Another new era

Richard Keeling looks forward to the whole thing starting all over again.

For only the second time we now have a manager who is a household name in European football. Gerard Houllier was the first and we were unfortunate that his health problems curtailed his stay with us. Villa’s big problem in my view has been that we have been too slow to grasp the fact that the Premier League is an opportunity to recruit the best players and staff from around the world.

For the first fourteen years of the Premier League, from 1992 to 2006, we had Doug in charge and, doubtless influenced by the failed experiment with Joszef Venglos just prior to the arrival of the Premier League, he chose to employ only British and Irish managers, as though the Premier League was still the old first division. In contrast, from the appointment of Ruud Gullit in May 1996, Chelsea didn’t employ another British manager until Frank Lampard in July 2019. Not all these appointments were successful (and not all British managers were necessarily second rate, Fergie arguably being the best of them all), but they demonstrated a cosmopolitan outlook that, for the most part, has served them very well. Arsenal too cast the net wider than Villa did. Frenchman Arsene Wenger arrived in October 1996 and stayed till May 2018, bringing them successes that Villa could only dream of during the same period.

More recently, Villa’s appointment of Steven Gerrard was in my view the most bizarre one since Doug appointed John Gregory in 1998. After the brilliant PR coup of getting Dean Smith, going in for a high risk old pals’ act involving a manager who was totally unproven at Premier League level was perplexing, especially to those of us for whom the memory of Doug appointing his ‘sons’ is all too recent. So Sawiris and Edens have certainly pulled a cat out of the bag, which they needed to do.

We have had new eras before, of course. The revolution of November 1968 generated much excitement – prior to our ending up in division three for two seasons. Graham Taylor’s arrival in May 1987 was very welcome after the dismal Billy McNeill season and his departure for the England job after three successful years was a tragedy for the club. The ebullient Ron Atkinson was a high profile appointment in July 1991, welcomed with much anticipation following the departure of Venglos, and we had an excellent first Premier League season under his leadership.

When Martin O’Neill arrived in August 2006 there was much excitement as he had a very successful record and his tenure marked the start of a new era of ownership, with Doug retiring at long last and handing over to Randy Lerner. O’Neill’s four years saw Villa as ‘the best of the rest’, narrowly missing out on Champions’ League qualification, so, while the excitement was to some extent justified, there was still disappointment that he was unable to get the club to take that big step into the top four that we were all looking for.

There was less excitement in June 1974, when the most successful manager in the club’s history took over from Vic Crowe. Ron Saunders had had four good years at Norwich followed by a brief spell at Manchester City, but he was a somewhat abrasive and combative character and his arrival at Villa Park was at first met with less than universal enthusiasm.

The appointment of Unai Emery on the other hand seems to be widely welcomed. The club has been drifting since finishing eleventh in 2020-21, in only our second season back in the Premier League. We now need an experienced guiding hand to propel us up the table, the immediate priority of course being to avoid relegation. Unai has unfinished business in this country too, after his stint at Arsenal lasted just eighteen months. In theory all is looking good; the break for the World Cup will give him time to settle in without pressure to produce immediate results. In addition, many of the squad should be available for coaching during that time.

Of course, you never know how long your manager will stay. Unai seems to have jumped at the opportunity to join Villa and apparently sees the owners’ ambitions for the club matching his own, so hopefully it will be a long and fruitful relationship. It was less than three years ago, though, when Everton appointed Carlo Ancelotti. I thought at the time that it was a masterstroke, but he only stayed eighteen months, until Real Madrid came calling for him, and he didn’t have any great success at Everton. He was succeeded by another big name, Rafael Benitez, which was a controversial appointment in view of his time at Liverpool, and he lasted little more than six months.

So I desperately hope that Unai won’t be using the Villa as a stepping stone (as Steven Gerrard was, according to a lot of media idiots twelve months ago). Every time we get a new manager, I scan the message boards with interest to see how long it takes before someone posts “He’s got to go”. It generally doesn’t take much more than three months, though Dean Smith was given more than the usual latitude being one of us. We should at least get into 2023 this time, with the lengthy World Cup break coming up, but I sincerely hope that Unai Emery will have a long stay and that there will be no need to clamour for his replacement.

This is a new era and Unai Emery seems to be a great choice as manager, so we need him to have a long and successful stay and to become one of the greats in Villa folklore.