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Apr 15, 2014

An unexpected twist

It's not too late in the season for a dose of drama. The breaking news emanating from Villa Park delivered an unexpected twist: two of the first team coaching staff, Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa, have been suspended pending an internal investigation. A twist, most definitely; a twist of the knife, for Paul Lambert, quite possibly.

- Report: Villa axe Lambert assistants

Villa confirmed the situation in an official club statement, but kept the details as brief as possible. Indeed, the five-paragraph report focused on the promotion of Gordon "Sid" Cowans and Shay Given to assist Lambert. The final two lines mentioned Culverhouse and Karsa. There is no explanation as to why the pair have been suspended, of course. Speculation will have to suffice for now, and there is plenty of that around. Browse one or two of the more prominent supporter forums and theories are being discussed, no doubt.

The Villa manager said he was "delighted to have Gordon and Shay," to assist him. That seems unlikely. It is not a reflection on the coaching ability of either man, but Lambert can't have been pleased to see the club take such action against Culverhouse, who was his assistant manager, or Karsa, his head of football operations. Both followed him to Villa Park from Norwich City.

Culverhouse actually has a long association with Lambert, having also worked with him at Wycombe and Colchester, so whatever Lambert feels privately about this most surprising development, it's likely to be very, very far from delighted. He's lost his confidante, his eyes, ears and voice on the training ground, and his ally in the dugout. This leaves the Villa manager exposed and vulnerable. It's a rare scenario, this: usually assistant managers and first coaches, particularly those brought to the club by the manager, leave when the main man does.

To lose his right, and left, hand man -- it's assumed there's no way for Culverhouse and Karsa to return, though they could technically do so -- will test Lambert's resolve. The cynic might suggest this is merely the first act in Lambert himself leaving the club, or even a play by Villa's executive management to trigger a resignation.

To say this is a surprising development would be accurate, though there have been rumblings in recent weeks and there tends to be a whiff of something in the air when things just don't feel right. That was certainly the case after Villa's defeat to Crystal Palace, a loss which signalled a significant turn of opinion against Lambert. It's become increasingly harder to defend his managerial record

The blog I wrote on Sunday, in the hours after the deflating afternoon at Selhurst Park, drew a strong response from readers. I'd like to think I've written better over the last couple of seasons, but perhaps there was something in the tone which struck a chord with supporters. I covered some of the issues clouding over Lambert, the players and the club in general, but hadn't expected Villa to take such steps barely 48 hours later.

So, the Sid and Shay show -- what an unlikely double act alongside Lambert. The club have described it as a temporary promotion for both men and there certainly seems no permanence about the arrangement. One is a bonafide club legend, a member of the great team which won the 1981 league title and 1982 European Cup, revered and adored by supporters firstly for his grace and class on the field as a player, and now respected for his work coaching the Under-21 side.

The other had barely a full season as Villa's first choice goalkeeper before being dropped by Lambert, and very obviously made available for transfer. Given has spent a period on loan at Middlesbrough, so he hasn't even been around the club for some of this season; what his relationship with Lambert is like is anyone's guess. There must surely be at least some kind of rapport, even if it is just professional, for the two to interact and work together for the next month.

Given, a senior pro and one of the best 'keepers in Premier League history, will have the respect of the dressing room. Cowans will have that too, as well as the overwhelming backing of the Villa fans. That admiration may have had something to do with his appointment; Saturday's home match against Southampton will probably be a tense affair with the potential for the atmosphere to sour, but not a single Villa supporter could possibly bring themselves to boo Cowans.

It's a shame, really, that Cowans' promotion comes at this stage of the campaign and not a good deal earlier. He'd have been the perfect man to assist with the transition of the club's brightest young players from the Under-21 level through to the first team, in much the same way that Kevin McDonald could have done if things had worked out slightly differently a few years back.

As it stands, given the position the club is in, there won't be many opportunities for the lads that Cowans knows so well. Had he been more involved from the beginning of the season, Samir Carruthers, Daniel Johnson, Jack Grealish and Janoi Donacien may have seen some game time -- they certainly might have proved more capable than some of the fringe players Lambert has used. But Cowans may be able to use his influence to convince Lambert to give Callum Robinson an opportunity, or to sneak the gifted Jordan Graham on to the bench.

Villa Park will be one very interesting place on Saturday afternoon.