With the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, and his subsequent replacement by David Moyes, it has been a fortnight of headlines for Scottish managers. One, however, seems to have slipped under the radar. Wigan’s 4-1 defeat at Arsenal meant that Aston Villa, under the management of Paul Lambert, have avoided relegation. That achievement, and, more importantly, the way in which it was achieved, suggests that it is this Glaswegian who may be Ferguson’s true heir.
Go back three years: Martin O’Neill’s sudden departure, just five days before the opening day of the 2010–11 season, could have been the unmaking of this historic Midlands club: the unsuccessful spells of Houllier and McCleish led to fan discontent, and under the latter Villa only avoided the drop by two points. What Lambert has done is not to revolutionize the club, but stabilize it. That the dissatisfaction of McCleish’s reign seems a distant memory is testament to the way Lambert has gone about his job: understated yet efficient, he is building a squad with a long-term vision in mind.
Lambert’s success has been in infusing belief in a squad shorn of its most experienced players, either through injury, illness, or a loss of form. Although the likes of Friedel, Young, Downing, and Milner have all left for pastures new within the past three years, more troubling for Lambert has been the form of the players Villa have managed to retain. Shay Given looks unrecognizable as the keeper rightly considered one of the League’s best a few years ago, while Bent, Ireland and N’Zogbia, despite their undoubted talents, have failed to convince.
It is in his management of these problems that Lambert has appeared most Ferguson-like. Refusing to be tempted into throwing his supposedly most talented players onto the pitch and hoping for the best, he has instead opted to create a team in his own image, populated by hard-working youngsters with something to prove, with the leadership of Ron Vlaar and Brad Guzan proving invaluable. Lambert has instilled his young team with a sense of purpose and confidence, favouring the likes of Andreas Weimann and Ashley Westwood ahead of their more experienced teammates.
If the likes of Bent are disillusioned with Lambert’s policy, there is no doubting the respect the youngsters of the squad have for their manager; it is a respect echoed by the manager, who sees no reason why he should move away from his youth policy:
“Someone tells me it is the youngest Villa side in the Premier League so it’s unbelievable what they’ve done. It bodes well for the future because they will grow together.”
For Aston Villa fans concerned about Lambert’s approach – and it seems as though he has the broad support of the Holt End faithful – they need only look at the example of QPR to see where the alternative can lead you. And if that is not evidence enough, the sight of Ferguson retiring after 26 successful years, ears ringing full of praise from the likes of Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, and Neville – all products of Ferguson’s faith in youth – should convince even the most ardent of sceptics.