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Renewed Sense of Optimism at Villa Park

Two weeks ago, a ten-man Aston Villa side fell into the relegation zone of the Premiership for the first time in eight years following a 1-0 home defeat against Sunderland. With morale at rock bottom, reports of bust-ups between players and management and the dwindling support of the fans, things seemed to be on a downward spiral for the side that have finished in the top six of the league for the past three years.

However, there is now a renewed sense of optimism around the club. Gerard Houllier joined the club after the summer transfer window had closed and thus was unable to make any changes to the squad to suit his style of play and management. The day after the Sunderland defeat, Aston Villa announced their first new signing of the window – Kyle Walker on loan from Tottenham. Whilst a decent signing, this merely seemed to confirm the view that funds had dried up at Villa Park. Having to bring in a player on loan from a side we were challenging last season seemed symptomatic of the slump that has befallen the club since Martin O’Neill departed.

However, only nine minutes into his debut, Walker collected the ball just past the halfway line, running past Rob Kozluk and slotting the ball into the corner of the net. The first glimpse of light in what have been dark times at the club in recent months.

At Liverpool, Gerard Houllier was often criticised for his signings, and that is one of the things that slightly worried Aston Villa fans. However, he has made a spectacular start in bringing new players permanently to Villa Park.

His first permanent signing was the Cameroon international midfielder, Jean Il Makoun, from his former club Lyon. Makoun has played regularly at the top level in France with Lille and Lyon, as well as being a proven Champions League quality player with both clubs. Given that Lyon paid almost €15m for him three years ago, he would appear to be a bargain at the reported €5m that Houllier has paid Lyon for him.

The transfer dealings were only just beginning. Reports began to surface that Blackpool captain, Charlie Adam, was a serious target for Houllier. After bids of £2.5m and £3.5m had been rejected by Ian Holloway, the two clubs were set to agreed terms on a deal worth around £4m only two days ago. However, one event was about to change all that.

On Sunday, rumours on an Aston Villa fans forum claimed that Darren Bent was unhappy at Sunderland and that Aston Villa were on the verge of an £18m deal to bring him to the club. It seemed an outlandish suggestion, given the supposed lack of money at the club. However, less than 24 hours later, the breaking sports news was that he was in the Midlands to discuss terms with the club over a deal worth £18m, possibly rising to £24m with add-ons.

This was the moment that the clouds over Villa Park truly parted. It dispelled all the newspaper gossip that there was no money to spend to try and turn around the season. And more than anything, it showed that Villa mean business again.

Darren Bent is one of the most proven Premiership strikers of recent times. In the past five years, only Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney have scored more goals than Bent. Given that he spent a prolonged period of that sitting on the bench at Tottenham, it is a phenomenal record.

Aston Villa have been crying out for a proven goalscorer for over a decade, ever since Dwight Yorke left to join Manchester United. Various players have had the odd decent season – Dion Dublin, Juan Pablo Angel, Gabby Agbonlahor and John Carew amongst others – but Darren Bent is the real deal.

And it is unlikely that Aston Villa’s dealings in the transfer market will end here. However, it will now become more difficult to secure good value deals. Until the Darren Bent deal, clubs were under the impression that money was tight at Villa Park. However, it is now clear that there is funding available to strengthen the squad.

It is believed that the money received from the James Milner deal is still available to spend, and was not used to fund the Darren Bent signing. If this is true, it means there is still another £15m or so still available to Gerard Houllier, plus whatever he can recoup from moving squad players out.

Steve Sidwell has already departed to join Fulham and a number of other players are likely to be following him out the door. John Carew is set to move to West Brom on loan with a view to a permanent move, whilst Curtis Davies and Stephen Ireland are being strongly linked with Celtic. The likes of Habib Beye, Stephen Warnock and Luke Young are decent bets to be leaving Villa Park over the next two weeks.

It is likely that there will be another two or three players coming into Villa over the next couple of weeks. The club are still debating a further bid for Charlie Adam, having been on the verge of agreeing a £5m move before the Bent deal revealed the extent of funding at the club. Blackpool reportedly now are demanding £7m for their captain, which may put off any further offers.

A left-back is almost certain to be joining the club, given the recent demotion of Stephen Warnock to the reserve team. Various names have been mooted in the press – Maynor Figueroa and Taye Taiwo are two popular names – but the favourite currently appears to be Montpellier and Bosnia captain, Emir Spahic. Whilst predominantly a central defender, he can play on the left, and is well-known to Houllier from his French connections. One other outside possibility would be Newcastle’s Jose Enrique, who has been one of the most impressive fullbacks in the league so far this season.

Another central midfielder is also high on the list, with Charlie Adam the favourite. However, the recent bad blood between Holloway and Aston Villa has made Blackpool unwilling to sell him to Villa, and he is likely to move to Everton instead. If he does not join, it is unclear whether there are other targets, although newspaper gossip is suggesting that there is an interest in Japanese star, Keisuke Honda. Whilst this would be an incredible signing, it seems highly unlikely and there would be far bigger clubs in for him if he were available.

As to the third reported signing, there are reports that there is interest in bringing a new keeper to Villa Park. Brad Friedal is beginning to show signs of his age, although remains a very good Premiership keeper. However, he is naturally reaching the end of his career, and Brad Guzan has hardly suggested that he is ready to make the step up to the big time.

The other suggestion is that there may be interest in another striker, although it is likely to be a younger striker who will be slowly brought into the first team picture. Quite who that might be is a mystery, but it remains to be seen.

The recent flurry of transfer activity has launched a new era of renewed optimism at Villa Park that has been missing since the summer and the departures of Martin O’Neill and James Milner. Clearly, the club need to start getting the results on the pitch, but Houllier is building a very strong team at Villa Park, whilst he still retains the crux of the side that recorded consecutive European finishes. If he can restore confidence to the players, Aston Villa should be moving back up the table in the coming months.

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