Sport Soccer

Saturday 16 December 2017

Lerner prepares to roll the dice with Houllier

American owner banking on two-tier system at Villa Park, writes Alan Smith

ASTON VILLA, it seems, are about to take the plunge by bringing in Gerard Houllier to fill the huge void left by Martin O'Neill's hasty departure. If true, it's an awfully big call by Randy Lerner, Villa's American owner.

Out of work for three years with a history of health problems, Houllier's appointment would represent a gamble at a time when Villa's standing in the Premier League (they finished sixth last term) is being strongly challenged by a number of clubs.

Nevertheless, something had to be done sooner rather than later. The demands of this league are taxing enough without drifting along in a state of limbo. Unhelpfully, the available options were pretty limited. Villa fans, in fairness, wouldn't have got excited on hearing that Sven-Goran Eriksson and Alan Curbishley were up for interview.

Faced with this choice, Lerner had to decide how to take his club forward.

Go with the same kind of dictatorial leader who had a firm hand on all football matters or dilute that power by sharing the responsibilities between a coach and director of football.

Ah yes, that ill-fated role, the one that, in England at least, seems to divide more than unite. The one that, more often than not, ends up undermining the manager rather than helping him. Just look at Chelsea, where someone as talented as Jose Mourinho succumbed to the situation while manager there.

With Avram Grant forever hovering in the background as a close confidant of Roman Abramovich, Mourinho's position grew ever weaker. It only took a run of nondescript performances for Abramovich to somehow conclude that Grant represented the better bet.

By the sound of it, a similar structure has been chosen for Villa Park, with Houllier set to be installed as the wise old head; someone, in theory, to take the weight off the inexperienced shoulders of Kevin MacDonald, the former reserve team manager who's been holding the fort with varying degrees of success.

As an old Leicester team-mate of Kevin's in the 1980s, I know he isn't the sort to seek the limelight. He was the same as a player, content to do his job in central midfield through an understated but very skilful pass-and-move game.

Now, along with his old mate Steve Staunton, MacDonald looks set to stay on the training ground and stick to what he likes doing best -- coaching.

Houllier, meanwhile, can play the higher profile role -- talk to the press, liaise with the board, generally act as the figurehead.

Sounds all right in theory, doesn't it? Lerner obviously thinks so or he wouldn't have gone this way. Yet the pitfalls are many and potentially destructive.

Who picks the team for instance? If MacDonald is doing all the coaching he's in the best position to decide who's on form and therefore who should play. Who decides on formation and style of play? Again, MacDonald would be favourite to sort that out. The problems come when Villa lose a few games and Houllier is asked to publicly explain what's going wrong.

That's when it gets awkward, for there's no guarantee that the 63-year-old Frenchman shares the same ethos with his younger colleague. Houllier's idea of the best way forward might not square with MacDonald's. The two, after all, didn't know each other beforehand.

Who's to say they will click? And when tensions grow, the temptation is for a director of football to give his own ideas to the board on how things should proceed, which inevitably undermines the bloke on the ground who starts to wonder what's being said behind his back. Consequently, he starts to feel threatened, fearful of the sack, as the dressing-room atmosphere takes a nosedive.

That's the worst-case scenario. The more beneficial one would involve Villa thriving under MacDonald's astute coaching as Houllier sagely advises from a diplomatic distance.

Until January, the management will have to work with what they've got, having been arguably weakened by James Milner's departure. And that's another thing: deciding on transfer targets becomes more complicated when a director of football is involved.

The future looks uncertain just off Spaghetti Junction. O'Neill's rash exit guaranteed that. And Lerner has been forced to pick from a limited pool.


Sunday Independent

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