x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Randy Lerner has learned a vital lesson at Aston Villa

The record signing of Darren Bent and victory against Manchester City marks a change of direction by Randy Lerner, the club owner.

Darren Bent scores on his debut for Aston Villa against Manchester City on Saturday.
Darren Bent scores on his debut for Aston Villa against Manchester City on Saturday.

When a new signing scores on his debut, it is immediate vindication for the manager who pursued him.

When he was the club's costliest recruit ever, it is presumably doubly satisfying.

And when it earns a relegation-threatened team victory, it is apparent that this was more than simply a goal.

Darren Bent's winner for Aston Villa against Manchester City last Saturday was a typical piece of predatory finishing.

Its significance is evident in the league table, with Villa the only winners in the bottom six. If they are heading in an upward direction, it follows an about-turn in the boardroom.

The consensus is that desperation, rather than inspiration, was the motive for buying Bent; an initial £18 million (Dh105.6m) fee that could rise to £24m seems excessive for a striker whose admirable scoring record nevertheless cannot camouflage the impression that he falls short of the top class. The cost of demotion to the Championship, however, is far greater.

It marks a change of direction by Randy Lerner, the club owner, whose willingness to sell James Milner to City and reluctance to reinvest the proceeds in the team prompted Martin O'Neill's dramatic summer resignation.

What Lerner is discovering is that Gerard Houllier is not the continuity candidate.

Paying such a sum for Bent, plus a further £7m for Jean Makoun, a midfielder, is a declaration of faith in a manager whose stock fell with Villa's numerous defeats.

The articulate, intelligent Houllier can make his case persuasively. The level of spending suggests Lerner has regained his enthusiasm and granted the green light for a radical overhaul of a squad that finished sixth in three successive seasons.

The lesson from his time at Liverpool is that Houllier is no French evolutionary; four years into his reign, the only players he inherited to still feature frequently were Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen and Danny Murphy.

Each, pertinently, was 21 or under when Houllier arrived (indeed, Gerrard was yet to debut). Young players can be deemed more malleable but they can also be more responsive.

At Villa Park, Houllier has granted Barry Bannan and Ciaran Clark more chances than O'Neill did while Marc Albrighton has swiftly cemented a place in the team.

The corollary is that Houllier is unafraid to take on senior players.

John Carew has already departed, on loan to Stoke City. Stephen Warnock, who has not featured for four weeks, seems similarly surplus to requirements. Stephen Ireland's ill-fated spell in the Midlands would be brought to an end if a buyer emerged.

While Richard Dunne has recovered his place in the defence after falling out with Houllier, the prognosis for Habib Beye, the right-back, is bleaker.

The summer clear out could also include Luke Young, Nigel Reo-Coker, Curtis Davies and - potentially damagingly - Brad Friedel.

A conservatism can set in during the ageing process but Houllier seems to be the exception.

Managers in their 64th year can lack either the desire or the support to break one team up and build another. Not in this case, however.

In one sense, his additions are logical: Makoun is a higher-grade alternative to Reo-Coker while, before Bent's arrival, the four strikers had managed a mere four league goals between them.

It explains why Carew has left and Gabriel Agbonlahor is in exile on the left wing.

Yet the implications of the investment are intriguing. When the summer transfer window closes, Villa are likely to have a very different look.

Bent's scoring instincts, coupled with the dogged defending to frustrate City means that, despite a first spell in the relegation zone since 2003, Premier League football should be a certainty.


Sunderland were at their most resourceful in reacting to Bent's departure. Operating as a second striker, Kieran Richardson scored both goals in the 2-1 win at Blackpool. Not bad for a player who has spent some of the season at left-back.


The wisecracks and the reputation as a wheeler-dealer precede him, but Harry Redknapp provided a reminder he possesses a sharp footballing brain on Saturday. Tottenham Hotspur's second-half reshuffle that followed Peter Crouch's introduction involved Aaron Lennon's relocation. The speedy right winger may make a strange left wing-back but his injury-time leveller was justification.

So, too, was Redknapp's tactical thinking: with Joey Barton nominally Newcastle's right-sided midfielder, but tucked in, it left an unbalanced formation that meant Lennon would have little defending to do and could concentrate on attack.


Avram Grant's reaction to Frederic Piquionne's dismissal in West Ham United's 2-2 draw with Everton amused. The striker collected his second caution for going into the crowd to celebrate.

"Next time I will tell my players to go to a funeral when they score," said the Israeli, who tends to have a rather funereal air.

Yet the punishment is scarcely a secret so, even if the law is an ass, as the majority in football believe, what does that make the player who reduces his side to 10 men so needlessly? Measuring 100m by 68m, there is a place at Goodison Park where footballers can celebrate: it is called the pitch.