x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Alex McLeish is rebuilding Aston Villa

The manger ,who went from Birmingham City to their fierce city rivals, recorded on a win with his first home game at Villa Park, but he is yet to win over some fans.

Alex McLeish's eventful year can be measured in Midlands derbies. Last season, they encapsulated his successes and failings in a season of rare highs and lows.

A 2-1 quarter-final win over Aston Villa was one of the reasons his Birmingham City team lifted the Carling Cup, but a meagre return of three points from a possible 18 in the local skirmishes was a factor in their demotion to the Championship.

Then a manager whose resolutely unglamorous, reliably hard-working approach seemed to sum up Birmingham decamped across England's "Second City". Cue controversy, not to mention intrigue.

Steve McClaren was withdrawn from the reckoning for the Villa job, such was the level of supporter unrest - memories of his unsuccessful time with England refuse to fade - and there were protests about McLeish's appointment.

He inherited a club that promptly lost its two finest players, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, but a potentially difficult start was averted with a 3-1 win over Blackburn Rovers on his Villa Park debut.

Compare Villa's early season fixtures with those of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Bolton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion, to name but four, and McLeish had a soft landing.

Neither the choice of manager nor their summer trading - little over a third of the money recouped for Young and Downing has been reinvested in the transfer market - reassured some, yet there is the opportunity for upward momentum.

Including Wolverhampton Wanderers' visit today, the next five home games - against Newcastle United, Wigan Athletic, West Brom and Norwich City - mean McLeish could enjoy early validation before stiffer tests present themselves.

"I am like any manager on the planet," he said. "I have to get results."

His popularity can be measured not just by scorelines, but by supporters. Almost a quarter of the seats at Villa Park went unoccupied last week. Nevertheless, McLeish said: "It was a decent crowd. You can't expect them to fill the stadium every single week, but it will definitely happen at times.

"It was a proud moment for myself and my family. It was terrific. Everybody likes to be loved. We know what football is like. It's a game that can be fickle at times."

Fickleness would be a diplomatic description of the accusations levelled at McLeish by Birmingham fans. More pertinently, he had a reputation for defensiveness at St Andrew's, one that Villa's home run gives him the chance to shed. The forwards Gabriel Agbonlahor, Emile Heskey and Darren Bent all started and scored against Blackburn while Charles N'Zogbia, bought by McLeish, is capable of scintillating dribbling.

But the dugouts will be populated by two no-nonsense former central defenders. McLeish's meanderings around the Midlands have surprised Mick McCarthy.

"I was delighted for him," said the Wolves manager. "I thought he had won the lottery because if we had got relegated on the last day of the season, would West Brom have come and got me if Roy [Hodgson] had left? Probably not. I was amazed."

If ever there was a man guaranteed not to be carried away by a good start, it is the dependably down-to-earth McCarthy.

Encouraging as their back-to-back wins have been, last season provides a warning: Wolves took five points from the first three games, and promptly lost the next four. In their subsequent struggles, as he recalled, some thought "I'd taken this club as far as I could, and I was hopeless and I should be out on my ear."

Having remained, he has prospered. But this is a region that has not enjoyed much success of late; the Midlands have doubled up as the badlands of English football.

However, a win would put Wolves at the summit of the Premier League; depending upon results elsewhere, three points could take Villa there. That, if only temporarily, could win over McLeish's doubters.

 

sports@thenational.ae

3.05pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 3