After their drubbing by Wigan, where do Aston Villa and Lambert go from here
22:30 GMT, 30 December 2012
There would be few prizes for guessing the topic of conversation as Aston Villa’s decision makers gathered for a summit meeting yesterday.
Owner Randy Lerner, chief executive Paul Faulkner and manager Paul Lambert would have but one subject in mind: where on earth do we go from here
Oh, to have been a fly-on-the-wall at Lerner’s converted farmhouse in the north Warwickshire countryside as the latest depressing episode in Villa’s history was dissected.
What now It was a case of it never rains but it pours for Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert as they slumped to a dire 3-0 defeat by Wigan on Saturday
Fifteen goals conceded in three matches. The heaviest defeat in the club’s history at Chelsea. Back-to-back home reversals to Spurs on Boxing Day and relegation rivals Wigan Athletic on Saturday.
In 2010, as Gerard Houllier fought with Villa’s senior players, Lerner was backed into a corner and stumped up 18million with 6m add-ons to purchase Darren Bent and guarantee Premier League survival.
Twelve months ago the situation was not as desperate. But Alex McLeish still asked for, and received, temporary assistance in the shape of Robbie Keane. Villa limped over the line to safety, the club damaged by the bitterness surrounding a misguided managerial appointment.
After a change of policy to bringing in young and hungry players under Lambert, the club once more find themselves at a crossroads.
Several senior players are currently sidelined through injury. Another clutch of first-teamers have been marginalised at the manager’s discretion and there is a third group whose top-flight experience extends to half a season. The situation is crying out for decisive action.
Rock bottom: Villa's Stephen Ireland (left) and Chris Herd don't know where to look as Wigan take control of the match
Bizarrely, it is little more than two weeks since Villa won 3-1 at Anfield. It was in the week building up to that game that Lambert’s team defeated Norwich City to confirm a spot in the League Cup semi-finals against Bradford City. Incredibly, Wembley beckons.
But so, on the form of the past week, does relegation.
Of course, Lambert can do little about the series of injuries that have befallen key players.
Ron Vlaar, Gabby Agbonlahor, Charles N’Zogbia and Darren Bent are all on the treatment table.
The problem for Lambert is that these absences are recent. Villa were hardly pulling up any trees in the Premier League with their help.
And Bent finds himself in two groups. First, among those senior players who are missing through injury. However, he can also count himself among those who have been marginalised. When Lambert arrived, he did so with a promise to get the club’s star striker firing again.
Grim outlook: Some embarrassed faces on the Villa bench as they lose to Wigan
He promptly made him captain.
Suddenly, Bent was dropped. Not just from the team, but from the squad. What happened
Lambert had tried to replicate what he had done with his previous club, Norwich City. When the former Champions League winner (as a midfielder with Borussia Dortmund) arrived at Carrow Road, he identified Grant Holt as the man who could keep order in the dressing room and set a good example.
When Lambert asked Bent to do the same at Villa, the club’s manager was disappointed with the response.
He was then faced with a dilemma. Should he allow the England international to continue in a role to which he clearly wasn’t suited Or does he exert his managerial authority and teach Bent a lesson
Too easy: Wigan's Ivan Ramis celebrates opening the scoring after three minutes
With so many young professionals, Lambert chose the second option. Bent is now recovering from a hamstring injury. And the Scot is under severe pressure. His honeymoon is over. The issue remains.
In fairness, Villa supporters have bestowed the most generous of mandates on Lambert to produce winning football.
‘We’ve had some really heavy defeats,’ said Brett Holman, who is as straight-talking as his Australian background would suggest, ‘we are in a dip.
‘People might say we lack Premier League experience, but they weren’t saying it after we beat Liverpool at Anfield.
‘It could help if you have a couple of players who have 200-300 league games behind them.’
Just a dip: Brett Holman (centre) defended Villa's young team
And so to yesterday’s meeting. Lerner is reluctant to keep footing the bill for huge losses but appreciates he may need to dig deep to avoid a relegation battle once more.
Lambert wants an experienced centre half, an energetic, ball-winning midfielder and another striker. All preferably with Premier League experience.
But which player, of any experience and quality, is going to see Aston Villa as a good career move
Of course, Villa could always do nothing. Tough it out.
But with three cup-ties in January, not to mention home games against fellow relegation candidates Southampton and Newcastle, it would be a bold gamble.