With each passing day, the situation at Aston Villa only seems to be looking bleaker and bleaker. The loss to Fulham in the playoff final was bad enough as it was. Losing one of the most important matches in the club’s long and proud history was devastating. And whilst supporters knew hard times were ahead, perhaps no one was quite prepared for the threat of a winding-up order on the club and the mess that culminated to that point which leads me to the question, would fans have accepted not spending big?
Everyone has their own views and thoughts about the situation. Whether you blame Chairman Dr Tony Xia, Keith Wyness or anybody else, the club gambled on gaining promotion.
Irresponsible? Of course. However, I can’t help feeling that the board acted exactly as most supporters expected them to.
In our first season in the Championship, there was a hell of a lot of bravado amongst the supporters. Many of us were sure we’d only be down for a season, two at the most. Yes, we had been relegated. However, there were plenty of positives.
There was a fresh new beginning. We had a new billionaire owner. We had hefty parachute payments. The poisonous atmosphere around the club was already beginning to dissipate with the departures of the likes of Joleon Lescott, Charles N’Zogbia, Brad Guzan and Kieran Richardson. Others deemed to be not good enough such as Ashley Westwood, Scott Sinclair also left. Quite rightly, after amassing just 17 points, there was an almighty clear out.
With so many players departing, we simply had to revamp the squad. We were the big fish in the pond and that in itself was a problem; other clubs knew that we had plenty of money. We didn’t help ourselves though. We targeted our rivals best players in an attempt to handpick a side full of the best talent in the division. Anybody who had shown they could score plenty of goals in this division was made the top priority. Of course, these clubs were reluctant to sell their prized assets. But that wasn’t our problem. And money talks.
Everyone knew that we overpaid for Ross McCormack and Jonathan Kodjia but it didn’t matter. They would score goals for us because let’s face it, they’d already proven they’d done it. Simple. That is obviously how it works.
Except it didn’t quite work out like that. Kodjia to be fair had an excellent season. However, McCormack has been a disaster on and off the pitch. Yet at the time there were no complaints with the money we were spending. Quite frankly, if the club had done anything differently, there would’ve been uproar amongst the supporters for trying to do it all on the cheap.
There is no way we would’ve stood for any sort of thriftiness. We had money, we had a billionaire owner. There was no excuse not to spending the cash. And after all, it’d only be a couple of years down here at the most. Supporters simply would not have accepted a more patient approach.
Of course, in hindsight, a more frugal approach was obviously the way to go. That is blindingly obvious now and it’s easy to point fingers and attach blame. And there is a lot of blame that is easily justifiable.
But I also feel quite hypocritical in doing that. I wanted us to get back up as soon as possible. I wanted the big signings. We were showing intent and ambition and the vast majority of us had no problem at all with that. We were showing that we were a big club that didn’t belong in this division. We were Aston Villa and we didn’t mind spending at all costs to get out of the Championship.
As for the personnel on the board, Xia was an unknown. There was much scepticism over his intentions and for some people there has been no sign of acceptance of Xia. For me, Xia’s goals and targets are genuine. He has been putting his money into the club. He has engaged with the fans in a way that we were craving for so long under Randy Lerner. And whilst he isn’t around often, there is a clear effort to attend games when possible and build relationships with supporters. Moreover, he backed both Roberto Di Matteo and Steve Bruce. What else was he meant to have done on both occasions?
He put personnel in place which seemed to be everything we wanted. After the days of Tom Fox, Paddy Riley and Hendrik Almstadt we had genuine football people involved with the club. Wyness had experience at Aberdeen and Everton. He was responsible for the club making a profit in it’s merchandising after previously running at losses of £1.5 million. He was also a driving force in the redevelopment of the Toffee’s Finch Farm training facilities. Whilst Evertonian’s didn’t seem to have much time for him, he had experience of being in a prominent position within a large football club which is exactly what we needed after the American marketing men.
Off the pitch, things seemed to become more focused and professional than they had been for years. The fans were communicated to by both Xia and Wyness regularly. The club seemed to be making smarter decisions. The capture of John Terry was a real coup and demonstrated a professionalism in being able to get such a deal done. The deal was incentivised upon gaining promotion – under Lerner and Fox, we would’ve thrown a two or three-year contract at Terry to get him through the door and on much larger basic wages.
But perhaps that is part of the problem. That Lerner et al ran the club so badly, we were glad for any sort of improvement. Even if in truth, we were still making poor choices, just not as obviously poor.
In fact, last summer’s transfer business seemed pretty shrewd on paper, spending around just £2.5 million yet acquiring Premier League standard talent. Loan fees and wages are the silent killers and barely reported. Transfer spending is easily calculated and in the public eye. No one really knows what we’re paying the players.
So who is to blame? Xia? Wyness? Bruce? Lerner? Fox? Di Matteo? Well, yes to all of them.
I’m genuinely convinced that Xia means well. Unfortunately, he has been let down by people he has chosen to employ. As a mostly absent owner, his choice in CEO had to be bulletproof and it doesn’t appear to have been. Despite Wyness being a massive upgrade on Fox and negotiating some decent deals for the club by all accounts, he was still implicit in the gamble the club took and seemingly an escalation and cover-up of how bad things really were.
We can also quickly look at Rongtian He. As a young man in his late 20’s and with no previous experience in a football environment at all, is he the right choice to effectively be Xia’s right-hand man in such a high profile position?
Lerner’s legacy, or perhaps more accurately Tom Fox’s, is still being felt with the likes of Micah Richards and until recently, Gabriel Agbonlahor still picking up eye-watering wages handed to them under the old regime. Lerner and Fox were responsible for the downturn of the club and creating most of the financial mess the Xia and Wyness were lumbered with. Eradicating that isn’t a quick process nor as simple as just stopping spending to compensate.
Bruce has also played his part and was given licence to spend big money upon his arrival. Whilst I generally think many of his signings have been actually decent (Hourihane, Bjarnason, Elmohamady) it is more the fact that he wasn’t brave enough to play attacking football more often which ultimately caused the failure of missing out on promotion.
Di Matteo is also culpable. The aforementioned McCormack and Kodjia aside, the Italian spent so much money it’s now laughable. As well as also bringing in Pierluigi Gollini, perhaps the signing which sums the whole thing up best is the £5 million spent on Aaron Tshibola.
I’m sure there were genuinely big hopes for the youngster brought in from Reading. But he always felt like somewhat of a throwaway signing. Almost as if spending £5 million was cheap enough to take the gamble and see what happened.
£5 million is a huge amount of money for a Championship club. Put it into perspective now; we won’t be spending that sort of money on one player again for a long time. And it is that sort of neglect for the finances which has caused the current situation. And that involves Xia, Wyness and the manager at the time, Di Matteo.
But that’s the problem. That is what the fans expected. We were ok to see the club spending the money. It was reassuring. We were still a big club. If we wanted your top goalscorer, we’d take him. And we’d offer him the big wages to turn his head and force through the move if necessary.
I didn’t have much of a problem with it. And you probably didn’t either. We had a target of promotion and we didn’t have the time to reach it in any other way than spending big to make it happen. Would another approach have worked? Possibly. But would the fans have accepted anything less than spending the money and showing intent and ambition to force our way back out? Probably not.
One thing is for certain now however and that is we will absolutely be forced to cut our cloth accordingly. The youth players available to us look promising. And there should still be a decent smattering of experienced players. It’s hard to see us competing next season and financially we’re in a total state.
But maybe without the pressure of absolutely having to get a promotion, and with no other choice, we’ll finally do it the sensible way for a change.