x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Houllier's change of focus

The manager who spent so lavishly at Liverpool has different priorities and aspirations at Aston Villa.

A managerial life can contain many incarnations. From ambitious upstart to respected elder, from national figurehead to partisan club coach, from hands-on trainer to the bureaucrat in an office - Gerard Houllier's has been a career of contrasts.

At Aston Villa, he is cast in a role that, to English audiences, appears unfamiliar: the evangelist for youth. That a man with a long-standing involvement in the French academy at Clairefontaine can seem an advocate of expensive additions rather than organic development is a consequence of his time at Liverpool.

Yet it is understandable that those six years at Anfield remain the primary reference point. The city he had studied at, the club he worshipped from afar and then managed, the place where he almost attained immortality, but which could have cost him his life - Liverpool was all that and more.

No wonder, then, that the initial focus at Villa Park has been on the revitalisation of Emile Heskey and the prospect of a reunion with his supposed target Michael Owen. In this interpretation, a journey through time is a nostalgia trip: 2001 Villa Odyssey.

And yet the club Houllier has inherited and the reality of the club's objectives, now that owner Randy Lerner has concluded he cannot compete financially with the division's wealthiest clubs, is very different.

It is dictated by a focus on the future, not the past. It is an environment where Kevin MacDonald and Gordon Cowans, with their grounding in Villa's youth and reserve teams, have significance.

While Houllier supervised the development of Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher at Anfield, his attempts to blood young players became indelibly associated with mediocre recruits from his native France. Villa, with a deserved reputation for unearthing talent, could transform that reputation.

Heskey's recent excellence notwithstanding, their player of the season has been Marc Albrighton. The right-sided midfielder had never started a league match before this season, when he has not missed one. His swift graduation to the England Under 21 team is one sign of swift progress; another is that is has seemed natural to accommodate Ashley Young as a support striker without a loss of verve on the flanks.

With the fearlessness of youth, Albrighton said his approach against Ashley Cole today would be to treat the Chelsea defender the way he would a reserve team full-back.

He has emerged at the forefront of a new generation. In Ciaran Clark, Villa possess a central defender of real potential; in the injured Fabian Delph, a £6 million (Dh35,379m) signing from Leeds that Martin O'Neill made, a tigerish central midfielder; in Barry Bannan, scorer of a hat-trick in a virtuoso display against Manchester United reserves last month, a technician of real talent. And, though confined to the bench at the moment, Nathan Delfouneso has the pace and skills that should deter Houllier from pursuing Owen.

Delph apart, they are all homegrown. Under O'Neill, Villa's reputation was for shopping close to home. But it was not a cheap policy. The inflated prices English players command meant that the combined cost of Steve Sidwell, Nigel Reo-Coker, Curtis Davies, Luke Young, Nicky Shorey and Marlon Harewood approached £35 million. The last two proved to have a rather lower resale value.

Moreover, it was at best a qualified success. Clubs with a habit of buying British tend to reach a plateau, not least because Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool already possess much of the best domestic talent; third place, without trophies, for Leeds and Newcastle, fourth (perhaps) for Tottenham, sixth for Villa.

When it was their eventual station for a third successive season, it represented stagnation. Now, after downgrading the budget and the expectations, a fourth taste of the top six should be deemed a triumph. And, for Houllier, it would represent a transformation.


8.30pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 3