Sadly, we have seen yet another disastrous week at Aston Villa:
1. Benteke suffered a horrible injury, ruling him out for at least six months.
2. Villa lost against Fulham for the first time in a league game at Villa Park in my lifetime – and I am 40! 1973 was the last time the Cottagers beat the Villans in the league.
3. For the first time in their one hundred and forty year history, the Villans lost a tenth home league game, which makes it nineteen league defeats at Villa Park for Paul Lambert from thirty-six games more than one in two.
4. That defeat means Fulham, a team that has lost twenty-two games and conceded seventy-four goals, has completed the double on Villa this season.
5. Lambert’s side has now won just four of the last eighteen games, drawing three and losing a whopping eleven, amassing a mere fifteen points.
6. Aston Villa now sit just one point ahead of last season’s total at this stage yet a couple of months ago Lambert and Faulkner were telling anyone who wanted to listen that we had made great progress from last season. I begged to differ then and I beg to differ now.
7. Charles N’Zogbia confirmed he is fit but has been told to stay away from the first team squad. Lambert, only a matter of weeks ago, gave an interview to the press claiming N’Zogbia was nearing fitness and would be utilised! If Lambert doesn’t rate a player or dislikes his attitude, that is his right as the manager but he shouldn’t lie about it! The irony is that N’Zogbia is exactly the sort of player we could have done with in some of the disastrous home defeats against likes of Stoke, West Ham and Fulham.
All of the above is more proof of how poorly Aston Villa Football Club is being run, with the exception of point one, which is extremely unfortunate for all concerned. However, Benteke did play in most of the other nine home defeats before anyone starts using his absence as an excuse for Saturday’s poor showing.
It’s an absolute shambles right now – on and off the pitch. Only the hospitality divison comes out with any credit but, as you have heard me say more than once, echoing the words of my father, this is a football club, not a hotel!
Chris Hughton was fired yesterday with a record of seventy-six points from seventy one Premier League games. Lambert has seventy-five points from seventy Premier League games. Most thought Hughton deserved the sack (although the timing is crazy) yet Villa talk about giving our manager a new contract!
Jamie Carragher recently said, “Villa are a great club but are merely drifting.” Ron Atkinson was recently quoted as saying, “Villa have become insignificant.”
Rather than repeat why this has happened, my Hodgson Report from six weeks ago can be found at the end of this piece. I honestly don’t think one word is out of line or out of place. It’s a fair assessment of what has ultimately been a very poor stewardship. Lerner has spent the best part of £200 million in eight years and is left with a team that is poorer than the one Ellis and O’Leary left him when they vacated Villa Park. Lerner has been let down badly by managers, players and board members alike but, ultimately, as in any business, the buck stops at the top.
Sadly for him, and ultimately for Aston Villa, he has proved to be no better at sports team ownership in the UK than he was in the USA with the Cleveland Browns. I believe a parting of the ways is inevitable and is sought by Lerner, despite protests from the club to the contrary. Can we honestly believe a word of what they tell us? The equity swap of debt to shares, the minimal investment in January and failure to attend matches all point to a desired exit.
We just have to hope that he sells to someone who wants to be hands on and who will put people in charge who understand football, understand Aston Villa and who have a deep desire to restore Aston Villa Football Club to its former glory. A board of former bankers from MBNA without football brains or Aston Villa knowledge were never going to achieve this despite, in the first four years at least, their best efforts.
The Hodgson Report
The main Aston Villa board members are Randolph Lerner, Paul Faulkner and Robin Russell, with General Charles Krulak as the one non-executive board member.
It’s become very clear that this is a board ill-equipped to run a football club successfully. The knowledge simply isn’t there regarding football in general and Aston Villa as a football club in particular. There is a very long list of expensive mistakes made – too long to list – but proof is in the pudding: we are struggling to match Doug Ellis and David O’Leary last season’s (2005/6) points tally (42) for the third season running.
Off the field activities are run well, including an excellent hospitality division and good work in the community with charities like Acorns. However, Aston Villa is a football club, not a hotel.
This means the club relies solely on the football manager for leadership and direction on the football pitch – a dangerous scenario as an air of invincibility starts to surround this one individual. This was very apparent with Martin O Neill and is evident again with the current manager, Paul Lambert.
Until recently, I had a reasonable relationship with Paul Faulkner and always tried to advise from afar where possible. It was becoming more obvious to me and several others every week that despite our fairly comfortable position in the Premier League we were digressing in our playing style, which would lead to big problems not too far down the line.
I took the time out to write to Randy Lerner about my concerns and made some suggestions as to how we could improve things.
Suffice to say, the reaction I got was not expected and led to me being told I was no longer welcome in the Aston Villa directors’ box/restaurant. The reasons given? I was informed in writing that I had infringed on Mr Lerner’s privacy by discussing his attendance record (hardly a secret) on Twitter and was told in person by Paul Faulkner that it was for not being supportive, his exact words being:
“What were you trying to achieve in writing this letter to the owner? The manager has seen it and is not happy. We would not want you to outlast your welcome here, Howard.”
I found his behaviour incredible: he was talking to me like an employee when in fact I was a customer who had spent a great deal of money over the last two years on match sponsorships and directors’ memberships, not to mention being a season ticket holder for thirty-six years and from a family that has had long-standing relationships with many of the previous owners (Ellis, Bendell, Kartz).
It’s very sad that constructive criticism is just not allowed at Aston Villa these days. The press also have to tread very warily for fear of being banned if they print things not to the liking of those in power at Aston Villa Football Club. How can that be right?
We have been failing for four consecutive years and yet all we are told by the board is that a long term plan is in place and they are satisfied with the progress being made. What progress? We had bad seasons under the Ellis regime but never four in a row! Even when we went down in 86/87, by 89/90 we almost won the league, as we did in 92/93. What do we have to show for Lerner’s regime? Three top six finishes and a Cup final, which all seems to have happened a long time ago.
The Manager – Paul Lambert
£40 million has been spent by Paul Lambert on sixteen new players yet we remain on course for another struggle, with the same low points achieved by his predecessor and the style of football hardly having improved. That is not my idea of progress. When money is not unlimited perhaps bringing in three left backs and four big centre forwards is a tad misguided, especially when the spine of central midfield, central defence and wingers remains woefully inadequate. The fact Lambert seems so obsessed with big strikers tells you a lot about his thoughts tactically.
He is primarily a ‘behind the ball’ manager: get men behind the ball, soak up the pressure, let the opponents have the ball and then hit them on the counter attack. This can work away from home, as we have seen, but at home counter attacking opportunities are rare except against top sides that will dominate. Most sides sit back and say, “You have the ball Villa. You are at home. Break us down”. Sadly, we don’t have a clue how to do that and other teams now know this.
Our only plan is to go sideways, backwards, opt for a long ball as we don’t commit men beyond the ball or run enough off the ball for the man on the ball to have options to pass to in front of him. Movement draws opponents out of position and creates space. We just don’t do this for fear of – you’ve guessed it – being hit on the counter attack! We hold position far too much. Even our full backs haven’t been getting forward this season so the man on the ball at Villa Park, literally, has nowhere to go but sideways, backwards or long. This makes it very easy for away teams to defend. Added to this, they know they don’t have to create much for us to concede a goal as we nearly always have a lapse in concentration, particularly when Vlaar does not play.
Lambert is the manager and he is paid a lot of money to do far better than he is doing. I see the same turgid stuff week after week, with no attempt to change or improve. He has openly admitted he doesn’t know why we play so poorly at home but surely he realises it comes down to what I have just outlined? People tell me he has made us more solid. Well, so what? It’s not paying dividends with the results. It did perhaps when we were sitting on nineteen points after fourteen games but negative, long ball football always gets found out in the end, much like it did in the McLeish season, and we now have amassed just nine points from the last thirteen games, failing to score in our last three games against teams around us or out of form. It’s no wonder he spends so much time chasing big strikers as our whole home strategy appears to be hitting long diagonal balls to a big man for others to feed off. It’s a tactic that is out of date and in any case the big number 9 is too often isolated anyway.
I must confess to being supportive of Paul Lambert’s appointment. I honestly thought a bright, young manager like him would be just what this club needed after the disastrous appointment/reign of Alex McLeish. He came with a reputation of having his teams play attractive, attacking football and first and foremost we’d try and win games regardless of the opposition. He made a point of addressing the home form himself when he first arrived, saying it was about time the Villa fans started enjoying their team’s football at Villa Park again. Well, thirty-two games on and with only eight wins registered and some of the worst, most aimless football I have ever seen at Villa Park in thirty-six years of attendance, I am still waiting to enjoy myself, Paul.
I did think we were on to something positive between February and May of 2013. We played positively and even found some form at Villa Park. The QPR game (second half) and Sunderland games were big highlights, as were the first sixty minutes against Chelsea when, until Benteke was sent off, we were the better side. I went into the summer feeling we had a real chance, if we kept playing in that manner, of achieving fifty points this season. Those thoughts were strengthened by the win at The Emirates and the strong performance against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Sadly, since that second game we just haven’t performed with the exceptions of a bright second half against Manchester City and an excellent first half against Liverpool. We have had some narrow wins against Southampton and Sunderland but, overall, it’s been regression all the way. I honestly don’t think we have put one consistent ninety minute performance together – a feature of Lambert’s reign – and I believe we have only won two games by a two goal margin and none by three or more.
Lambert has proved to be a major disappointment. His tactics, as outlined, are one dimensional, predictable and far more negative than I ever imagined they would be. Tiote made a telling comment on Sunday after the game, claiming he never felt Villa came to win the game. That mindset has been too apparent in recent times and it’s a mindset I would never have associated with a Lambert team before he came here. Also, the same mistakes are made week after week, indicating the work on the training ground simply isn’t working.
He has bought some good players who have done well but also bought a lot of average players who just seem to be making up the numbers. Perhaps trusting a few more of the ‘bomb squad’, some of whom we are still paying fortunes to every week, or the NextGen winning squad could have allowed him to buy less quantity and more quality.
I was invited to Bodymoor Heath at the beginning of the Lambert reign and the strategy of buying young, talented players who were going to grow as a team together was explained. Henke had been appointed as head of scouting and he would ensure we were first in line to capture hidden or undiscovered gems in Europe. However, Henke was gone by January 2013.
This sounded like a good plan as long as the young players targeted were good enough to play in one of the toughest leagues in the world. Whilst some, like Benteke and Okore, are, too many are substandard, especially as we had not targeted any proven, experienced players at this level until this January window, which represented a big shift in strategy by Lambert, who had previously been quoted as saying: “This club tried the experienced footballer route and it didn’t get them much success.” It was therefore a surprise to hear him say he now did want experienced players at the beginning of January. Brett Holman must have had a wry smile on his face when he heard Lambert say this as he had suggested the same thing a year earlier much to the annoyance of Lambert, who made sure Holman wouldn’t have a future at Villa following that comment.
It is my opinion that Aston Villa Football Club is in a bigger mess than it was in when the original Hodgson Report was written in 2003 when fans were at the end of their tethers with the previous owner, Doug Ellis. We had just finished on forty-five points under Graham Taylor, which was deemed totally unacceptable. We then had three seasons under David O’Leary with fifty-six points, forty-seven points and forty-two points being amassed with limited transfer funds. It was clear by 2006 that the club was indeed crying out for a takeover and up stepped Reform Acquisitions LLC and Randy Lerner.
Everyone was so excited. Doug Ellis and David O’Leary were finally gone and we had a bright new era ahead with Lerner and Martin O’Neill that would take us back to the top.
Whilst no one can say Martin O’Neill wasn’t given fantastic backing in that time, the lack of a football man on the board to control the type of players brought in, to make sure we could always sell players on for a profit and not keep buying players at the top of their value was badly missing and blew such a hole in Lerner’s plan that we have since been slowly sinking like the Titanic.
Even after Martin O’Neill, Paul Faulkner, McLeish and, to a lesser degree, Houllier burnt serious millions on crazy deals for Ireland, Bent, Makoun, Hutton, Given and N’Zogbia. Hutton alone will have been paid £4 million in wages since he last played for us! You would have thought we would have learnt our lesson from another right back who hardly ever played for us but got paid £7 million in wages – a certain Habib Beye! I say Houllier was wasteful to a lesser degree as Bent was primarily a Lerner signing plus he did almost single-handedly save the club from relegation in 2010/11.
The irony is it’s the Lerner family’s money that has been blown but he continues to back people like Paul Faulkner religiously. Faulkner, as Chief Executive Officer, is responsible for these day-to-day business decisions like what people get paid and for how long their contracts run. As I mentioned earlier, Paul Faulkner relies far too heavily on the football manager as he simply doesn’t have the knowledge that someone like Daniel Levy does to make these decisions himself. Surely that can’t be right? He is Chief Executive of a big football club.
Ultimately, Aston Villa deserves far better. It is very unfortunate that Randy Lerner has lost the money he has but that comes with the territory and if you make bad decisions and don’t appoint the right people these things happen in business.
Aston Villa needs to move on. Randy Lerner either has to sell the club at the earliest opportunity as Doug Ellis did when it became apparent he couldn’t fund it satisfactorily or provide more finance to rebuild the club properly and return it to its rightful place as a big six player.
This meandering in the lower reaches of the Premier League has to stop. Frankly, I am extremely worried that we may not even be a Premiership club next season because our form and play is so bad.
You have to hope that, like in that final Ellis/David O’Leary season, we do survive and a clean sweep is made of the people in power at Villa in the summer and lessons are learnt if a new owner does come in, the biggest one being get Aston Villa people who understand the club, the fans and the game on the board – people who will have a burning desire to return the club to the top. That, combined with the necessary funding and appointing the right manager, will mean happier times are not far away.
If we continue with Lerner, Faulkner and Lambert indefinitely, I fear years of pain and unsatisfactory results unless they have a major rethink and change their attitudes and strategies.