18 June ~ You know when you witness someone fall over, potentially injuring themselves severely but doing it in such a way that you have to stifle laughter with a swift balled fist to the mouth? Right now the UK footballing fraternity are generating raw red teethmarks on their knuckles from the force of their collective giggling at Aston Villa. This is nothing new for the club. For decades Villa have been making odd, seemingly self-destructive decisions.
We've sold our best players, hired average and health-stricken managers and named a stand after a terminally unpopular chairman. But even the appointment of Alex McLeish – a focus of ridicule for Villa fans since he deftly guided Birmingham City to relegation for the second time – takes the Claret and Blue biscuit.
It really does seem like a bad joke. Appoint the manager who just weeks ago was something of a folk hero for his chronic inability to keep Villa's deadly rivals in the Premier League. Add the fact that chairman Randy Lerner snubbed Schteve McClaren, due to unpopularity in the stands, only to hire Big Eck, and you have the recipe for a face palming farce comedy that would go down a storm in the West End if someone could only fictionalise such an inane situation.
Naturally the reaction from the terraces has ranged from paralysing fury to a detached bemusement familiar to long-term Villa fans who have only a passing acquaintance with hope and optimism. The reasons for not signing McLeish are almost too numerous to mention. He used to manage close rivals, we may be forced to pay up to £5 million in compensation, his Premier League track record involves two relegations, his departure from Birmingham shows him to be a potentially disloyal and opportunistic manager, his teams appear to play bogging football – but what of the positives? Well, let's give it a try.
Last season McLeish managed something no Villa team since Brian Little's 1995 5-3-2 flyers have done. He won some silverware. As Martin O'Neill can testify, it's not such an easy thing to do. Moreover, last season Birmingham were hit by a series of debilitating injuries to some of their best players. His track record at Rangers is impressive – seven trophies in five seasons – and his time as Scotland boss showed him to be a manager who can, given the right situation, get the job done.
But each of those successes have more than a sniff of suspicion about them. Winning trophies with Rangers or Celtic is like getting a congratulatory pat on the back for remembering to breathe – if you don't manage it, there's something wrong. And O'Neill had a similar record having already built his reputation in the Premier League, where he managed to win silverware and easily avoid relegation with an underfunded but well-organised Leicester City side. Meanwhile McLeish cut short his time at Scotland when he received a better offer – an action he seemingly repeated last week.
Worst of all, worse than all this, is that Lerner – a popular, canny and positive presence around Villa Park – may have shredded his reputation with the fans. Since taking over he's made consistent noise about Villa becoming genuine challengers for Champions League places and backed his talk with serious cash. But since O'Neill walked, many Villa fans have suspected the club of reining in expectations. Recently a succession of managers – including Rafa Benítez and Roberto Martínez – turned down the role, with rumours circulating about Lerner's willingness to continue his financial backing in the transfer market. And now the baffling appointment of McLeish likely confirms the worst fears of Villa fans – we're a club returning to the pre-Lerner days, when we had very little ambition and middling financial means. Ciaran McCauley