After all the talk of the USA’s Bob Bradley, Everton’s David Moyes, Sven-Goran Eriksson or even an audacious bid for city-rivals Birmingham’s Alex McLeish, the appointment of former Liverpool boss Gérard Houllier as the new Aston Villa manager came as a bit of a shock. The news has been greeted with a lukewarm and downbeat response from many Villa fans, despite Houllier not making his debut until this Wednesday’s League Cup tie with Blackburn Rovers. However, just because it came out of left field does not mean it is necessarily a bad decision.

There has been much grumbling from Villa fans about the new permanent successor to Martin O’Neill – so much so that Charles Krulak, one of owner Randy Lerner’s most trusted lieutenants, appealed to fans on message boards to lay off the new man before he starts – but in the light of the awkward situation they were left in by the Ulsterman’s sudden resignation on the eve of the new season, Houllier was hardly the worst choice.

Once Roy Hodgson, Martin Jol and Mark Hughes had committed to Liverpool, Ajax and Fulham respectively, Houllier was one of few managers with any pedigree – a big part of laying the ground for the French World Cup win in 1998, winning a treble of trophies at Anfield in 2001 and two league titles at Lyon in 2006 and 2007 – still available. The likes of Alan Curbishley (ex-Birmingham, dour football, mixed record at West Ham) and Bob Bradley (no Premier League experience) were practical non-starters, and with current English top flight managers such as Moyes and McLeish impossibly unrealistic (as was Diego Maradona’s bizarre attempt to claim the job), only the tainted Sven-Goran Eriksson had a similarly successful record, and his globe-trotting of late has seen him do little with a lot at Manchester City and nearly humiliate Mexico by seeing them not qualify for the World Cup this summer.

Although Houllier has been out of management for three years, did make a host of poor signings late in his tenure at Liverpool and could be said to have not needed to do much to win Lyon’s fifth and sixth consecutive Ligue 1 crowns, he is a famed developer of the sort of young talent Villa produce in significant numbers; he has a strong track-record in Europe and, consequently, he is by far the best of a bad bunch.

There is less of a feeling of transition than of depression around Villa Park at present, with the sale of James Milner and an early exit from Europe downsizing fans’ expectations from a possible tilt at trophies and fourth place to a battle with Everton for the last remaining European qualification spot.

It may therefore be a better time to take over from O’Neill than a season or two ago, before the side had failed to reach the Champions League or clinch a cup trophy – even if they were horrendously unlucky against Manchester United and Chelsea last year – and so the Ulsterman’s departure is softened by the feeling he missed his best chances of progress, but maintaining the qualified successes of the the former Celtic manager’s years is a very big task. The slightly lacklustre field of names has fed into the fans’ pessimism, with a fatalistic ‘This will have to do’ the overriding sentiment, for now at least – when another big-name manager is available there may be more agitation to move on Houllier for the more renowned or current name. Aston Villa manager may be a prestige job in English football, but after the rise of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, and the expected resurgence of Liverpool, it is not one of the most appealing positions, promising a large number of success-starved fans with recent progression to the cusp of silverware demanding more of the same against increased competition with a decreased budget.

This search for a big name could have been avoided had Kevin MacDonald’s reign as caretaker manager produced better than mixed results, with a good win over a hapless West Ham followed by a thrashing from Newcastle, bowing out of Europe early after carelessly losing at home to Rapid Vienna, a fortunate home victory against Everton and an unlucky defeat to Stoke. MacDonald’s continued presence at Villa Park is in increasing doubt, with Gary McAllister joining Houllier as assistant manager, and MacDonald returning to his previous reserve-team role. Considering the sheer weight of support for the 43-year-old in the squad it would seem to be a judicious move to retain the services of the hugely popular Scot, and it may be a shrewd plan if Lerner has has hired Houllier with the intention of training up MacDonald as his eventual successor.

Houllier’s age and the purchases of the likes of Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou may be highlighted by sceptical fans, but if the Frenchman can rediscover his winning ways from Liverpool, and throw in some of the magic of the Anfield ‘Boot Room’ that his saw his illustrious predecessors on Merseyside sustain an incredible period of success, then the dissenting voices will quietly fade away.

In what is yet another unseen turn on this most spectacularly erratic start to an Aston Villa season for decades, a ghost from Premier Leagues’ past has come back to try and rejuvenate a team of the future that faces an uncertain present. It surely is a tale of the unexpected, with not many predicting the sort of fairytale ending that greeted O’Neill’s arrival four years previously, but Villa are in a good enough position to avoid a horrific conclusion.