'Play well and you might get picked.'
Paul Lambert's message may have been aimed at his two
men in reserve, Libor Kozak and Nicklas Helenius, heading into his side's game
against Cardiff on Saturday, but it speaks to all who have, might, or hope to
wear the claret and blue of Aston Villa this season, and sums up a manager's
attitude who doesn't think any player takes priority over either the club or
The former Norwich manager has, along with the advice of the club's board, changed the shape of an Aston Villa squad that was once breaking club records in the transfer market.
Since the departure of Alex McLeish, a season and a quarter ago, the off the field plan of Villa has been fairly straight forward in theory, reduce the budget and avoid relegation. Since then the club has rid itself of the services of Richard Dunne, Darren Bent, Stephen Ireland, Barry Bannan, Emile Heskey, James Collins and Carlos Cuéllar, all of which were regular starters under the previous Scottish manager, and all of which seemed to be happy to put in lacklustre performances for a club that once called itself the champions of Europe.
Lambert has been a manager, for Villa, that has expected 100% from anyone in his starting 11 and this season is no exception.
Last year, if it hadn't been for his predecessor's inability to manage a struggling side - and the outcry that came from appointing a manager who had just relegated the clubs biggest rivals Birmingham City - Lambert could easily have been dismissed after he dragged Villa dangerously close to the bottom three, embroiling them in a relegation battle that finished on the second to last day of the season. The relief, however, that Lambert wasn't McLeish meant the fans stuck with the Irishman, but his methods baffled many who watched the club on a regular basis. Bent, Ireland, and others were all considered to be potential game changers by the fans and critics yet they suddenly found themselves cast adrift as Lambert looked to fill his side with players who possessed the right attitude and work ethic. It upset many fans at the time and baffled a number of the players involved, but the inexperienced Ashley Westwood, Nathan Baker and others, managed to fight their way to Premier League survival and the club is now reaping the benefits of a side, no comfortable with top flight football.
Lambert has been happy to 'take no prisoners' and disrupt the system in order to turn Villa into a hard working, gutsy football team and, as their young players brought in continue to improve with game time and experience, the club looks like it will continue to grow from the humbling place it found itself two years ago. It may not have been a popular way of going about his business during his first year at the club, but Lambert hasn't come to make friends, he's come to bring success to the football club in the best way he knows how.
The future of Christian Benteke is obviously a key factor as to just how far the Midlanders go as the club moves forward, but with an uncompromising manager - whose attitude reminds many of Sir Alex Ferguson, unwilling to let a player become bigger than the club - at the helm, the future looks stable for those on the Holte End.