Lerner to make wager on Villa future by appointing Houllier

Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles
villa park
(Photo: Marion O'Sullivan)

villa park

Former Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier is close to becoming Martin O’Neill’s successor at Villa Park, according to reports circulating in the British media.

O’Neill controversially resigned from his post just under a month ago with assistant manager Kevin MacDonald placed in charge of first team affairs while owner Randy Lerner searched for a suitable replacement. The 48-year-old, who also owns American football team Cleveland Browns, reportedly wants Houllier to oversee Villa’s further progression.

But the suggestion of the Frenchman’s appointment has not inspired the imaginations of the club’s supporters. The overriding sentiment appears to be that Houllier is the best prospect on a weak list of candidates, which included Sven Goran Eriksson and former Charlton boss Alan Curbishley.

Houllier has enjoyed success at Liverpool and Olympique Lyonnais but his respective terms were both marred by a perceived lack of success in the eyes of Liverpool owner David Moores and Lyons chairman Jean-Michel Aulas.

The 63-year-old claimed an impressive six trophies during a five-year spell at Anfield. Liverpool, however, craved an elusive 19th league title and despite immediate progression including a treble in 2001 followed by a runners-up finish in the Premier League in 2002, Houllier failed to secure the Holy Grail on Merseyside.

In 2005, Houllier replaced the successful Paul Le Guen at the Stade de Gerland following four successive domestic league titles under the former Cameroon manager. He continued to oversee Lyons’ dominance in Ligue 1 but like his predecessor was unable to make an impact amongst Europe’s elite in the Champion League. It resulted in a disagreement between chairman and manager and in May 2007, Houllier requested to be released from his contract.

Lerner contacted Houllier, who is the current technical director of French football, over the vacant managerial position and not, as speculated, the role of technical director at Villa Park. He is now considering the offer and is widely expected to make a surprise return to English football.

At Villa, O’Neill abandoned a squad brimming with British talent, exemplified by forward Ashley Young, winger Stewart Downing and full-back Stephen Warnock. But whether Houllier will continue the policy of recruiting exciting home-grown flair remains to be seen.

At Liverpool he was criticised for signing somewhat questionable foreign names including the likes of Salif Diao, Bruno Cheyrou and Jean-Michel Ferri. But amidst the failed signings exist a number of successes including Anfield stalwarts Sami Hyypia and Dietmar Hamann, influential centre-back Stéphane Henchoz and cult hero John Arne Riise.

Notably, Houllier spent £128million but out of his 28 recruits, only two were British: the unpredictable Emile Heskey and injury-prone goalkeeper Chris Kirkland. He did, however, bring in a number of free agents including Gary MacAllister and Nick Barmby who proved successful at Anfield.

At a club such as Villa where funds are restricted, it is imperative that O’Neill’s successor is shrewd with any cash provided. Houllier would have little margin for error.

Then there is the issue of his health. In October 2001 he was taken ill during Liverpool’s clash with Leeds at Anfield and subsequently underwent emergency surgery after suffering a dissected aorta. Following a five-month recovery, Houllier eventually returned to the fold at Anfield. When he then left Lyons in 2007 he cited the need for a break from football management. Premier League management can be a notoriously stressful affair so this must surely be another cause for unease amongst Villa fans.

Houllier’s appointment could prove a masterstroke by Lerner; the Frenchman undoubtedly has the pedigree to take Villa forwards. But his health issues and transfer record are worries which will make the Villa owner’s decision a gamble.

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