Is the Villa job a poisoned chalice?

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Depending on which way you look at things, Roberto Di Matteo is in a decent position right now. On one hand, you may think that he has an unenviable task trying to sort out a once great football club and it’s squad of unruly and ill-disciplined individuals. Make no mistake: this is certainly true. However, to combat this, the Italian should have a significant transfer kitty given our current standing and he will hopefully make good use of it. 

There may be a more significant factor which makes this a particular cushy job right now. That is simply that his predecessors have set the bar for him at an extremely low level, especially in recent times. In many ways, he is already winning.

It has been a long time since Aston Villa Football Club had a truly successful manager. In my lifetime, there are very few occasions when managers at Villa have succeeded to such an extent that they have become sought after by other clubs. In fact, the job seems something of a poisoned chalice and, in most cases, the stock of our managers falls considerably. Very rarely do they go on to bigger and better things. Quite often, obscurity beckons. 

Graham Taylor is perhaps the most obvious example of a manager who went on to a bigger role, when the FA chiefs were suitably impressed with his guidance of the club from the old second division to the eventual runners up spot in the top flight and approached him to take over as England manager. As we know, England struggled to qualify for Euro 92, had a disappointing campaign in Sweden and ultimately failed to qualify for USA 94. The turnip was born. A promising career was effectively over, with stints at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Watford and then an out-of-retirement reunion with Villa rounding things up. Taylor was perhaps the last example of moving on to something bigger and better, even if he ruined his chance.

Dr Josef Venglos was said to be ahead of his time and, as the first non-British top flight manager, his appointment was a progressive move by the club. His methods were not taken on board and with the club finishing just two places above the drop zone, Dr Joe was gone. Managerial honours were not forthcoming in his career, although his profile kept him in decent work, with Fenerbache and Celtic amongst his latter employers.

Other managers have achieved relative glory at the club, however, with Ron Atkinson and Brian Little racking up a League Cup apiece. Nevertheless, it can be argued that Aston Villa was effectively Atkinson’s last hurrah and he would wind down his management with short stays at Coventry, a return to Sheffield Wednesday and a disastrous reign of Nottingham Forest.  His glory was behind him with two FA Cup wins at Manchester United.

Little is a particularly curious case in point. Following a promising managerial start with Darlington and Leicester City, the Villa Park hero eventually returned home. Atkinson’s legacy was an ageing squad and, after steering clear of the very real threat of relegation, Little oversaw a summer of rebuilding which saw the likes of Gareth Southgate, Mark Draper and Savo Milosevic signed, whilst existing talent such as Mark Bosnich and Dwight Yorke were given regular first team football. Little’s first season was our most successful for years and remains unprecedented to this day, certainly in terms of silverware as it was our last taste of a Wembley final victory. Add to this a FA Cup semi-final and, more importantly perhaps, a fourth placed Premier League finish, which would soon have become enough to give the club a taste of Champions League football. A further fifth placed finish followed before the love affair ended. After such a bright beginning, Little would never reach these heights within management again and strangely moved further down the football pyramid with each appointment – spells came at Stoke, then in what is now League One, West Bromwich Albion, Hull City, even further adrift in what is now League Two, and stints at Tranmere, Wrexham and Gainsborough Trinity, a Conference North side where he would end up being sacked. After such success with Villa, it seems baffling to me that his managerial career spiralled downwards in such a spectacular manner when he had once seemed primed for great things. 

John Gregory is a similar example and he picked up Little’s reins. Overseeing a brilliantly bright start that saw the club top the league at the beginning of 1998, Gregory possessed a likeable but no nonsense approach. His pursuit of wanting to push the club onwards meant that Doug Ellis opened his wallet like never before. That ultimately proved his downfall too; fallings out were just around the corner. The potential to be a very good manager was there, with some even likening his manner to the great Brian Clough. Yet, in similar fashion to Little, Gregory worked his way downwards instead of upwards, taking up lower division management roles at Derby County (a club that was actually in the Premier League at the time he took over but which was relegated under Gregory) and Queen’s Park Rangers, before time in Israel and Kazakhstan, all of which would involve relegation scraps.

It strikes me as very odd that both Little and Gregory’s relative success at Villa didn’t propel them to at least regular Premier League posts. Little in particular had garnered some interest from the FA as a potential replacement for Terry Venables and England after Euro 96.

David O’Leary is another who has fallen completely away from management. Despite a capable sixth placed finish in his first season, the fans never took to the Irishman, largely due to an inability to stop talking about his love for previous club Leeds United plus a penchant for blaming others and making excuses. Successive seasons had seen the club fall to tenth and sixteenth place finishes and O’Leary would be out of work for four years until a spell with United Arab Emirates outfit Al Ahli. In this particular instance, O’Leary’s fall from grace is more understandable, as, putting it politely, various reports can be found to underline the fact that his personality just did not lend itself to management.

Martin O’Neill is our most recent manager who could claim to have had a successful tenure at the club. However, his time at Villa Park is also laden with the burden of an overpaid squad of players that crippled us financially for the rest of Randy Lerner’s time in charge. Three consecutive sixth placed finishes seem an absolute world away now but silverware was not becoming. After throwing his toys out of the pram and abandoning the club just days before the start of the 2010 season, it can be said that even O’Neill has not progressed to the higher profile positions that were expected of him. Whereas once upon a time he was seen as natural successor to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, a sacking from Sunderland saw O’Neill in a position that was unfamiliar – his stock had dropped. An international position with the Republic of Ireland which has just seen a relatively successful Euro 2016 campaign has perhaps seen his profile rise to an extent. Should he become available for club work, I would imagine a Premier League club of middling proportions would be interested. However, the dreams of managing at Old Trafford and the like are a distant memory.

The following six years have perhaps seen the Aston Villa hotseat turn from one of the most prestigious jobs in English football into one of the biggest challenges in English football. It is the era that gives Di Matteo the platform to be a real fan favourite before a ball is even kicked.

Gerard Houllier was under fire before resigning due to ill health and from that time managers have come and gone with alarming regularity. Alex McLeish was an appointment that nobody wanted and he has gone on to limp around various different clubs, including a forty day stay at Nottingham Forest, time in Belgium with Genk and then facing the sack at Egyptian club Zamalek after just ten games in charge.

Things started off better with Paul Lambert but quickly went south, with the dour Scotsman looking more and more broken with every passing defeat. Aston Villa was seen by many as a stepping stone on a career which had seen progression through the divisions at Colchester and Norwich City. Yet the curse struck again and Lambert regressed to the Championship for his only job since – an equally dour reign of Blackburn Rovers, a position from which he has since resigned.

The world is waiting to see what becomes of the enigmatic Tim Sherwood and nobody is sure whether he is astute enough to make it as a manager. It can’t be denied that in his short spell as manager Sherwood gave us some fantastic memories. Nonetheless, he failed in the role – a culmination of eight straight defeats in the first ten games of last season being the final straw. It is unlikely that another Premier League club will give him a chance to work on his management skills and so a drop down the divisions beckons should he be willing, which also seems unlikely.

Finally, we have Rémi Garde . Never has a man been wrecked by a job so quickly. I do feel he was treated unfairly, as the chance to even make a January signing was pulled from beneath him. The fact remains, however, that the job has made him look out of his depth and clubs will see his 13% win ratio and certainly think twice before hiring him. He may land a position back in Ligue 1 but his reputation has undoubtedly been tarnished.

That brings us back to the present day. Di Matteo has, sadly, mostly a trail of failure to follow. As we’ve seen, since Graham Taylor’s first reign, no manager at the club has really moved on to greater success, certainly not in club management. The worry is that whereas previously the Aston Villa job often represented the pinnacle of a manager’s career, for Di Matteo, he may already be on the path of decline, with Chelsea and that Champions League victory being his personal peak. At the moment, we have to realise our place and hope that Di Matteo hasn’t already burned his bright light at the very top of the footballing pyramid.

The last thirty or so years have shown us that the job often beats the man, ruins his reputation and sees him wind up in lesser jobs. At present, we are lower on the rung than Di Matteo’s previous jobs, which is a role reversal for us. The failures of others before him, and being in this division, does give Di Matteo a wonderful chance to get supporters on his side and, whether we like it or not, eventually break the curse of the Aston Villa manager and move on to an even bigger job.

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