Aston Villa boss Paul Lambert out on a limb

Michael Holden
lambert 300x225 Aston Villa boss Paul Lambert out on a limb

Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert

It was on the back of an Aston Villa victory in August 1995 that Alan Hansen uttered one of football’s immortal quotes. Now, almost 20 years on, it’s Aston Villa paying the price for the depth to which the Hansen’s embarrassment has seeped into the public consciousness.

“You can’t win anything with kids,” insisted the former Liverpool stalwart in a moment of punditry that has echoed through the subsequent two decades. But the fact remains Hansen was right – generally speaking. Unfortunately for Paul Lambert, he’s finding out the hard way that Fergie’s Fledglings were the exception to the rule, just as Manchester United are the exception to most rules.

If you want a worst-case synopsis of what can happen when the stakes are high and a talented team is bereft of a cool head and a reassuring vocal presence, look no further than the second half of the Capital One Cup semi-final return leg against Bradford last Wednesday.

With Villa 1-0 up on the night and firmly in the ascendancy at the interval, their hopes of a trip to Wembley were dashed by James Hanson’s equaliser shortly after the restart. From that point onwards, they assembled themselves into something resembling a 2-2-6 formation and resorted to what can only be described as panic football.

Not that we should be overly surprised. No outfield player in the Villa team was over the age of 27, and of the six who made up that impromptu forward line, five were 23 or under. Or, to put it another way, they were all born after Madonna reached number one with ‘Like A Prayer’.

The sight wouldn’t have been so alarming had contrast not been provided by Bradford skipper Gary Jones. The 35-year-old Liverpudlian has never plied his trade outside of the bottom two divisions but he was easily the single most influential figure on the pitch. As the tension rose on both sides, Jones knew what needed to be done and how to influence those around him.

It’s easy to see why Lambert believed he could emulate Ferguson in relative terms and meet Villa’s expectations with such an inexperienced group. His achievements at Norwich were extraordinary, but the self-confidence he has taken in his ability to nurture Premier League newcomers was misguided by one subtle variable: maturity.

When the Canaries consolidated their place in the top flight on the back of successive promotions, they did it with players seasoned at a lower level. Grant Holt, the talisman of the team, had turned 30. Russell Martin, Andrew Crofts and Andrew Surman had been playing first-team football for seven years or more. Wes Hoolahan, Anthony Pilkington, Bradley Johnson, Simeon Jackson and Steve Morison had at least three years of competitive match action under their belts.

Villa’s band of youngsters are barely seasoned at all. One might say they’re trying to learn two worlds at once. Circumstances have conspired against Lambert to some degree but most of the older heads from previous regimes have now been alienated, leaving him out on a limb in his hour of need.

So now it’s open season on Aston Villa. Already fragile from that humiliating 8-0 defeat at Chelsea, their weaknesses have been exposed further by a team 62 rungs below them on the football ladder. It’s a psychological disaster because everybody now fancies their chances against them, an out-of-sorts and usually-cautious Newcastle team the latest to recognise a gift horse when they see one.

With the transfer window about to slam shut, Lambert would be wise to heed the lesser-recited words that Hansen offered to Des Lynam on that fateful Match of the Day episode 18 years ago, when he said: “You look at that line-up today and, Aston Villa, when they get the teamsheet at quarter-past-two, it’s just going to give them a lift. And it’ll happen every time he plays the kids. He’s just got to buy players, it’s as simple as that.”

Lambert has less than 48 hours to act. The Villans need a couple of experienced on-field generals as a minimum requirement. Otherwise, Lambert’s youth investment project already seems destined to continue in the Championship next season. And that’s no place for kids either.

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