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Exclusive: Stephen Warnock reflects on the McLeish years, Petrov’s illness & the ‘Bomb Squad’ days

In the second part of our exclusive sit-down with Stephen Warnock, the former Villa reflects on his hardest days as an Aston Villa player

Aston Villa v Philadelphia Union Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Earlier this week, 7500 to Holte sat down with Stephen Warnock to discuss his time at Aston Villa. In the second part of his extended interview, the former left-back opened up about life during Alex McLeish’s regime, dealing with Stiliyan Petrov’s illness, being bombed out by Paul Lambert and much more…

Click here for part one


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”I knew it was always going to be a tough ask for Alex [McLeish] coming across from Birmingham. It was a strange appointment in a way because no one thought that would ever happen - it was a brave appointment. But when he came in he said it was a clean slate for everyone. He told me ‘I know what you can do, you’re an international player who has been sat in the reserve team. You need to be playing football’. That was great to hear from my point of view. He asked if I’d moved the family down and I said I was waiting to see what his plans were, whether I was leaving the club or staying. He told me I was staying, so I moved the family. I enjoyed the season playing under Alex, I was just happy to be back playing again and to be back in involved in the team.”

McLeish’s Management

“He and his coaching staff were good guys. They meant well, they looked after you and treated you well. It was difficult, not only for him, but for the players as well, because there was a sense from the fans of ‘he’s a Blue’. Villa fans just didn’t take to him and there was that feeling of ‘he’s not one of ours’. You could sense that every time you stepped onto the pitch and it was hard to deal with. It’s strange the atmosphere that gets created when that happens, because you can almost sense it. It was a tough year for everyone.”

Fire sale

“When you lose players like Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, you’re going to suffer. We lost assists straight away from Stewart and Ashley and they were a danger every time we went forward. They were so hard to play against. So when we lost those two, we lost pace within the team, we lost ball carriers and we lost experience. I think we all knew it was going to be a tough season - how tough, we weren’t too sure. But, yeah, it did change quite a lot and it did change quite quickly, but I never felt we’d go down. I know we were in a bit of a scrap towards the end, but we ended up staying up quite easily. We always felt we had more than enough in the changing room.”

Petrov’s Illness

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“It was really tough on the squad. We were trying to fight relegation and having a tough time, and it did hit us hard. Lads were realising that football wasn’t the be all and end all. We weren’t approaching games in the right manner and we were more worried about Stiliyan. We were all in contact with his family and worrying about them as well. On top of losing players, we also had that situation which was very hard on the squad as well.”

“I remember getting the phone call from the doctor just to tell us what had happened. We’d played Arsenal and he said at half-time that he was struggling and that wasn’t like Stiliyan. Someone turned round and asked if he was ok and he said ‘I don’t feel well’. We told him to just try and get through it and he said and he kept saying he really didn’t feel well. The manager went to take him off and I think he got the hump a bit and decided to stay on. After the match he was sitting with the doctor and just kept saying he really didn’t feel well. The doctor did his bloods and I think he started to worry then and I think he realised there was something serious. A few days later you get the phone call saying he’s got Leukaemia and what do you do? I had Randy Lerner calling me all the time saying how we needed to stay in the league, and how we needed to do it for Stiliyan and to keep on at the player and to keep the camaraderie going. Every time there was something coming up, Randy would call me and say how appreciative he was and I felt like I’d built up a relationship with Randy and the players.”

“Then, suddenly, Paul Lambert gets the job and you’re out of the door.”

Paul Lambert

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“I was on holiday in the summer and I got a phone call to say Paul was looking to reinvest in the squad and he didn’t see me as part of the plans. I thought ‘I’m going to come back and show you that I’m good enough to be here’. I came back in pre-season as probably one of the fittest players, to prove a point and I ran everyone into the ground, as much as I could. I got on the tour to America and did well. We came back and we played Nottingham Forest away and I didn’t have a great game, but not a terrible one. I came in the next day and he pulled me into the office and just said: ‘That’s you done. You’ll be with the reserves now, I want to concentrate on my first team’. He’d played me in nearly every single game in pre-season, but then he brought in Joe Bennett from Middlesbrough and that was that.”

“I didn’t get a look in again and he didn’t give me a reason, he didn’t tell me why. They had a tough time and I tried to go in and speak to him and told him I wanted to stay with the team, but he just told me I wasn’t a part of it; I felt it was very strange. I saw Randy in America during the tour and I’d had all these conversations with him during the previous season and he’d told me I was getting a new contract. I saw him in America and he completely blanked me. It was just a situation where I thought ‘how did it end like this?’, but it was out of my hands.”

The Bomb Squad

“There were quite a few of us and I think the only one who won his place back was [Alan] Hutton, and the reason he did was because he had a longer contract. He had time on his hands and I always felt if I had time on my hands I’d have forced my back in somehow. But Hutts, credit to him, because he stuck it through and got his place back. He went out on loan and did really well and then came back and started playing. But I was just annoyed how it had gone. I’d had such an up-and-down career at Villa and it’s not the way you want it to go. Ideally, you want it to go plane sailing, but that’s football.”

Looking back at Villa

“I look back on the year with Martin O’Neill and the year with Alex McLeish fondly, I enjoyed those years. But the two either side, the one with Gerard Houllier and the brief period with Lambert, that was probably one of my toughest times. The Houllier one was also tough because, at the time, I was playing for England, I’d just come back from the World Cup and was still in squads, and it just completely halted me. The other thing it did - when you’ve fallen out of a squad with Houllier and then you get back in under McLeish, only to get bombed out again by Lambert, people start to look at you and think ‘what’s the problem?’. So clubs don’t want to look at you and think there might be an issue with the player. It was never that, I never caused problems in a training room. I’d like to think people who played with me thought of me as a real professional. That’s just the way it is and I do think it hampered my career later on.”

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