The 2010-11 season will be remembered as a grim one for Aston Villa. A team with plenty of promise that got derailed before the games even kicked off, with manager Martin O'Neill resigning from his post six days before the start of the season. The bad vibes - and bad luck - would continue all season long, with a particularly painful 6-0 loss to Newcastle in Villa's second match of the season setting a grim tone. From the moment Villa left St. James' Park, the team was playing catch-up on the season.
Eventually Villa settled on Gerard Houllier as the man to replace O'Neill, and while the former Liverpool and Lyon man eventually guided the team to a respectable ninth place, the Villans spent most of the season worried about what would have been a shock drop. A January spending spree that prised Darren Bent from Sunderland helped steady the ship, though it's unclear if the team is still on course headed into the 2011-12 season.
In fact, from a certain point of view, Villa can be seen as in deep, deep trouble and American owner Randy Lerner might be wondering what he got himself into. Villa's wage bill isn't outrageous - it was about $135 million last season - but considering that their turnover was about $150 million, this was a recipe for fiscal disaster. And guess what? The club has lost a staggering $140 million over the past two seasons and is carrying nearly $200 million in debt. That means the team had to sell some players and tighten its belt - as well as picking up a paying sponsor after a stint giving away shirt space to the Acorns charity.
On the field, the team underperformed badly, and under four separate managers no less. The tone was set before kickoff when O'Neill shockingly walked away, apparently frustrated by Lerner's unwillingness to sign new players. O'Neill remains out of managerial work. After a spell with an interim coach Kevin MacDonald, Lerner brought Houllier back to the Premier League. And then the wheels came off. With Villa in a tailspin, Houllier suffered a recurrence of the heart problems that plagued him at Liverpool and missed the run-out to the season's end with Gary McAllister in charge.
Now the team enters the 2011-12 season with a shocking number of changes for a club that finished sixth every year between 2007-08 and 2009-10. Houllier has finally stepped aside due to his medical issues and has been replaced by former Birmingham boss Alex McLeish in what is a bit of an eyebrow raiser.
McLeish isn't a horrible manager, but he's not known for expansive football, and of course his last club (Birmingham) not only went into the drink but is a major Villa rival. Supporters weren't happy when Lerner turned his attention to the enemy's boss. His best years were as a player (with Aberdeen) and while he was successful with Rangers, his tenures with Scotland and Birmingham were uninspired.
>Heading out the exit were wingers Stewart Downing (Liverpool) and Ashley Young (Manchester United) as well as keeper Brad Friedel (Tottenham.) This certainly helps the club's balance sheet but denies them the width and experience that they will sorely need in the Premier League this season.
Though McLeish has prised Charles N'Zogbia away from Wigan, this could still be a long year of retrenchment, with an assortment of parts that look like they can play quality football but don't seem to entirely mesh as a unit.
Shay Given steps into the nets from Manchester City, with American Brad Guzan riding the pine behind him. (Guzan, by the way, is going to have to find another club at some point if he wants to play first team football.) The Villa back line isn't flashy but it isn't awful. Stephen Warnock and Luke Young are back to full fitness and have looked decent in preseason; James Collins and Richard Dunne are very solid and Ciaran Clark will be in the formula after his breakout year last season.
Jean Makoun and Stiliyan Petrov will pull the strings in midfield; the former is inventive but the latter a real disappointment. Fabian Delph and Mark Albrighton will be in the mix. N'Zogbia will be a dangerman opposite Albrighton. And then there's Stephen Ireland, a man who has a lot to prove after a dreadful season last year.
Up top, Darren Bent will run alongside Emile Heskey or Gabriel Agbonlahor, with Nathan Delfouneso remaining on the fringes.
Together, it's hard to see this team doing well. They were darn lucky to finish in the top half of the table at the end of the season, and they miss European play for the first time in four seasons as a result. They have suffered some big losses and don't seem to have made any upgrades. They could finish in the bottom half.