No surprise if Houllier is regretting his return to the firing line

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 January, 2011, 12:00am

Who could blame Gerard Houllier for starting the New Year with a sense of dread as he grits his teeth in Britain's harshest winter in more than 30 years and tries to keep Aston Villa clear of the relegation zone?

Houllier's Villa side have lost six of their last seven matches to sit in 15th position, just a point outside the bottom three. The Villains travel to London to face champions Chelsea tomorrow, knowing another defeat will almost certainly send them sliding into the relegation zone.

Four months ago, Houllier could spend his weekends in the cosy cafes of his adopted hometown of Paris, enjoying pain au chocolat and caf?au lait in a comparatively cushy job as technical director of Football Federation France (FFF). Dealing with the eccentricities of former national coach Raymond Domenech was admittedly one of the role's downsides.

But now the former Liverpool manager has to deal with a mini dressing-room revolt and a growing number of fans chanting for his head in the wake of a pitiful 4-0 defeat at Manchester City on Tuesday night. Fresh in the supporters' minds are three successive top-six finishes achieved by Houllier's popular predecessor, Martin O'Neill, and last season's inspired run to the League Cup final.

The opening of the January transfer window couldn't have come any quicker for Houllier, who wants to rejuvenate his unhappy squad. But one wonders if his long-term planning will survive the short-term risk with more than half a dozen senior players, including John Carew, Brad Friedel, Ashley Young and Richard Dunne, reportedly on their way out of Villa Park.

Since American owner Randy Lerner took over in September 2006, only Manchester City have splashed more on new players with the Birmingham club forking out around GBP140 million (HK$1.67 billion). But in 2010, the spending dried up to such an extent that O'Neill walked out in August, just five days before the start of the season with the pending sale of England midfielder James Milner to Manchester City.

Now as they prepare for a massive January clearance to slash a GBP70 million wage bill, Villa could be up to GBP35 million out of pocket as they let players go at discount prices. The new coach will be allowed to bring in new personnel, but he will probably have to look for bargain buys, with Lerner noticeably tightening his belt.

But Houllier does have a good track record in doing more with less. Soon after arriving at Liverpool over a decade ago, he embarked on a five-year programme to rebuild the club, with many big names including Paul Ince, Steve McManaman and David James all departing. Over the next two seasons, the likes of Sami Hyypia, Dietmar Hamann, Emile Heskey and Gary McAllister were signed and would form the nucleus of a hard-working side that won the cup treble - including the Uefa Cup - in the 2000-01 season.

Today, McAllister is Houllier's assistant manager while Heskey is his first-choice striker at Villa, only too happy to keep serving the thoughtful Frenchman. Yet other names from his past at Liverpool and Lyon are reportedly not so enthusiastic, including Steve Warnock, Friedel and Carew, who suspiciously declared himself unfit for the game against Manchester City after getting stuck in snow on a Christmas trip back home to Norway. 'Old resentments such as Carew's or Friedel's would last a player's professional career,' said former Premier League goalkeeper Shaka Hislop. 'I don't doubt for a minute they would have gladly accepted a dinner invitation from Houllier, but at the same time he is probably the last person they would have wanted to see walk into the Villa dressing room.'

Houllier signed a three-year contract, but is already on shaky ground in mid-season. Long gone is the talk of securing European spots as Villa focus on survival. After the Man City defeat, he said the problems were within the team - hinting that the players simply aren't hungry or good enough.

Harry Redknapp, who got the better of Houllier last weekend as Tottenham won 2-1 at Vila Park, is an expert in successfully gutting and rebuilding teams in speedy fashion, which he did at West Ham and Portsmouth as well as Spurs.

'Because coaching styles and philosophies vary so widely, managers understandably feel they need their 'own players' to facilitate their own style on a new team,' added ex-Ex-Trinidad and Tobago captain Hislop, who played under Redknapp at West Ham before Glenn Roeder took over. 'When Roeder came in at Upton Park, I found myself down the pecking order after he brought in David James and as much as I hated it, my attitude stank and it affected the dressing room.'

Turning 64 in March, Redknapp is actually six months older than Houllier. But having famously survived a heart scare nine years ago, the former school teacher must be wondering if watching over a classroom of discontent at Villa Park is the smartest way to enjoy his golden years.

During a trip to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) last February to train coaches and technical directors in Kuala Lumpur, Houllier seemed very relaxed. He said he doubted he would ever return to the rigours of club management - preferring a less demanding national team job - and joked he was happy to be 'kidnapped' and brought to Asia to share his expertise.

As he braces himself in Birmingham for the remaining five months of the season, being kidnapped and held to ransom on the other side of the world might actually seem like an appealing alternative.