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Houllier, McAllister and Aston Villa

Written by on September 21, 2010 | No Comments »
Posted in Aston Villa, Celtic, Coventry City, Crystal Palace, Derby County, English Premier League, History and Books, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest

While the resignation of Martin O’Neill as Aston Villa manager came like a bolt out of the sky blue the appointment of his replacement Gerard Houllier and related backroom staff took close to six weeks.

Given Houllier’s age (63) and his health issue while in charge of Liverpool close to a decade ago, the selection of the assistant manager at Villa took on greater significance than might be normal and the delay was perhaps understandable.

The apparent change in Houllier’s character post-heart problem has been well documented and discussed. Although it was at another club and happened sometime ago it is still very much relevant to the Villa appointment.

While fingers will readily point to Sir Alex Ferguson as Exhibit A where age, success and soccer clubs are concerned, the reality is that Fergie is very much the outlier. A certain amount of grey hair (Mourinho’s is growing in nicely) and wisdom are normally pre-requisites for success and coaches in general peak in their 40s and 50s. Drive diminishes as we age and for a 63-year-old to arrive at a new club and power them to a higher level based on personal attributes alone seems too much to ask.

And that is where newly appointed assistant Gary McAllister comes into the equation. As a player McAllister was bright and intelligent and there are few players who can boast  a collection that includes winners’ medals from all three major competitions in England and a European trophy.

However, his coaching record has been spotty – a promising stint at Coventry cut short when his wife became terminally ill and an unsuccessful attempt to get Leeds United out League One. A just concluded run of four months at Middlesbrough gets tagged as insufficient evidence.

Of course, Houllier and McAllister have a history. Although he was 35 when Houllier took him to Anfield, McAllister played a pivotal role in Liverpool’s success during his two years at the club. But the one-up-one-down roles of more than ten years ago will have to change radically if Villa are to progress.

Perhaps the relationship has to be much more of a 50/50 partnership – the kind we use to see much more of years ago. Although there was always clearly a boss, double acts used to roll of the tongue more readily. At Manchester United Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy; Jock Stein and Sean Fallon together at Celtic and the inimitable pairing of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor at Derby County and then Nottingham Forest.

Perhaps the closest parallel in terms of age and health to Houllier and McAllister was the incredibly successful pairing of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison at Manchester City. There was a fourteen year age difference between Mercer and Allison although it seemed much more – the amiable Joe Mercer playing the role of a favourite uncle while Allison revelled in the swinging 60s.

Ironically, Mercer had taken seriously ill while in charge at Villa Park and upon recovering he had been fired by the board of directors. In 1965 City were willing to take a chance on Mercer but only if he appointed a young energetic coach – enter Malcolm Allison. Two years after winning the Second Division, the duo led City to the First Division title beating out European Champions Manchester United on the last day of the season.  An FA Cup, a League Cup and a European Cup Winners’ Cup followed in the next two seasons.

However, good things do not last forever and Allison grew more frustrated with Mercer as the senior partner failed to follow through on a commitment to move aside to allow for a transition. Eventually Allison won the power struggle and Mercer left to take the manager’s job with Coventry City in 1972. But with Allison in sole charge things took a turn for the worse and a year later he also left Maine Road and headed for Crystal Palace.

A League Cup win in 1976 remains the only major trophy won by Manchester City since the trophy-laden days of Mercer and Allison.

Mercer died in 1990 one of the most beloved characters in English football while Malcolm Allison at age 73 suffers from dementia.




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