Tuesday 28 February 2017

Houllier in battle for survival on all fronts

Aston Villa's fans are losing patience, says Stuart James

At Gerard Houllier's opening press conference at Aston Villa he dismissed any suggestion there would be a problem when asked whether he would find it difficult to manage Premier League players after a six-year absence.

Three months later, amid stories of growing player unrest, Houllier was reminded of the answer he gave to that question and asked if he would still give the same response. "I don't want to answer that question," he said.

It was a reply that said everything one needed to know about the problems Houllier has experienced since returning to English football in September. Villa's options were severely restricted when Martin O'Neill announced his departure on the eve of the season but their decision to turn to the former Liverpool manager, which was met with a mixed response from Villa supporters, is beginning to look like a big mistake.

What can be said with certainty is that Houllier underestimated the size of the job he took on. He had flatly rejected the notion that this season should be written off as one of transition when he took over but after the 4-0 drubbing at Manchester City last Tuesday, he accepted Villa are in a relegation battle. They are in freefall, have lost five of their last six league games and this afternoon face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, where they lost 7-1 last season.

Never mind debating whether Houllier should have been given the job; the big question now is whether he should hold on to it. Houllier fans -- and they are becoming a rare species -- claim it is unfair to judge the Frenchman when he has been unable to bring in his own players. Yet the flipside to that argument is that, with the exception of Stephen Ireland's arrival and James Milner's departure, Houllier is working with the same squad that finished sixth in May.

So where has it all gone wrong? In Houllier's defence, he has been unfortunate with injuries and there is no evidence to suggest a harsher training regime has contributed to the number of players in the treatment room. He has also seen a couple of key players struggle for form. Gabriel Agbonlahor is still looking for his first league goal of the season, while Richard Dunne was a liability in central defence before he fell out with Houllier.

Yet it also has to be said that Houllier has contributed to his own downfall. He admitted it was a mistake to publicly castigate Ireland who, rightly or wrongly, has always been a player who benefits from an arm around the shoulder rather than a kick up the backside. Ireland has been marginalised along with John Carew and Dunne. The trio earn in excess of £150,000 a week between them but have not played a minute of football since December 6.

On Friday, Houllier said all three could be reintegrated into his plans, which is perhaps not surprising given Villa's predicament, although it might be easier said than done.

Ireland has suggested he would like to leave, Carew has so little respect for Houllier that he ranked him bottom in a list of the seven managers he has played under and Dunne made his thoughts clear during a spat on the training ground witnessed by his Villa team-mates.

Things would not be so bad if Houllier had a decent relationship with the Villa fans but he has burned rather than built bridges. He told a French newspaper on the day he arrived that Villa "belonged between seventh and 12th place in the Premier League" and his comments since have been peppered with references to Liverpool. And that was before his bizarre behaviour at Anfield last month, for which he was forced to apologise four days later.

The Villa board are standing firmly behind Houllier but there is a sense the supporters are running out of patience. Assuming Villa fail to pick up anything at Chelsea today, which seems likely given their appalling away record (played nine, won 1, drawn 1, lost seven, scored 5, against 22), the home game against Sunderland on Wednesday night will become pivotal.

Observer

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