Written by Stacy Murphy Used with permission from Heroes & Villains.
Okay, so it’s stretching it a bit to call the thirty-three-year-old, veteran of over 400 senior games, now retired from international football after winning fifty caps, Alan Hutton a kid but he has definitely been the most resilient of Villa players in recent years. Signed from Tottenham for around £4 million by Alex McLeish, alongside perma-injured team-mate Jermaine Jenas, on summer transfer deadline day in August 2011 Hutton has been discarded, isolated, loaned out and reinstated by a succession of Villa managers in the last seven seasons, only to win his way back into the first team and be afforded semi-legendary status by our supporters.
McLeish, who had previously managed Hutton at Rangers, saw a reliable if uncompromising right back who would fit into the aura of negativity he appeared to want to stamp through his version of Aston Villa. Sensing this, many fans saw Hutton as emblematic of the sea-change in outlook the Lerner regime had taken after the departure of Martin O’Neill twelve months previously.
One of the problems was that money was now tight at Villa Park with the Lerner cash register mothballed, so spending a reported £7 million on a player most saw as nothing more than an extremely average defender was far from the best use of what limited funds were available. There was also, of course, the undeniable fact that McLeish being the most unpopular new Villa manager since records began damned Hutton by association – everything the manager did was wrong, therefore his signings were equally poor.
All this meant that the Scottish international was up against a myriad of issues before he even started. This was not helped by a reputation for getting suspensions and the occasional brutal tackle, both of which were demonstrated during his first three months in B6.
In mid-October that uncompromising trait was shown in a tackle on Shane Long against everyone’s favourite football artists from Smethwick. In typical Phil Dowd refereeing fashion Hutton escaped punishment, although Dowd realised his mistake a few minutes later when Chris Herd, having been stamped on by Jonas Olsson, was inexplicably sent off. Hutton, meanwhile, became public enemy number one at the Hawthorns, a badge of honour if ever there was one, with their manager Roy Hodgson “disappointed and saddened”.
Villa’s home defeat in that derby game led to even some of those who were initially prepared to give a chance to the serial Small Heath relegator McLeish changing their mind. A petulant second yellow card against Arsenal in December only cemented the growing feeling towards Hutton with some unkindly suggesting that it was a ruse to avoid playing in the games over Christmas.
Hutton stayed in the side throughout the remainder of the season as Villa scraped their way to safety, but when McLeish was finally ejected from the Villa manager’s office, with his place taken by Paul Lambert, the defender’s future at the club looked bleak.
Hutton became part of the so-called ‘bomb squad’ and was cast out into the Bodymoor Heath wilderness along with another McLeish player, Charles N’Zogbia, and £18 million record signing Darren Bent. Lambert had forced them to train alone, while preferring those signed under his ‘young and hungry’ banner.
It wasn’t the finest bit of football management of all time, and was made worse by the fact that Villa were struggling financially and every bit of cash raised would have helped the situation, yet the manager’s inexplicable treatment of three major purchases had seen the £30 million-plus they had cost us effectively depreciate to zero.
Eventually Hutton moved on loan to Nottingham Forest in November 2012, where he helped a struggling side win three of the seven games he played. In the following January he moved to Real Mallorca for the rest of the 2012-2013 season and acquitted himself quite well, despite playing in a team struggling even more than we were. When his replacement at Villa, Matt Lowton, was scoring a wonder goal at Stoke on 6th April 2013, Hutton was playing in a 5-0 defeat to Barcelona in the Camp Nou. Even though Mallorca wanted to keep Hutton for their assault on Segunda Division after relegation, the available budget would not allow this meaning the full-back returned to training alone at Villa.
During this time Lambert expressed his admiration for the player’s attitude and publicly wondered why it was that no other club had come in for him during his time in the wilderness. He didn’t say why it was that a player with such an attitude had been frozen out of his plans. Eventually Hutton signed for another loan spell, at Bolton in February 2014, for the rest of the season.
What was noticeable during these loan spells was Hutton’s determination to play, an improvement in his discipline with fewer yellow cards and a lack of press stories complaining about his treatment by Lambert. Amazingly, by the start of the 2014-2015 season, Hutton was again first choice at Villa as Lowton had failed to follow his manager’s instruction to move closer to Birmingham as the team started well but dramatically fell away. Even more surprisingly the good start earned Hutton a new contract and he stayed in the side for the majority of the season, scoring his only Villa goal against Leicester in December 2014.
As Lambert finally managed to force the uninterested Randy Lerner to sack him in February 2015 the right-back spot was a position rotated by Lambert’s replacement, Tim Sherwood, between Hutton, Lowton and Leandro Bacuna.
Hutton continued his one-man war on the Albion by being booked for a high challenge on Saido Berahino during Villa’s last-gasp league win that led to Paul Wilson in the Guardian asking if he was “possibly one of the dirtiest players in the Premier League”. Hutton had begun to be played on the left and used as a substitute but missed out on the highlight of the season in the FA Cup semi-final win against Liverpool.
Even though he played in the 6-1 hammering at Southampton, when results elsewhere allowed Villa to stay up, he did play in the final and put in a performance in line with the rest of the team as Villa were painfully humbled by Arsenal.
The FA Cup final performance was a taste of things to come as Hutton, along with the rest of squad shorn of Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph, went through the motions during the most dismal of relegations and many hoped that this would be the last we saw of him, wanting him to disappear along Joleon Lescott and Brad Guzan.
What few of us reckoned on was the strength of character and professional pride Hutton has demonstrated since relegation. Having stayed as first choice right back last season and being one the most impressive performers as Villa struggled to adapt to the lower level Hutton began, after six years, to hear fans singing his name.
However, last summer he found himself in the most competitive position at the club. Finding his way blocked by Ahmed Emohamady in his usual positon, Hutton re-invented himself as an attacking left back to such an extent that he has displaced European Championship semi-finalist, the disappointing Neil Taylor, despite not being naturally left footed. Lauded by Steve Bruce for his attitude and commitment in training, Alan Hutton has once more become an integral part of the team.
That the promotion challenging version of Villa has featured a player written off almost from the beginning seven years ago, playing out of position but rapturously greeted when coming on as a substitute against Derby, has seemed one on the more bizarre things at Villa Park in recent years, and it has a lot of competition.
As he entered the fray at the end of April to the raucous sounds of the Scottish Cafu song, Alan Hutton has finally been accepted at Villa Park. Given his attitude and commitment, despite his limitations, in the last year or so you have to say that he deserves it.
Used with permission by H&V. Issue no. 231 is out now. Buy it at https://shop.exacteditions.com/gb/heroes-and-villains with all available back issues thown in.