On the Ropes

What have Alex McLeish and a heavyweight hopeful got in common? Dave Woodhall explains.

One of my recurring themes this season is that Alex McLeish is his own worst enemy. There will always be some Villa supporters who would never give him any credit or who even want to see him fail for their own reasons (not always the obvious one), but last August most of us seemed firmly behind him. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the inane histrionics of his more vociferous critics saw Alex gaining in popularity. Equally, I don’t think anyone really expected a top six challenge; comfortably mid-table would do, as long as the football wasn’t too bad and there seemed signs of progress.

To be fair to Alex there have been some promising signs this season – we’ve had a couple of good results and the conveyor belt from the Academy seems to be running as reliably as ever. But the big, infuriating problem, and the one which I feel will ultimately prove fatal, is that Alex seems to revert to type at the first sign that things aren’t going well. For example, we had the damage limitation exercises against Spurs, Manchester United and Liverpool. After these came a good, if unlucky, performance at home to Arsenal and a win at Chelsea that rivalled anything the team have achieved in recent years.  We go two up away at Arsenal in the FA Cup, they come back to win 3-2 and not long afterwards we’re back to playing for a 1-0 defeat at home to Manchester City.

On Saturday the team that was put out to play Wigan looked a richly attacking one. Bent, Albrighton, Agbonlahor, Keane and Bannan all started, with Ireland and N’Zogbia on the bench. Villa had a couple of early chances but before too long it was back to defending in depth and Emile Heskey introduced at the earliest opportunity. Charles N’Zogbia must be wondering what was happening – after being mentioned by the manager in his pre-match interviews the former Wigan player was then ignored until being brought on almost as an afterthought when Darren Bent was injured. 0-0 was at least a clean sheet but this, remember, was against Wigan. Bottom of the league without a win at home since August and scoring eleven goals at the DW Stadium all season. It’s little wonder that the sold-out away section showed their disquiet both during and after the game.

I’d love to know what Alex is up to. Surely he can’t be satisfied with this level of performance, yet the team were playing to his instructions. In trying to fathom out his reasons, I remember some sage words from a few weeks ago – he doesn’t want to play like this, he just can’t do anything about it.  In a strange way Alex reminds me of boxer Audley Harrison.  Olympic gold medallist, immensely talented, he goes into the ring looking every inch a potential world heavyweight champion. Then as soon as his opponent throws a punch, Harrison seems to remember that the other bloke wants to hurt him and retreats. He might not mean to fight this way, he can’t help himself. It’s a psychological thing; he covers up like we would, except we’re not the ones getting paid to take the punches and hit back. And after every fight he says it’ll all be different next time, and I’m sure he means it. Until he steps into the ring and the bell goes again.

In the same way, Alex will send his team out to play football, pledge that this is the way forward, but at the slightest setback he gets them defending at all costs. Again, it seems psychological. And until he can cure himself of this mentality he will always struggle.