New manager, new players and a new kit. Optimism is certainly in plentiful supply at Villa Park but the claret and blues remain a club very much in transition.
Inevitably the man that followed Alex McLeish was always going to generate a feelgood factor simply by virtue of the fact he is not the former Birmingham boss. However, the fact McLeish came from Villa’s bitterest rivals counted for very little in the minds of most fans who had to endure some dire football as they battled relegation.
“It’s not where you came from,” read one banner in the Holte End as the season imploded under McLeish, “it’s where you are taking us”. Villa owner Randy Lerner ruthlessly dispensed with McLeish’s services and, after a brief flirtation with Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, got the ‘young and hungry manager’ manager he wanted in Paul Lambert.
Crucially, the arrival of the 42-year-old Scot has helped Villa’s hierarchy build bridges with a fanbase which had started to feel disenfranchised with the board while apathy reigned inside the stadium as attendances dwindled. The murmurs of discontent with Lerner’s ownership of the club had started to get louder but the appointment of Lambert was the best PR move the American could have made after McLeish’s disastrous tenure.
It is a popular step which has seen the spike in season ticket sales following the sacking of McLeish (many pledged not to renew unless he went) grow even further as the fanbase have bought into Lambert’s promise to deliver a more exciting brand of football. That alone will satisfy the average Villa supporter right now.
Lambert’s coaching credentials have been shaped by his time in Germany where he played for Borussia Dortmund and also studied for his coaching badges. The intensity, preparation and focus for training he witnessed in the Bundesliga was completely different to more relaxed approach that was the status quo in British football.
Married with the ability to generate belief and togetherness among players it was this work on the training ground which helped Lambert turn modest performers like Grant Holt into Premier League players. It will be a challenge to replicate this at Bodymoor Heath with some of the established players who are a little more stuck in their ways although the youngsters should be receptive to his ideas.
Former boss Gerard Houllier identified many of the issues that Lambert is currently tackling but the Frenchman was guilty of trying to change too much, too quickly. Progress under Lambert will be gradual and steady – evolution not revolution – so expectations among supporters, despite the current wave of optimism, should be tempered accordingly.
Lambert is a good football manager, not a miracle worker. Talk of qualifying for Europe is fanciful at best and the reality is that Villa’s squad is in a state of flux as Lambert embarks on the process of sifting through which players feature in his long-term plans.
Crucially it is a squad which is also still some way short of the teams that finished in the top eight in the 2011-12 campaign. After last season’s debacle a top-half finish without any semblance of a relegation battle, and regaining their crown as the top team in the Midlands from Albion, along with a good cup run would be a significant step in the right direction.