With Tony Xia’s takeover of the club all but complete, there is a wave of optimism beginning to build around Villa Park which hasn’t been felt for several years. Despite starting life in the Championship next season, the promise of a new owner has breathed some life into the club after the strangulation of the latter years of the Randy Lerner era.
Whilst some fans are still sceptical about Xia and concerns remain over certain board members such as Christopher Samuelson, many supporters are enjoying the pledge of having a summer transfer window which will see us flex some financial muscle for a change.
Xia has outlined some bold plans for Aston Villa, ranging from the realistic to the seemingly absurd. A return to the Premier League at the first attempt is certainly attainable. However, ideas about Aston Villa becoming one of the biggest three clubs in the world within ten years sound rather more far-fetched. We could indeed be set for a fast track ride to success and glory – and the blueprint of it all could already have been set by Manchester City.
Within English football’s standing, I have always thought Aston Villa to be very similar to both Everton and Tottenham Hostspur – big, traditional clubs, with a fair amount of success throughout history. Perhaps a rung lower on the ladder would have been Manchester City. It was always a sizeable club, with success in the past, but the Citizens have spent a fair portion of their recent history yo-yoing between the leagues, with little to shout about. However, if ever a club were more like Aston Villa in terms of disappointment, mediocrity and general unrest, it is Manchester City.
In August 2008 Manchester City Football Club was a mess. Thai owner Thaksin Shinawatra had been in control for little over a year, having bought the club for £81 million. Sven Goran-Eriksson was appointed immediately and a bright future seemed likely. Things quickly nose-dived when Shinawatra’s troubles with the Thai authorities caught up with him. With his assets of £800 million frozen, the Citizens were close to financial meltdown. Sven Goran-Erikssonhad been sacked. Mark Hughes was now in charge but threatening to leave already unless the situation was sorted out and attempts to sell players behind his back stopped. Extradition requests to oust Shinawatra were forthcoming, whilst his wife was also convicted of acquiring large plots of land for massively underpriced values and sentenced to three years. In short, Shinawatra made Lerner look like an absolute dream of an owner.
The Citizens then caught the break that has made them what they are today. The impossibly wealthy Sheikh Mansour, with a personal fortune of £17 billion, came to the rescue and bought the club for a somewhat generous (compared to the previous year’s sale) £210 million. With the sale of the club coming late in August, the scramble for a world class signing was on. In the final hours of the 2008 transfer window, Robinho was signed from Real Madrid for a then British transfer record of £32.5 million as a signal of intent. Similar to Xia’s own claims, promises were made to the fans, including a top-four finish within three years. That target was met emphatically.
The rest, as they say, is history. Numerous other superstar signings have followed, as have Premier League titles. Whilst this has gotten the club up and running, City’s owners have been shrewd in creating a model to sustain these heights. Despite suffering a Financial Fair Play rap in 2014, steps have been taken to ensure that revenues have grown to be able to post a profit, escaping any further UEFA sanctions or penalties. The City Football Group was set up as a parent company to oversee investment in foreign football leagues, which included the acquisition of the New York City MLS franchise. Links with other clubs such as Melbourne City and Yokohama F-Marinos have also been established. The organisation has expanded into many fields, such as football marketing, branding, sponsorship negotiation and overseeing academies. An emphasis on promoting, scouting and nurturing youth is key – and the breakthrough of Kelechi Iheanacho is testament to that this season.
Manchester City wouldn’t be in the position it is now without the vast sums of money that has come the club’s way. As yet, Villa supporters do not know fully what to expect from Xia’s investment. There is no clue as to how wealthy our new owner is: this whole premise is based on reports of the owner being worth around £20 billion. It is clear that if a club has potential, as Manchester City had, then anything is possible. It is worth noting that City fans were sceptical of their Middle-Eastern owners in the way that many Villa fans are of Xia. Should the same true intentions be borne out, then there is absolutely no reason why a club like Villa cannot emulate the path that the Citizens have trodden, with the right investment and business decisions. Whilst we cannot expect to see an influx of superstars this season, given our position, Aston Villa would still be a club of sizeable standing upon re-entering the Premier League. Money talks, and let’s not be under any illusion that at the time, that was the only reason the likes of Robinho and Carlos Tevez were joining the club. Once you get one or two in, others soon follow.
Xia’s visions for the club sound bold, impressive and perhaps even crazy but you can see a plan forming to try to at least back up his wish to elevate Villa into the upper echelons once more. Talk of opening a theme park near the ground may seem unlikely right now, but one day may end up being seen as trailblazing idea should it come to fruition. The idea of a museum has also been put forward, which I think would be more than fitting for our club. More important than these ideas are the plans to break into the largely untapped Chinese market, which could really see a flood of revenue for the club. Football is really beginning to boom in the far-east, with the Chinese Super League beginning to capture their public’s imagination and some high profile players now beginning to give the league at least a small degree of credibility. Whilst attracting players is still of course money-motivated, it is also not dissimilar to the USA’s MLS around ten years ago or so, which was ridiculed and derided, but has undoubtedly come on in leaps and bounds. With Chinese interest in the game growing, the Villans are in a prime position to be promoted and popularised over there, with an owner who knows the people and the markets and who an set up links with clubs and even procure the best talent the country has to offer.
I think it is a smart move by Xia to obtain the services of Roberto Di Matteo. The idea behind the Italian is that his Champions League success makes him attractive to the Chinese public. For the casual fans, who are attracted to glory, this can go a long way to creating an allegiance. As well as this, and most importantly, he also ticks the boxes needed as a manager of Aston Villa right now: experience of getting a team out of the Championship and of managing at the highest level. As a bonus, he isn’t Steve Bruce or Nigel Pearson.
The infrastructure of Villa is set up nicely, in terms of owning a state of the art training facility in Bodymoor Heath, plus the club owns Villa Park, which already has a decent capacity of over 42,000, with the possibility of expansion by filling in the corners if needed. The fan base is there, although understandably showing a reluctance right now due to the dross endured over the last season especially. Yet if Manchester City can do it, then I don’t see a reason why Aston Villa can’t also. After all, Manchester City Football Club was in dire straits when Sheikh Mansour saved it. Their only saving grace was that they hadn’t been relegated; we are playing catch up in that regard. Hopefully, this isn’t a long standing barrier.
All we can hope at this point is that Xia is serious about his plans for Villa and that he has the wealth to realise those big dreams. Of course it would be preferable to achieve success in the manner of Leicester City this season, but the likelihood of that being repeated, even by the Foxes, is minimal. Just as Manchester City are showing, there is a way to splash the cash in a more responsible way, with a long-term outlook, and it is important that Xia creates sustainable revenue sources after the initial splurge of money that we hope materialises. The early indications are that Xia recognises this and talk of sponsorships and making Villa a household name in China may seem unnerving and slightly ridiculous, but it would certainly be needed in the long run to become a self-sufficient operation.
Before we can even think about reaching those sort of heights, we have a long summer of squad rebuilding and an even longer Championship season to get through. By that time, we should have a clearer picture of our new owner and his wealth and have a better idea of whether we will be the next team to buy the Premier League title. As I say, it’s not the most organic way of creating success, but I doubt many of us would be too bothered if it meant the good times returned to Villa Park. Manchester City fans haven’t been complaining so far.