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May 10, 2012

One Eck of a collapse

Survival is rarely more shameful. A goal up, at home and against ten men, Aston Villa ended up clinging on for the draw that nudged them over the finishing line. Officially the worst season at home in their 124-league history brought a mere four victories and concluded with the Villa Park faithful adapting the lyrics of long-time favourite chant "Paul McGrath, My Lord" to "Sack McLeish, My Lord".

And then, just to add to the sense of irritation, Alex McLeish said that he expects to remain in charge in next season. That would be a recipe for mediocrity. It is not merely the fact that Villa have a solitary victory in their last 15 games that ought to render his position untenable. It is certainly not the oft-mentioned reality that he used to manage Birmingham, even if that hardly helps his case. It is the combination of his record, his footballing ethos and Villa's unacceptably bad season.

Unflattering statistics abound, but consider this one: Steve Kean, perhaps the most hated manager in recent history, has won 22% of his Premier League games. In the last two seasons, McLeish has won only 20% of his, despite having superior players for much of that time. Admittedly, the latter has an unparalleled commitment to drawing football - while only 15 of 75 matches have ended positively, a further 32 have finished level - but parity is not the purpose of football.

Stalemates should never be the objective, but Villa's most common scoreline this season is 0-0. Much as McLeish objects to the suggestions he is defensive, the numbers tell their own tale. In his last 113 league games, whether with Birmingham or Villa, his sides have scored 112 goals. Such a large sample size cannot be explained by misfortune or a few missed chances, especially when Villa have had the second fewest number of shots on target in the Premier League.

Football is invariably about a balance between attack and defence, but a philosophy is flawed when it is tilted too far in one direction, as McLeish's is. There is only one justification for such negativity and that is success. Villa have had none to enjoy.

If supporters crave excitement and results, the Villa public have had neither. Deprived of entertainment, they have occupied themselves by chanting against the manager. At times, there has been little else to do. Villa have showed a desperate lack of ambition in games - Tottenham away, Liverpool and Manchester United at home, even the trip to then-bottom Wigan - when it has appeared they rarely even attempted to score.

Indeed, examine the progressive players in McLeish's squad and none has benefited from his regime. Certainly not Charles N'Zogbia - inspirational for Wigan last year, and insipid for Villa this - or Darren Bent, a predator starved or service. Not Marc Albrighton, who has regressed after his encouraging debut year last season, nor Barry Bannan, of whom the same could be said. Certainly not Gabriel Agbonlahor, whose last league goal was in November, or Emile Heskey, whose only strike came in August. Even Stephen Ireland, bemusingly voted the fans' player of the year when Shay Given was perhaps the only plausible candidate, has been nowhere near his peak.

While McLeish has, albeit unwittingly, reinvigorated the rebellious fans, he has drained the life out of the team as an attacking force. While the summer sales of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing have been cited in his defence, there is still the feeling that this should be a top-ten squad - indeed, do Fulham, who have had the added complication of a Europa League run, and West Brom have better players?

While Villa have had injuries, so have others and, in any case, they have cover. They are fortunate to have one of the finest crops of emerging players in the country, yet McLeish's natural conservatism means he is unlikely to promote young players and they tend to be demoted when more senior figures are available.

It is a reason to doubt whether next season will be any better. The club's financial losses mean an organic method is imperative. Villa require a manager who can integrate young talents like Albrighton, Bannan, Ciaran Clark, Gary Gardner, Nathan Baker and Andreas Weimann. With gates down, they need a leader who can restore optimism among the support. With the club having traded top six for bottom six in the space of two years, they long for anything remotely resembling their recent past.

Nothing about McLeish suggests he is the man to instigate a revival. His personal slump has lasted two league seasons, while his popularity ratings are unlikely to improve. He has passed the point of no return in his relationship with the Villa supporters and, as an essentially pragmatic man, he should recognise as much.

Yet McLeish's attitude has long suggested self-preservation is his aim. In one respect, that is understandable - he has become another Gary Megson, a manager no fan wants in charge of his or her club, and another chance may not present itself - but in another it is depressing. While both halves of the Second City might unite in disagreeing with this, he is an honourable man in many ways, possessing a fundamental sense of decency - the sort of upstanding individual Randy Lerner tends to appoint.

Now, rather than hanging on for a compensation package, thus becoming the third manager the American owner has had to pay off in short succession, or allowing a dismal situation to become worse, the decent thing is to walk away. Because this has been Villa's poorest season for a quarter of a century, worse even than the dark days under David O'Leary, Graham Taylor and Jozef Venglos. They have survived, just, but McLeish should not.

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