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Sunday, 21 November 2010

Villa fans should beware of 'next big thing'...

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An integral part of Arsenal’s 2003-04 invincible set-up has returned to England as Gerard Houllier attempts to stabilise his new squad, and if any Villa fans are uncertain of Houllier’s 37-year-old coup they should glance back ten years or so for comfort.

Robert Pires may be in his twilight but he remains a cultured footballer and never has the saying ‘class is permanent’ been more apt. Many Liverpool fans had the same trepidation when Houllier signed Gary McAllister in 2000 but ultimately the Scot’s arrival proved a masterstroke. 

After being snapped up on a free from Coventry City in 2000, whilst a certain Steven Gerrard was still learning his craft, a 35-years-young McAllister pulled most of the strings in the Reds’ cup-treble feat in 2001.

If McAllister’s final chapter is a pre-cursor for a Houllier scripted era then Villa fans should be excused for getting excited, as it seems the new Villa boss’ affinity, is backed up with an eye for the football journeyman.

The Premier League thought they had seen the last of Robert Pires - his disappointing swan song for Arsenal came in the 2006 Champions League final - but he returns not to North London, but Birmingham as Houllier’s second major signing. 

Arsenal Supporters voted Pires as their sixth greatest player of all time, after he and Thierry Henry combined 57 goals in all competitions, in their 2003-04 unbeaten, invincible season.   

Eleven games in, (at time of writing), and 'indifferent' would best describe Houllier’s’ first quarter-season with Villa. They have developed a tendency to throw away leads but still hold an unbeaten home record, (again, ATOW).

Whilst the news of Pires’ arrival spread and as the transfer rumour mill gathers pace before it’s re-opening in January, names such as Djibril Cisse and Michael Owen have also been linked with a Houllier re-union.

Houllier was quick to stop the Owen gossip dead in its tracks, but a Cisse return - to work with the manager who initially brought him to these shores – seems more viable.   

Despite finishing as the second highest scorer in the 05-06 season, some Liverpool supporters would say that Cisse was a fast and powerful striker with an end product much like that of an over excited child - hitting it as hard as he could at the target, and not always making contact with the latter – he sometimes lacked guile in front of goal, shall we say.

Saying that though, post-Liverpool he covered himself in glory by notching the top-scorer accolade in Greece, during Panathinaikos’ 09-10 title winning season so his name will forever be etched into their history books.

It is not so much the established players Houllier brings in that should keep Villa fans up at night, but more a character trait he developed of scouring his homeland for future stars – so in that respect, the Villa faithful should keep an eye on his navigation in and around the transfer market.   

Make no mistake though Houllier did good things for Liverpool Football Club and he is a fine manager. But as head of technical development for the French Football Association, the connections he made were ultimately part of his downfall. 

Persistent assurances that he had unearthed ‘the next Zinedine Zidane’ blanketed his Liverpool tenure and in retrospect, how many of these future luminaries ever made a serious challenge for Les Bleus national shirt? Illustration of unfilled potential is seen in Anthony Le Tallec, Flourent Sinama Pongolle and Bruno Cheyrou. 

Due to only making 17 appearances at Anfield,  Le Tallec made loan moves amongst others, to Sunderland and St Etienne before finally settling on a move to Auxerre for £3m. His poor record of 139 appearances at various loan clubs reflecting 21 goals speaks volumes. 

Following his Liverpool days, Florent Sinama Pongolle managed nearly a goal every three games during his two-year spell with Recreativo – a return which placed him as top scorer for both seasons, but also a record which probably saw him peak. 

In 2008 Atletico snapped up the diminutive Pongolle for around £8m, but he didn’t make the grade at the Vicente Caldron, so a loan deal was thrashed out at Zaragoza.

The brightest star in the French sky though was expected to be Cheyrou who arrived at Liverpool when he was 24. In 44 games he managed just three goals, so after bumbling around France fulfilling various loans deals, he finally settled with FC Nantes in 2010. 

In Houllier’s estimation they all graduated from the Zidane modelling school and would write the future of their national side, but the sad truth is reflected in the trio’s combined Liverpool careers, representing a hugely unbalanced seven goals in 99 games. 

Should them not reaching their potential reflect badly on Houllier as a coach, who is in charge of nurturing them or a misjudgement on his part, for seeing potential that maybe never existed? These examples are given perspective by his counterpart, and close friend Arsene Wenger’s dealings in 2004. 

Wenger strolled into the Nou Camp and pinched Cesc Fabregas from the Barcelona reserves whilst also snapping up Robin van Persie and Gael Clichy for a combined fee of £5.25m – three comparison’s which need little explanation. 

Of course, no manager has a perfect track record in the transfer market and Houllier deserves credit for the positive signings during his Liverpool term. 

Sami Hyypia, John Arne Riise, Jerzy Dudek and Dietmar Hamann were all recruited by Houllier and all played major roles in the dreamland experience that was Istanbul 2005 - Rafa Benitez’, and maybe Liverpool’s grandest modern day triumph.

Aston Villa have a decent framework to work from, albeit a bit thin. They have a good base of youth players coming through - exemplified in Marcus Albrighton, Barry Bannan and Nathan Delfounso – who are all clocking up valuable first team minutes this season.

It remains to be seen if Houllier will tap-up his aforementioned acquaintances this time round, for what he believed to be priceless inside information on rising stars. But if Villa fans hear him utter the words ‘next big thing’ they should certainly approach with caution. 


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Paul O'Meara



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