A pre season, unquestionably overshadowed by an ongoing transfer saga of last season’s best player and a managerial departure doesn’t look good on paper just days before the start of a season. Despite this Villa fans should still be upbeat about the campaign ahead hoping for a bright future under a new regime.
Martin O’Neill is undoubtedly a quality manager and the fact that he is favourite for to be next in line for both the England and Manchester United jobs says a great deal about the man. The Ulsterman was a popular figure at the club and the timing in particular will be a blow to the side but there are Villa fans who would say “thanks very much and good luck to you”. O’Neill took a struggling Villa side under new ownership and led the club to the brink of the Champions League as well as two visits to Wembley last term, the first of which should have seen Villa lift the Carling Cup.
Signs of unrest did start to show during the obligatory end of season blip with the manager hitting out at boo-boys following the 7-1 crushing at the hands of Chelsea. Many of the Villa faithful also believed that the manager was stuck in his ways, rarely rotating the side, even during games, leading to an inevitable burn out of the first XI. His transfer policy was also criticised. He left deals till late in the window and seemed reluctant to spend on foreign talent often meaning an inflation of prices on the British signings. The signings he did make were largely successful with the likes of Milner, Young, Carew, Friedel and Dunne, but the near £140m he spent during his four years could have perhaps seen more quality at the club in the eyes of many Villains. He has left a massive club to the next manager with excellent facilities, a quality squad and an excellent youth setup.
Milner leaving will be a problem but one that the club could immediately fix with a player the quality of Stephen Ireland. Let’s not forget that two seasons ago Ireland was arguably City’s best player and at 23 he has his best years ahead of him. He brings the creativity and flair that the club have been lacking in an attacking midfielder since the likes of Merson. With emerging talent also coming through and some high quality fringe players the Villa fans should still have plenty to cheer come May.
Talk of changing room unrest at the club during O’Neill’s time was mainly between the so called squad players as the Irishman did appear to have obvious favourites within the club and has done wherever he’s been. Players such as Nigel Reo-Coker, Curtis Davies, Steve Sidwell and Luke Young were constantly overlooked during the last campaign despite the latter, debatably being Villa’s best player the previous season.
Players like Davies, previously touted as an England starting centre half in the making and linked with the top 4 whilst at the Baggies, will now have the chance to come back into the reckoning. Davies intimated the first signs of relief at O’Neill’s departure stating “As long as someone who comes is fair, I am sure people will be happy. I felt I didn’t have a chance“. If Villa can persuade the likes of Ashley Young not to follow Milner out the door then with players of this quality back in contention Villa be there or there about this season.
Villa’s up and down friendly performances this summer were no doubt lifted with extremely promising performances from a variety of youngsters. Villa’s youth and reserve sides have always fared well in their respective leagues with the stars of these sides starting to come through into the first team. The likes of Ciaran Clark, Shane Lowry, Nathan Baker, Eric Lichaj, Barry Bannan, Andreas Weimann, Fabian Delph and Nathan Delfouneso indicate a bright future for Villa but in the pre season there has been one star man. Not Young, not Carew, not Dunne but 20 year old winger Marc Albrighton
The local lad capped a magnificent pre season with a spectacular goal in the 3-1 victory over Feyenoord. The prospect has made the likes of Downing and Young very aware of his presence and after receiving his first U21 cap on Tuesday, will be looking to push for a starting berth. Albrighton appears to have it all with a good engine, fantastic skill and a wicked delivery which should put him in line for a start in the season opener against West Ham on Saturday.
If the Villains have a weakness it would be that they have failed to have a 20 goal a season man since Dwight Yorke. John Carew is a handful and seems to score when in favour over Heskey although a season best of 13 isn’t clinical enough to push the side into the top 4. The blistering pace of Gabby Agbonlahor is a fantastic asset but the 23 year old has only managed the same figure in his top season last year. The emergence of Nathan Delfouneso, who looks a great talent, is exciting the Villa faithful, although at just 19 he may be a year or two off a starting place.
With players like Robbie Keane and Craig Bellamy seemingly available, the interests of Villa should be aroused with the club being linked in the past with the pair. The creative midfielder issue should be filled by the potential arrival of Stephen Ireland which may be all Villa need. The defensive record last year was superb, but for a glitch against Chelsea, and the two American goalkeepers should see Villa have a successful campaign.
Conclusions and Predictions
Securing a worthy replacement to Martin O’Neill is a must. Many of the names linked with the club are not exactly appealing to the majority with question marks over the credentials of Bob Bradley and Gareth Southgate and question marks over everything regarding Sven Goran-Eriksson. A more adept man for the job could be current Ajax boss Martin Jol or former Tottenham favourite Jurgen Klinsmann.
After three successive league finishes of 6th it could be a similar story for the Midlands club. Many are touting Villa to finish outside the top half but these are the many that are forgetting that one man, in James Milner, does not make a team.
With Man City and Tottenham progressing and Liverpool unlikely to fail as miserably as last term it could be tricky to hang on to their renowned 6th spot this season. Not to mention the likelihood that Everton will improve on their last season’s exploits since the return of talisman Mikel Arteta a standing of 7th or 8th is likely. European football will once more be the priority and should be attainable with a finish as high as 5th a definite possibility for Aston Villa.
Potential Aston Villa Best XI (4-2-3-1): Friedel; Cuellar, Dunne, Davies, Warnock; Petrov, Reo-Coker; Agbonlahor, Ireland, Young; Carew
Aston Villa Reserve XI (4-4-2): Guzan; Beye, Collins, Clark, L Young; Albrighton, Sidwell, Delph, Downing; Heskey, Delfouneso