With just four weeks remaining until the new season kicks off, Aston Villa’s pre-season training began last week amidst the club still navigating turbulent times. The majority of the squad have decamped to Portugal and the sight of Jack Grealish being involved has given hope to some supporters that he may be staying with the club after all. The harsh reality though is that our most saleable asset is simply on borrowed time until a transfer fee is agreed upon with a buyer, which appears likely to be Tottenham Hotspur.
There is a real sense that despite our loss, at least a move to Tottenham would represent a superb opportunity for Grealish. A progressive and well-run club moving in the right direction, with an abundance of young talent and guided by the impressive Mauricio Pochettino. But the most gutting thing of all for me is that Villa could easily have been their position right now.
If ever there was a team similar to Villa, it is Tottenham. In the grand scheme of things, two clubs of very similar stature. Both have large fan bases and are historically littered with trophies. And also plenty of barren years in between the glory.
As a kid, I began seriously watching football just around the time that the Premier League was introduced. For much of that time, Tottenham was an extremely average mid table team. In the first ten years of Premier League football, we finished above them eight times. And we were a particular bogey team for them; Villa lost just 3 of the first 20 meetings between the clubs. We would routinely head to White Hart Lane and return with three points. And it wasn’t until 2003 that Spurs would come and take a maximum haul away from Villa Park.
Things obviously turned around and we know all about Spurs’ recent successes and our catastrophic downturn. Our early dominance in the fixture was completely reversed and up until our departure from the Premier League, we had won just once in our last 17 league meetings. Unsurprisingly, we hadn’t finished above them since 2009.
So, what has been the difference between the two clubs that have seen one grow and be considered genuine title contenders and the other fall into desperate murky depths and be on the brink of an administration?
Villa seemed to have certain advantages in order to progress. Not least, a bigger stadium, by a not insignificant 6500 seats, giving the potential for bigger revenue from that source at least. With the inclination to fill in the corner sections to increase capacity if needed rather than having to burden the cost of building a new stadium.
For Tottenham? Well, being a London club certainly helps in attracting certain individuals and they have had their fair share of quality players over the years. Even going back to the likes of Jurgen Klinsmann. True international, world-class stars that Villa has never really been able to attract. However, that alone isn’t the reason Spurs have excelled.
The reason for our very different paths can be traced back to 2001 when Alan Sugar sold his majority stake in the club to the ENIC group. As part of this process, Daniel Levy became chairman of the club. Whilst it hasn’t always been plain sailing, the club has generally prospered under his stewardship.
Levy has garnered himself a fearsome reputation. As a boyhood Spurs fan, his business acumen has no doubt been sharpened by a desire to make his club as successful as possible. Sir Alex Ferguson’s displeasure at having to deal with Levy was well known, with the legendary Manchester United manager famously commenting that negotiating a deal for Dimitar Berbatov was more painful than his hip replacement.
As perhaps the toughest negotiator in the English game, the thought of him up against our rabble in securing a deal for Grealish is almost comical. Levy will pull our pants down, slap us on the backside and make us feel grateful for anything sum of money that we receive. And he will probably wait until it’s ‘Levy Time’; right at the end of the transfer window in order to get the cheapest deal possible.
And that exactly highlights the difference between the two clubs. It all stems from the top. And all the while Levy has patiently been learning and building, we have had one incompetent owner after another.
Since Levy has been in control at Tottenham, Villa has had three owners. Doug Ellis, although not incompetent to be fair, was in the last stages of his reign and despite keeping the club on the straight and narrow for many years (something we’d kill for now) there was little ambition to really push on. Randy Lerner seemed the perfect antidote to Deadly Doug and initially bankrolled Martin O’Neill’s tenure which ultimately failed in its bid to crack the top 4 and more importantly, was the very beginning for our monetary problems. And of course, Tony Xia’s spend now/think later policy has left us in total jeopardy.
By contrast, Levy has been consistently building bit by bit. Despite several seasons which were still underwhelming, on the whole Spurs have progressed slowly but surely. They currently boast nine consecutive top 6 league finishes which is a fantastic achievement.
As alluded to earlier, signings have been crucial also. Every club signs a flop here and there. Some more than others. Tottenham is no exception. But over the last ten years, in particular, they have also made some excellent signings which have helped propel them to their current level.
Rafael Van Der Vaart joining for £8 million in 2010 was incredibly important at a time when the club was looking to build on a fourth-placed finish. Hugo Lloris coming in for £11 million has been a steal. The foresight to buy and then persevere with Gareth Bale helped the club make a name for themselves in the Champions League as well as raking in a then-record £85 million transfer fee when he moved on to Real Madrid.
And there is a current crop of England internationals such as Dele Alli, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose and Eric Dier, all signed for peanuts yet developing into outstanding talents. They have also had good fortune in having a certain Harry Kane come through their ranks also.
If we compare our own signings during the same period who really can we hail as really making a difference? Christian Benteke for sure. We had three great years from him and quadrupled our money on him. But that is it. Our signings have been bang average. And at times farcical.
We’ve signed so many players for huge fees who have flopped and had no resale value, losing us millions of pounds (McCormack, N’Zogbia, Makoun). We also continuously buy average players who come in and do a job, but never really improve and either hang around for years or shuffle out of the club quietly (Bacuna, Cissokho). In addition, have a penchant for buying players who are even worse than we currently have and become lost in obscurity (Tonev, Luna, Crespo, Helenius). And we also seem to have a knack of allowing players who do show promise to leave for ridiculously low fees (Amavi, Gueye).
The disparity between the spending of the clubs shows just how badly we’ve been mismanaged over the last several years especially. Since that 2008-09 where we last finished above Spurs, our comparative spending paints the true horrific picture.
In each of the three immediate seasons afterwards, we spent more than our North London friends. Yet whilst they secured two top 4 finishes in that time, we somehow managed to work our way down from 6th to 9th to 16th place.
Perhaps most frightening of all for me is the fact that we outspent Tottenham yet again in our first Championship season. Spurs would finish 2nd in the Premier League that year whilst we languished in 13th place in the division below. If that doesn’t tell the whole story, I’m not sure what does.
This is a team who have lost key personnel time and time again. Gareth Bale. Luka Modric. Kyle Walker. Dimitar Berbatov. World class talent in their respective positions. Yet instead of being crippled by these losses, they manage to prosper still year on year. As soon as we lose a key player, and we’ll see it again this summer with Grealish’s imminent departure, we simply do not cope. We replace poorly. Gestede for Benteke? Not even close. N’Zogbia for Young? An absolute joke.
We’ve had the opportunities to get to the same level as where Spurs are operating. The clubs were so similar but now seem a million miles apart. Levy has to take much of the credit for the club’s current highs. Whilst some Spurs supporters may bemoan his tight control of wages, as a Villan in our current predicament, it seems like he’s probably doing the right thing imposing a strict structure. I wish we had someone doing the same for our club.
We’ve got the stadium. We’ve got the fanbase. And we’ve had the money. And we wasted pretty much every single penny of it. The opportunity to be a force in English football was always there for us. We couldn’t have screwed it up more if we’d tried. All the best to Super Jack; at least we know he’ll be looked after.