Paul Lambert should be applauded for his brave policy of recruiting players from the lower leagues, writes Aston Villa FanZoner Peter Cameron.
Transition is a term I used to hate. Now, I'm sure I've used on several occasions in the past, but it's never really been a phrase I understood to any great extent or really believed in. I used to see it as a cop out, a way of justifying underachievement or a lack of consistency with a phrase that didn't really mean anything. This season has changed all that.
Change has been a major factor at Aston Villa this year and the team is virtually unrecognisable to that which Alex McLeish cobbled together. That Gabby Agbonlahor was the only player to start in both the final game of last season and at Wigan on Sunday shows quite how dramatic that change has been. In fact only six other players from the game at Carrow Road in 2012 managed to make the final 18 for this season's curtain closer. Transition is defined as 'the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.' Well then, this is definitely it.
It was something which needed to be done. I thought Paul Lambert had tried too much too soon and that to really create what is essentially a new team would take more than a solitary season. It looked worrying for a long while, a season not fit for those of a nervous disposition, but we've come through it and I genuinely believe that we are now in a position where we can build for the long term rather than look at quick fixes.
Paul Lambert has got things wrong, most notably a frustrating fascination with playing three at the back which, bar a result at Anfield, yielded little but confidence sapping hammerings. But he had a plan, his task was more than to just keep Villa treading water, his job was to overhaul the club's ethos as much as the team and get them back to being competitive again without haemorrhaging money on underutilised and overpaid players.
The club was rotting from the inside out, and Stephen Ireland's performance in the 3-0 loss to Wigan was a snapshot of a problem that had been endemic in the club since the end of Martin O'Neill's tenure. Too many players in the squad had arrived for big fees and on big wages off the back of one good season. These players came in happy to rest on their laurels safe in the knowledge that - in their own minds at least - they had "made it".
The fight to succeed in the likes of Ireland, Habib Beye, Stephen Warnock, Alan Hutton, Charles N'Zogbia and to a lesser extent Shay Given, just wasn't there. When the going got tough their play always demonstrated a mentality that if it didn't work out here it didn't matter, they still get paid and someone else would take a punt on them at the end of the season anyway. They had nothing to prove and nothing to lose.
The young and hungry philosophy has brought its own problems but players who aren't up for the fight isn't one of them. The new breed of players bought in or brought in from the academy know that this is their chance to prove they can cut it at this level, to carve out a career for themselves, to make the step up. Ashley Westwood, Matthew Lowton, Andreas Weimann, Brad Guzan and Christian Benteke have all proved themselves to be perfectly capable of performing in the Premier League.
Mental fragility was a question which presented itself over the Christmas period, which made many - including me - question if the young team had the bottle to stay in the Premier League. But once on a system and line-up that suited the players had been found, that question was unequivocally answered with wins in bonafide six-pointers against QPR, Reading, Stoke and Sunderland.
That the four aforementioned players were brought to the club for in the region of a combined £11million (or slightly more than one N'Zogbia) is testament to Lambert's scouting network and proof that there is value to be found in signing players who aren't household names. Which makes it all the more inexplicable that so many were deriding the manager's recent statement that there wouldn't be big name players arriving this summer. That ship has sailed. And I for one am glad to see the back of a transfer system which got us into this mess in the first place.
For the first time in two or three years we now have saleable assets at the club again. Players who are admired and coveted by other teams, not players who we'd struggle to shift, not players who are on unsustainable finances and not players who have no interest in being here. Players whose values have increased, not decreased, since joining the club. Players we want to try and keep hold of, not players we'll struggle to get rid of. We have a core of young, talented and improving players around which to drop in extra quality and experience to keep moving forwards.
The next step is to secure contracts for the players who have provided a foundation which gives reason for optimism next year and ensure that those contracts are rewarding but without being excessive. That leaves the summer to work at bringing in the additional four or so players which will help us stay clear of the precarious position we faced for most of this year and ensure my bottom is slightly less squeaky this time around.
It's been a long hard slog, but it's been a season of transition. Lambert's risk has paid off for now and he needs to make sure the next phase of the plan is put into action swiftly and efficiently. The pleasing thing is that he seems to have actually have a plan for the long term. And you know what? I have faith it'll work.