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Time running out for Aston Villa's gaffe-prone Gérard Houllier

It has got to the stage with Gérard Houllier where it is starting to feel like a matter of when and not if he leaves Aston Villa.

Time running out for Aston Villa's gaffe-prone Gérard Houllier The club's board continues to claim that is not the case but a series of PR disasters, frequent stories of player unrest and, most significantly of all, the dreadful results that have deepened relegation fears mean the vast majority of fans have already made up their mind about the manager.

Their vitriolic verdict was delivered at the end of the last home match, when a 1-0 defeat against their neighbours and fellow strugglers Wolverhampton Wanderers led to an outpouring of anger that transported those with longer memories back to the 1986-87 season. That campaign ended, rather ominously, with Billy McNeill, who had been appointed in September – the same month Houllier took over – being sacked in May after Villa were relegated from the top flight.

Villa have negotiated several tricky patches since but it is difficult to remember another manager at the club during the past 25 years with a popularity rating as low as Houllier's. David O'Leary, in his final season in charge, was famously greeted with a banner on the Holte End that read: "We're not fickle – we just don't like you," yet the Irishman was never subjected to the chants and abuse that Houllier endured during and after the woeful defeat against Wolves a fortnight ago.

It was a display that stank of a club sleepwalking towards the Championship and it raised questions about whether Houllier has lost the support of the players as well as the faith of the fans. The board backed Houllier afterwards and said he would remain in his job until the end of the season, although the supporters will have something to say about that if Villa lose at Goodison Park on Saturday and produce another inept performance at home to Newcastle United on Sunday week.

So how has it come to this? The reality is that the club's decision to appoint Houllier was never greeted warmly and he did nothing to improve public opinion when he told a French newspaper on the day of his unveiling that he was taking over a club that "according to me has belonged between seventh and 12th place in the Premier League". Villa finished in the top six in the previous three seasons and also in nine of their 18 Premier League campaigns.

Had that comment been in isolation it might have been brushed aside but instead it was the first of a number of self-inflicted gaffes that have left Houllier with no goodwill to fall back on in bad times. Also against his name are the ridiculous post-match remarks he made at Anfield, when he said: "If I was going to lose 3-0 to anyone it would be Liverpool," and the bizarre and ill-judged decision to sacrifice the FA Cup by fielding a weakened team at Manchester City three months later.

All the while Villa have gone from Champions League contenders to relegation strugglers in what feels like the blink of an eye. Houllier has picked up six league wins in as many months and 26 points from 25 matches. A squad littered with internationals, including several who excelled for England in the recent fixtures against Wales and Ghana, have to take their share of the blame, but Houllier knows where the buck stops. "I know the manager is responsible for the results," he said on Thursday.

Come the end of the season he may well reflect that one of his biggest mistakes was trying to alter too much too quickly after the Martin O'Neill years. It is difficult to criticise a few of the changes – introducing double sessions to improve fitness and asking players earning millions of pounds a year to relocate rather than spend hours commuting every day seems reasonable enough – but by opting for revolution rather than evolution Houllier upset an influential group of that he needed onside.

The fall-out has been spectacular. Houllier publicly accused Stephen Ireland of not working hard enough and branded the Norway international John Carew, who has since been loaned to Stoke City, as "stupid". Houllier dropped Richard Dunne after a spat on the training ground with the assistant manager, Gary McAllister, ostracised Habib Beye following another disagreement and made Stephen Warnock, an England squad player in the last World Cup, train with the reserves after dropping him from the starting XI. Then James Collins and Dunne turned a team-building exercise into a drunken row.

Some events on the field have been just as difficult to explain. After Villa lost 3-2 at Bolton Wanderers last month, in a game that Houllier describes as "the turning point", the manager appeared to blame O'Neill for the manner of the defeat. "We have conceded too many goals at set pieces," he said. "We have to address that. I came to this club on 18 September. They had their habits, they have them for four years and I am not going to change them in the middle of the season."

It was a bizarre stance to take and one that could prove costly judging by the damning statistics. Villa have conceded 23 goals from set pieces this season – more than every Premier League club apart from West Bromwich Albion and 10 more than they did when O'Neill was in charge last season. All of which suggests that putting on a simple training session, working on defending dead-ball situations, may be worth doing before the end of the campaign.

Whether or not Houllier will still be around then remains to be seen. He could not have wished for a more benign run of games after the trip to Everton – Villa's next five fixtures are against teams within four points of them. It will also not have escaped the Frenchman's attention, though, that a visit to Arsenal follows in the penultimate game of the season before Liverpool, of all teams, arrive in the Midlands on the final day.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Stuart James, for The Guardian on Thursday 31st March 2011 22.30 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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