointed midseason.
He’s back at Molde now, and while he isn’t winning the league, Molde sit fourth, just three points off second.
Derek McInnes (Aberdeen)
A good shout from Elis pointed me to the Scottish Premiership, and McInnes is certainly an intriguing candidate. He didn’t have great success in the Championship with Bristol City a few years back, but since, he’s led the Dons to three consecutive Scottish “Not Celtic” championships, a consistent accomplishment in itself. It’d be interesting to see what he’d do with the Claret and Blues.
Markus Weinzierl (unattached)
Weinzierl was very successful at Jahn Regensburg, where he won promotion from Germany’s 3. Liga to the 2. Bundesliga, and even more successful at Augsburg, where he took the Bavarian side into Europe via a fifth-place finish in 2014/15. That success landed him the Schalke job, where — like a recent Villa manager — he failed, steering the team to a 10th-place finish that put him out of a job.
At just 42 years old, though, Weinzierl would have the possibility to be a long-term appointment.
Dirk Schuster (unattached)
If manager searches had “if you liked…” sections, Schuster might be in Weinzierl’s. Like Weinzierl, Schuster got caught out by a move to a bigger club this season that didn’t go as planned, as he was sacked after just 14 points in 14 matches at Augsburg.
Schuster’s proven success, however, comes at Darmstadt, where he steered them away from relegation from the 3. Liga, won promotion to the 2. Bundesliga, won promotion to the Bundesliga, then stayed in the top flight in his three-and-a-half seasons at the helm. At 46, he’d also be a long-term try.
Claude Puel (unattached)
Puel’s a bit of a stretch, and his last stint was in England, but perhaps it’s still worthwhile to submit an inquiry. He finished eighth in his début season in English football with Southampton, but was sacked after earning just 46 points. A Ligue 1-winning manager, he’s never managed outside a top flight at any level — at 55, would he really be looking to move for the Villa job?
Section 5: It’s not going to happen / let’s #bantz the hell up
Let’s have a bit of fun here. A couple serious options, a few jokes, but none of these guys are likely to be considered for the post if it opens.
Olof Mellberg (Brommapojkarna)
Do I think Mellberg is ready for the Villa job today? No. Do I think he will be some day? Yes.
Mellberg took over BP last season in the third tier, and steered the recently relegated club to a bounce-back campaign, losing just once in Mellberg’s 22 matches and winning promotion as champions. What’s more impressive, however, is what he’s done this year — Bromma are 14-2-3, top of the Superettan table with 11 matchdays to go. With a 12-point gap to third place, it seems likely Mellberg will achieve double promotion to the Allsvenskan.
There’s a big difference between Sweden’s second tier and England’s, but keep an eye on this Villa hero as time goes on.
Paul Lambert (unattached)
If you’d have told us a couple years ago that we’d be pining for the days of the Lambert era, well…
I don’t think this makes much sense, but in truth, he’s probably one of the better available names out there. The football Lambert played at Norwich City, and early in his tenure at Villa, was actually pretty good — and he was constantly undermined here by being forced to play with a squad that was truly below Premier League standard. He did a bang average job at Wolves last year; could he do any better with the squad we have now?
Still, most Villa fans wouldn’t be behind him on day one. That’s not a good situation.
Tony Pulis (West Bromwich Albion)
I’m pretty sure Tony’s watched more Villa since he took the WBA job than I have. Genuine. He’s clearly interested in our club.
Phil Neville (unattached)
Villa reportedly approached Neville about joining the backroom staff when Bruce was appointed last October, but turned down the offer because his goal was to be the No. 1 man. If Bruce goes, Villa could offer him that. It seems unlikely — and I’m not sure a man without head managing experience is what Villa should be after here — but it’s certainly plausible.
Mark Sampson (England women)
In truth, I don’t want this to happen, because I think Sampson is doing great things for women’s football in England; him staying in the Lionesses gig long-term is good for the sport and good for the English women as they prepare for a World Cup in two years.
That said, it will be interesting to see if Sampson ever returns to the men’s game. If he wants to, I think the club that take a chance on him will reap huge rewards. Yes, there are differences between the men’s and women’s games. But a truly good tactician should be successful at either one.
Tim Sherwood (Swindon Town, DoF)
Alright, I had to. It’s 90 per cent banter, but 10 per cent serious.
Tim’s greatest assets were (1) his motivation skills and (2) penchant for attacking football, and both would be nice changes of pace at Bodymoor Heath. His lasting legacy on the club, however, was a poor recruitment window in summer 2015.
Good thing we wouldn’t have any money for him to spend!