There have been occasions, already, when Aston Villa fans have had good reason to call into question the lucidité of the club’s recently-installed French manager, Gerard Houllier.
Publicly falling out with John Carew (with whom Houllier has history); targeting has-beens such as Michael Owen and Robert Pires in the transfer market; imprudently suggesting perennial Real Madrid sub Karim Benzema might fancy a short spell in sunny Birmingham deputising for Emile Heskey. These were all sure-fire portents of disastrous reign; a marriage of convenience for the former Liverpool manager, looking for a quick route back into the Premier League, and the club, whose American owner’s recent cost-cutting measures left Martin O’Neill disillusioned to the point of resignation and would not allow for a more progressive (but financially prohibitive) managerial acquisition. Talk of a return to the dark, dark days of David O’Leary’s aimless spell in the Second City even began to emanate from certain disenfranchised elements in the Holte End.
While such bleak forecasts have not entirely been shredded yet, events of the past fortnight offer fresh hope to the success-starved thousands, cruelly teased by an all-too-brief rise above mid-table mediocrity under the canny aegis of O’Neill. A tally of five points from fixtures against Fulham, Blackpool and a still-subdued Manchester United has hardly set the Premier League alight, but the nature of the performances – and, crucially, the identity of the players producing them – has served to renew optimism.
The leaders of this quiet revolution are two 21-year-olds, who stand at 5ft 9 and 5ft 7 respectively and most probably weigh no more than ten stone soaking wet. Locally-born winger Marc Albrighton and miniature midfield maestro Barry Bannan (of Lanarkshire) combined brilliantly to produce one of the top-flight’s goals of the season to date against Fulham, and were vital elements in the rampant second half display against shell-shocked United.
Though the climax of that game – a trademark late, late Man U revival – was predictable, Villa’s barnstorming half-hour spell following the second-half whistle came as more of a shock. A team packed with youthful upstarts were expected to be little more than lambs to the slaughter against a side brimming with household names. Not, though, by United’s Darren Fletcher, who has been following his central midfield opponent Bannan (who can also operate on the left) for some time.
“I watch our reserve matches regularly and Bannan scored a hat-trick against us earlier this season,” said Fletcher. “Barry is talented. If he gets a run, his confidence should grow. Having seen him for Villa’s reserves and with the (Scotland) Under-21s he has a very bright future.”
As if to instantly make good on Fletcher’s kindly comments, he made a Man of the Match debut alongside his international skipper (admittedly against the Faroe Islands); hitting the post, then setting up Jamie Mackie to score the second goal as the Scots ran out 3-0 winners at Pittodrie. Scotland boss Craig Levein kept Bannan’s impressive start in perspective though:
“If Barry keeps playing the way he is (then) it’s something to live up to. I don’t want to put pressure on the lad because he’s just a wee boy. If he plays 50 to 75 games in the Premier League and wins 10 caps with us, then we might have an accomplished player.”
It was during Villa’s run to the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup in 2008 that Bannan first came to the fore. Comparisions to club legend Gordon Cowans were readily bestowed upon the wee man, as he thrived in a side also featuring then England Under-19 captain (now potentially an Irish international) Ciaran Clark, pacy Birmingham-born striker Nathan Delfouneso, Jonathan Hogg (who made a hugely impressive debut against United), and Albrighton.
However, first-team gaffer O’Neill wasn’t confident that his young guns could adapt to the cut and thrust of the top tier. Despite presiding over a wafer-thin squad, a fact which he frequently bemoaned, the Ulsterman barely offered a kick to the club’s next generation.
“Martin had a problem with my height,” Bannan recently told the Daily Mail. “I had a few meetings with him and the size issue always came up. I wasn’t going to get a chance in the team no matter how well I did in training. However, I also knew if I just kept going that the break would come for me.”
He continued: “Obviously, it’s been a big change in fortunes for me. Last year I was on loan at Blackpool and only playing games now and again. Now Gerard Houllier and Gary McAllister have come in and they’ve shown great confidence in me.”
It has been Premier League managers’ reluctance to field such precious talent, particularly those that don’t conform to the 6ft-plus stereotype, that has contributed to the stalling of many a youngster’s career. Bannan concludes: “Every game I play now gives me more confidence. At certain times in the past, I was disheartened. But you can’t let yourself get that way because, if you do, your game tends to drop.”
Villa’s long injury list and Scotland’s dearth of creative talent should prove to the young man’s advantage, as a new breed of sub-six-footers seek to stamp their mark on a sport more recently dominated by giants offering endless stamina but little in the way of technical ability. The shining examples of Xavi and Andres Iniesta were inevitably offered by Houllier as appropriate role models for his new playmaker. In their wake, at international level, have come diminutive talents such as Mesut Özil and – this season – Japan’s Shinji Kagawa and Mathieu Valbuena of France (though the Marseille man is already 26). This week’s most alluring friendly, Argentina-Brazil, showcased the much-coveted talents of Javier Pastore and Neymar – both of whom are not short of inches but would struggle to win an arm-wrestle with Superbad’s McLovin.
So, wherever you look, the return of the little lads is well under way. And, with transfer funds strictly limited, Gerard Houllier’s fortunes upon his return to the Premier League may well hinge upon the offensive efforts of his tiny trio – Bannan, Albrighton and, returning to a trequartista role behind the striker, Ashley Young; the big man of the three at 5ft 9 and a bit.