Aston Villa are developing an unfortunate habit of specialising in seemingly chaotic starts. A month ago, a season began under the interim regime of Kevin MacDonald after Martin O'Neill's ill-timed resignation. Now a new era commences with MacDonald again in the dugout, the reluctant understudy to a second manager.
As Villa face Stoke City tonight, Gerard Houllier is waylaid in his native land, completing his duties as the technical director of the French Football Federation. That both Patrice Bergues and Phil Thompson have rejected the chance to become his assistant is inauspicious. But while there remains a prominent absentee from the dugout, as is often the case, the present, and thus the future, is a stark reaction to the past. It indicates a particularly pronounced shift in thinking in the boardroom.
The Frenchman is an antidote not just to O'Neill but also to MacDonald, whose was the uneasy hand at the helm for the past month. He is a man chosen for his past, but railing against interpretations of it. O'Neill cultivated a persona as the eccentric enthusiast; Houllier is sternly serious. MacDonald was an agitated leader, but a man with 15 years' experience at Villa Park and an understanding of every aspect of the club; Houllier is an outsider with a controlling streak.
He is also, he could add, a man with three French Ligue 1 titles and four major trophies for Liverpool to his name; Villa, without silverware for 15 years, have stalled in sixth place and are in danger of regressing. So if O'Neill took Villa as far as he could - a conclusion the Northern Irishman appears to have reached, while his successor has targeted a Champions League place - it explains the change of emphasis.
The contrast, however, is both welcome and unwelcome. Houllier's astute use of a squad rotation policy helped Liverpool win the treble of FA Cup, League Cup and Uefa Cup in 2001, while also finishing third in the Premier League; O'Neill, in comparison, preferred not to alter his chosen 11. However, Houllier's arrival at Liverpool was prompted in part by the thought that a man involved in the French football academy at Clairefontaine would be able to propel a generation of local youngsters into the team. While he merits credit for the development of Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, Houllier became intrinsically associated with purchases - some horribly misguided - from his native France, rather than blooding a group of Merseysiders.
At Villa, he inherits an emerging group of Brits. Unable to sign for four months, he must persevere with Marc Albrighton and Co. The paradox of Houllier's time at Anfield was that the man remembered for recruiting El-Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou was a dedicated Anglophile. "Houllier was the best 'British' manager I have worked with," Carragher wrote in his autobiography. And if his Liverpool side prove a guide, Houllier's team may share some characteristics with the Stoke side his new charges face tonight.
"Hard work, strict discipline, mental and physical toughness and team spirit were at the heart of his philosophy," Carragher wrote. "Illness deprived him of the sharp judgement that had led to swift early progress, but for three years he was a great Liverpool manager." His last two years were, in Carragher's opinion, "appalling". It is Houllier's misfortune that he is remembered for them, two seasons that explain the opposition from a section of Villa supporters.
Besides an emotional attachment to English football, the quest to rebuild a reputation tarnished between 2002 and 2004 explains his return. Houllier left Lyon in 2007 seemingly without regrets but, though he denies it, he still seems to have unfinished business in the Premier League. Whether insecurity and pedigree prove a potent combination remains to be seen, but that is Villa's hope. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
@TV pointer:Stoke City v Aston Villa, tonight, 11pm, ADMC Sports 3 & 5