Steve Sidwell will be more determined to impress the manager who believes in him than the one who clearly doesn’t when Aston Villa head to Fulham this weekend.
Had the summer turned out differently, Sidwell could have been lining up for Mark Hughes’ Cottagers against Gerard Houllier’s Villa rather than vice-versa in Saturday’s Premier League encounter at Craven Cottage.
Sidwell, who hopes to shake off a slight stomach bug in time to play, came within a whisker of joining Fulham in late July after former boss Martin O’Neill sanctioned his sale to the West London club.
However, the deal was struck with Fulham’s then manager Roy Hodgson, who subsequently took over at Liverpool, leaving new boss Hughes to decide whether or not to proceed.
Hughes chose not to pursue Fulham’s interest in Sidwell, so rather than the flame-haired Londoner returning to his home city, he was left to attempt to kickstart his stalling career in his adopted home of Birmingham.
The prospect of Sidwell doing that seemed bleak on the eve of the season, with O’Neill, the man who had deemed him surplus to requirements, still in post and an Achilles’ problem sustained in pre-season hampering his hopes of a fresh start.
However, that frustrating scenario was to change when O’Neill rocked the club by storming out five days before the Premier League kick-off with his exact reasons for resigning remaining unclear to this day.
Although Sidwell was still sidelined through injury, like the rest of his previously out-of-favour Villa team-mates, he was given a clean slate and a new lease of life by the unexpected change in the manager’s office.
Sidwell missed the interim period under caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald, but was instantly afforded a chance by Houllier when he played in the new boss’s debut defeat of Blackburn Rovers in the Carling Cup tie at Villa Park.
“We knew when a new manager comes in, there are new ideas, fresh ideas and it is a clean slate for everyone,” explains Sidwell. “All the lads are still going on that, trying to stake a claim. Come January he is maybe going to want to freshen it up a little bit but we’ll see.
“It is all about opinions. Things like that happen under certain managers, you don’t play under certain managers. Under certain managers you do get a chance. Once you get a chance it is about taking it and staying in the team.”
Since signing for £5 million from Chelsea two summer ago, Sidwell has been in and out of the team – more out than in.
However, with Stiliyan Petrov and Fabian Delph sidelined by knee problems for the foreseeable future, he knows there is an opportunity for him to clinch a regular midfield slot.
In fact, so keen is the former Reading and Chelsea dynamo to re-establish himself in Villa’s starting XI after long spells on the sidelines that he has delayed surgery on his own ongoing troubles to play through the pain barrier
Not that the 27-year-old’s discomfort is noticeable. Sidwell was still making crunching tackles for the claret and blue cause during Sunday’s Second City stalemate with rivals Birmingham City, even though he was substituted early in the second-half to protect his heel from further harm.
The ex-Arsenal trainee’s all action contributions are a given and there is the growing feeling that it will only take one goal from a trademark burst into the box to finally restore his scoring confidence after a series of near misses.
Sidwell’s last Premier League goal for Villa was his quickfire cracker in the classic 3-2 victory at Everton almost two years ago, while he has not scored in any competition since netting against Doncaster in an FA Cup tie in February 2009.
“The misfortune with Stiliyan opens doors for other people,” suggests Sidwell. “Hopefully, if called upon, I can go in and do a good job.
“It is not nice, especially for him as well because he is fantastic player, he is our captain and a gentleman off the pitch.
“Hopefully I’ll go in if called upon and do a job and see where it takes me.
“It is always frustrating when you are not playing. Obviously a new manager has come in, seen the team that he wanted to play and has stuck with it.
“They have done great. I’ve just got to wait for my opportunity and wait for a chance and hopefully this is it.
“Hopefully. At the minute we’ve got Stan out and Fabian Delph out, so we are a bit shy on numbers. But we’ve got enough quality in the team to dig deep and get us through it.”
While it seemed likely that Petrov and summer signing Stephen Ireland would be the core characters in Villa’s midfield this season, circumstances have cleared the way for Sidwell and Nigel Reo-Coker to patrol the centre of the park.
Having first met playing junior football in Croydon, the combative duo are close friends on and off the pitch and Sidwell is as delighted at Reo-Coker’s resurgence as his own return to action.
“Me and Nigel go back a long time, obviously playing against each other from my Arsenal days and his Wimbledon days and we used to play for the same borough,” Sidwell recalls.
“I’ve grown up knowing Nigel a long, long time. If we play together hopefully we can gel quickly and settle in and get results for the team.
“He’s done very well. I think if you’d have asked anyone, even himself going into this year, would he be signing a new contract before Gerard Houllier took over, it would’ve probably been 50/50.
“But now, looking at the way he is playing, he is enjoying himself, so it should be there or thereabouts done.
“Nigel is a good player. He has shown that before, that is why he has come to this club. I remember his first season here – he did very well.
“We all know what Nigel has got in the locker, the same as everyone else. Everyone has got quality and they just need to show it on the day.”