Early Doors

The Second City at war

Early Doors

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"Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Birmingham, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean."

With just a touch of poetic licence - as far as ED knows, no one has yet referred to Birmingham as 'fair' - the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet sum up pretty neatly the bitter row engulfing England's Second City at present. And the two star-crossed lovers sparking this civil war? The very odd couple of Alex McLeish and Randy Lerner. If consummated, it appears fated to be a loveless marriage from the start.

Tuesday witnessed a dramatic escalation in hostilities between Birmingham's own Montagues and Capulets. In the afternoon Villa bullishly declared in a statement that McLeish is a "free agent" following his resignation at St Andrew's, before, deep into the night, Birmingham responded in forceful terms by accusing their rivals of making an illegal approach.

ED reckons there hasn't been a city this divided since Shakespeare's fictional Verona. Oh, right, maybe Berlin, but you get the idea.

Birmingham's furious and indignant statement bears repeated reading: "Birmingham City Football Club finds Aston Villa's announcement today (Tuesday) to proceed with an interview with Alex McLeish a contempt of Premier League and FA rules.

"The club feel this will taint football and give the game and the footballing authorities a bad name if this is allowed to materialise. The club will do what is within its powers to prevent this and will lodge a formal complaint to the authorities tomorrow as there is now not the slightest doubt remaining about this tap up attempt.

"Birmingham City FC stresses that this conduct, if condoned, will open up flood gates and set a very bad precedent. This is also an attack against the intelligence and integrity of not only the Villa fans, but most importantly our fans who are badly let down after having just been relegated."

Such animosity, and for what? For the life of it, ED just cannot fathom why Villa are going anywhere near the man who relegated their local rivals. What makes it even more galling is that Villa are supposed to be the senior partner in this relationship: the Manchester United to Birmingham's Manchester City, the Arsenal to their Spurs, the Oasis to their Blur.

Despite his good reputation in the game and evident managerial qualities, McLeish wasn't even a hugely popular figure amongst Birmingham fans, despite their Carling Cup success and excellent Premier League campaign in 2009-10, largely due to his boring style of play and questionable tactical approach. It is no surprise to ED to see Villa fans threatening to rebel.

As Jonathan Fear, editor of the Vital Villa fans' website, said: "I would fear for the atmosphere and attendances at Villa Park if Alex McLeish is appointed manager. I've got friends who are adamant they will return their season tickets if McLeish is appointed."

The whole saga seems to have exploded a myth about Lerner being a 'model owner', as he was frequently described following his purchase of the club in 2006. It is interesting to note that Martin O'Neill was already in place and when the Ulsterman quit just five days before the start of last season, Lerner first placed faith in Kevin MacDonald before then making an error in appointing Gerard Houllier - a man who alienated supporters, though not on the scale McLeish has.

Houllier's sad departure due to health problems handed Villa a big opportunity to get the right man - a David Moyes figure. Instead, Lerner and his team have presided over a mess, seemingly without direction or indeed logic. Some of Villa's decision-making over the past week or so simply makes no sense.

Mark Hughes was ruled out due to the manner of his departure from Fulham, as he invoked a clause in his contract to walk out at Craven Cottage. Meanwhile, however, McLeish quit Birmingham via email at the same time that acting chairman Peter Pannu was in Amsterdam attempting to sign him another player following the club's relegation. Which exit strategy is more unpalatable?

Steve McClaren was in line for an interview, only to apparently be ruled out on the basis of a negative reaction from supporters to his name being in the frame. Meanwhile, McLeish will be spoken to despite the outrage expressed by Villa fans, which has far outweighed anything directed towards the erstwhile England manager. A banner has already been put up at Villa Park and graffiti has been daubed on the wall of the training facility at Bodymoor Heath.

Strangely enough, ED is reminded of the protest Birmingham fans held themselves when the club signed Lee Bowyer in 2005. And indeed when West Ham fans protested against the signing of, erm, Lee Bowyer in 2003.

Finally, though Villa could not be blamed for Roberto Martinez turning them down to stay at Wigan (though it did set alarm bells ringing), it was slightly bizarre to read in the club's statement on Tuesday that one task for the new manager would be, "most importantly, sharing our vision for Aston Villa as we know that without a shared vision any appointment, however attractive, will ultimately fail."

But hang on, just what is the club's vision? How can you claim to have anything as concrete, as tangible as a vision if after missing out on Martinez - a football sophisticate, a devotee of attractive football and a keen student of foreign markets - you immediately target a man in McLeish who, though he has many other qualities, is none of those things. Where is the seam of unified thought, of consistency, here? Where is the coherent vision?

The two managers embody two very distinct corners of the managerial spectrum; they are mutually exclusive. That is not to say one is necessarily better than the other, but it speaks volumes that Villa jumped from one to the other.

Villa's statement continued: "We would, however, like to emphasise that in deciding to interview Alex McLeish, the board has taken his tenure at our local rivals and the strong emotions associated with this very seriously. We are determined, still, not to allow that three-and-a-half year post to disqualify him should he be the best candidate for the role of Aston Villa manager."

In theory, this is a valid point. Emotions of supporters should not dictate policy at board level and someone like Giovanni Trapattoni successfully swapped Juventus for Inter; on the other hand, such examples are few and far between and there comes a point where the response of supporters is so visceral, so primal, that it demands to be heard.

Strangely enough, this situation is not without precedent. After Ron Saunders left Villa in 1982 he then took charge of Birmingham. Villa won the European Cup in his absence, Birmingham were relegated two years later and in 1986 he jumped ship again to secure a Midlands managerial hat-trick with West Brom.

It's not the most encouraging portent. And Romeo and Juliet? Well, we all know how that ended. "For never was a story of more woe," wrote Shakespeare. Aston Villa fans, though, may disagree.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I can confirm that I was one of the candidates that the club spoke to about the vacant manager's position at Cardiff City. During these talks I was most impressed with the vision, ambition and determination of the owner Dato Chan Tien Ghee and the board. Unfortunately those talks were unsuccessful on this occasion. Cardiff City is a great club and I wish them every success next season." - Alan Shearer reveals he is out of the running for the Cardiff job, and somewhere, Craig Bellamy breathes a huge sigh of relief.

FOREIGN VIEW: "I have received an inquiry from the secretary of the Ethics Committee to respond to a complaint filed by the Jamaica Football Federation. I will respond to the committee fully and I am confident of a positive resolution." - CONCACAF's crisis continues as Chuck Blazer reveals he too has been questioned by FIFA's Ethics Committee.

COMING UP: Jim White and Andy Mitten will both be bringing us their latest columns, while the European Under-21 Championship continues in Denmark as Czech Republic play Spain at 17:00 UK time and England take on Ukraine at 19:45.

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