Houllier chewing on task of bringing Villa's hunger back
IF Gerard Houllier wanted to send a message to Aston Villa fans, and his new Premier League rivals, that he is still in touch with the realities of English football after his six-year absence, he did not get off to the most convincing start.
Yesterday he suggested that he was anticipating a crowd in the region of 30,000 to witness his transition from technical director with the French Football Federation to the main man in the technical area at Villa Park. For a Carling Cup third-round tie against Blackburn, about half that number would be a closer estimate.
Houllier may also have misjudged the amount of work he has to do to convince sceptical Villa followers that he can succeed where Martin O'Neill gave up so suddenly just five days before the start of the season. And failure tonight would lend itself to some uncomfortably neat comparisons: O'Neill's side defeated Rovers in the semi-finals last season, before stumbling at Wembley against Manchester United.
It is now 14 years without a trophy at Villa Park, and Houllier admitted yesterday he can already feel the "pressure on my shoulders". As he gets older he admits it takes longer to "recover from the disappointment of defeat".
So why do it? Why return to management three years after he left Lyon and put himself through it once again? At the age of 63, and with a history of cardiac problems that took their toll during his time at Liverpool, the Premier League is an unforgiving place.
But Houllier was keen to set out his own logic behind his acceptance of the challenge: he cannot "live without the passion of football" on a daily basis, making the offer from Villa owner Randy Lerner difficult to resist, especially when they have finished sixth in the Premier League in the last three seasons and O'Neill has bequeathed such a "good squad".
But despite that inheritance, Houllier knows James Milner's departure to Manchester City in the summer is a major loss, and he has other significant issues to address in a squad that is still recovering from the fallout of O'Neill's departure on August 9.
He is "happy" to work with a strong British element in his side and has no immediate plans to flood Villa's training ground with French acquisitions.
"We have some good young players," he said, adding that several will be given an opportunity this evening. He has little choice: he will be aware that his first-choice match-day XI cannot survive unchanged or without injury all season, and Houllier admits he has "never seen" some players, such as back-up goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who played almost the whole of the Carling Cup campaign last season.
Of course, buying new players will not be an option until January. Finding a method to get more out of those he has will be a challenge. Stephen Ireland is a case in point: the £8m signing from Manchester City has said he expects it will take him until December before he can replicate his best form at City. December is a long way off.
Houllier will also be hoping to revive the flagging career of Emile Heskey, a player he signed while at Liverpool, but even if that is a success, he needs goals, hence the interest in a reunion with Michael Owen, which seems unlikely.
At the back, Houllier does not have too many problems in terms of personnel, but there is a perception that his style is too defensive. He he will not be tied to systems, unlike O'Neill who stuck rigidly to 4-4-2 and was accused of lacking flair.
"There are some coaches who stick to a formation and put players into that. Others utilise the players they have and find a system that suits them. That is what I will do," Houllier said. You can almost hear the sighs of relief from Villa fans, tired of watching four seasons of O'Neill never having a Plan B.
Perhaps lack of tangible success for three years under O'Neill was a mental rather than physical issue. The Frenchman will have ruffled the feathers of his predecessor with an assertion that players are in a "comfort zone" at a club that "has a reputation for being nice".
Houllier wants to see a change of attitude. He has elevated Gordon Cowans from the academy into the first-team coaching set-up, alongside new assistant Gary McAllister. "Gary would want to win every five-a-side he plays in. We have to have the biting teeth needed to win things," Houllier said.
It would be churlish to suggest Lerner has not shown ambition. His bill since buying Villa four seasons ago is £200m -- and rising. But Houllier spent more than that during his time at Anfield and failed to win the Premier League. There is a sense that in accepting the challenge of realising Lerner's dream of taking Villa to the Champions League, Houllier may have bitten off more than he can chew. (© Independent News Service)