“Experience is overrated”, Tim Sherwood declared shortly before his first game as Aston Villa boss ended in defeat at the hands of an established Premier League team overseen by a proven top flight manager. Mark Hughes, the victorious manager in question, was gracious enough to describe Sherwood as a good appointment, but the result on Saturday suggests that Villa need a tried and tested survival expert rather than someone with plenty of passion but little in the way of coaching ability.
The problems facing Villa extend well beyond the identity of the man in the dugout. A malaise has set in since the day Martin O’Neill walked out on the eve of a new season and Randy Lerner decided to stop investing in the club. Successive managers, from Gerard Houllier to Alex McLeish and then, latterly, Paul Lambert, have found it impossible to replicate O’Neill’s success because of a restricted budget and the unrealistic expectations of the Holte End.
Being transported into such a desperate situation, taking charge of a team that has scored a measly 13 goals in 26 games and is without a league win in nearly three months, is quite an ask even for someone with Sherwood’s self-confidence. Villa’s key players are horribly out of form, with Ron Vlaar making the mistake that led to Stoke’s winner on Saturday, Fabien Delph struggling to recapture the form that earned him an England call up, and Christian Benteke looking a shadow of the player who took the league by storm in his debut season.
Sherwood’s first task is to get more out of those three players, all of whom have the talent to drag an average team away from the bottom of the league. Despite many people suggesting that they are too good to go down, Villa have a plethora of ordinary players, the squad full of mediocre signings made by Lambert and his scouts. In Vlaar, Delph and Benteke, Sherwood has a trio who ought to be playing higher up the table, and have the potential to get Villa there if they can lead by example with their performances during the run-in.
Yet a relegation battle is no place for a novice manager. Sherwood showed some potential during his brief spell at Tottenham, getting good performances, as he never fails to remind us, out of Emmanuel Adebayor, and promoting young players such as Nabil Bentaleb and Harry Kane to the first team. His percentage win record, as he has also pointed out over the past week, is better than Harry Redknapp’s and Mauricio Pochettino’s, at 59%.
His impressive win record shows that statistics are often misleading. Tottenham were battered against the best, beaten heavily by Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool whilst Sherwood watched on helplessly. He and his players came up short when it mattered most. Few Tottenham fans were particularly sorry to see him leave at the end of last season, his impact having faded as the campaign wore on.
Make no mistake, Lerner has taken a real punt by appointing someone with very little experience, whose time in management up until now has been unconvincing. Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion and Queens Park Rangers have all been in the market for a new manager over the past two months, yet none of them turned to Sherwood. It feels rather as though he was the best of a limited pool available to Villa.
Sherwood’s presence in the stands was the most interesting thing about Villa’s painfully dull FA Cup tie against Leicester City last weekend, and the team’s improved showing after his visit to the dressing room at half-time was identified by many analysts as the turning point in the game. When Sherwood’s man-management skills are alluded to on such a regular basis, it hints at an underlying superficiality, suggesting that he has little more about him than the ability to get players on board.
He will need to demonstrate a wider variety of skills than that in order to keep Villa in the Premier League. There are some crucial fixtures coming up, with a couple of visits to the North East and home games against West Brom and Swansea. Failure to take points from those will leave Villa in serious trouble as April approaches, when they face the two Manchester clubs and Tottenham in quick succession.
Whilst Sherwood may dismiss the importance of experience, he is surrounded by evidence that the most effective relegation trouble-shooters are men like Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis, managers who have spent years in work and know what it takes to grind out results. The demands of staying up are new both to Villa’s players and their manager. It seems like a recipe for relegation.