It was the summer of 2006 that saw an American flag raised above Villa Park to announce a seemingly new approach and future.
Randy Lerner, the former owner of the NFL franchise Cleveland Browns rode in bringing in his team of board members and signalling the end of Doug Ellis at the helm.
Martin O’Neill was the man tasked with leading the players and he was welcomed with hoards of fans giving him a heroes welcome as he arrived to formally be introduced as the latest Villa boss. It felt like something special was happening.
It started off as something special too. Villa held the longest unbeaten record in the Premier League to start the campaign off in stunning style compared to previous seasons of lower mid table mediocrity, occasionally flirting with relegation at times.
There was a mid-season slump followed up by a revival to finish off the campaign which saw Villa finish 11th.
Then came the first full summer transfer window for O’Neill to add to the squad he had already began to build and the future still felt hugely positive.
The subsequent 2007–08 season saw Villa finishing 6th. 71 goals were scored, the best ever tally in the Premier League and best goal tally since winning the title in 1981. The club qualified for the Intertoto Cup and were joint winners meaning European football would be back at Villa Park in the form of the Europa League.
Lerner had brought in the tagline “Proud History, Bright Future” early on into his ownership and the prophetic quote felt like it could be coming to fruition.
25 games into the 2008–09 season, the club were third in the table, 2 points above Chelsea in fourth and 7 points above Arsenal in fifth respectively. Villa were seemingly on course for a place in the European Cup for the first time since 1983.
Then came Moscow. Having qualified from a group including Ajax, Slavia Prague, Hamburg and MSK Zilina, Villa travelled to the Luzhniki Stadium and the game was practically surrendered in the quest for breaking into the Champions League. O’Neill gambled by fielding a pretty much reserve side and it failed as they were subsequently knocked out by CSKA Moscow and then went on a run in the league where they failed to win in 10. Progress had been made but there was an overwhelming sense of what could have been.
The following season saw another 6th place finish and another improved points haul. However too many draws at home meant another finish just outside the elusive ‘top four’. A double trip to Wembley in the form of League Cup final and an F. A. Cup Semi Final as well as Europa League qualification would be as good as it would get. However it shows the strength of a squad built up season on season as we were fighting on all fronts.
Then came the summer that starts off the message and lesson behind this post. A simple wish more than anything. Gambling and instant success vs longevity and sustainability.
Ultimately the success for Lerner didn’t arrive and a rumoured lack of transfer funds led to O’Neill leaving Villa a matter of days before the new season started.
The slide began and the possibility of relegation became inevitable in 2016.
From O’Neill up until now Villa have gone through 9 managers in 9 years. Also before player wages are considered over £200mil has been spent on players. It should also be noted that this staggering figure doesn’t account for all the sacking pay offs too.
Dr Tony Xia took over from Randy Lerner, swapping the star spangled banner, for the flag of China in what was seen as another new direction and a revitalised new future. Xia appeared to reassure fans that Villa would be safe under his ownership. The worrying thing was the sheer arrogance in some of the brash quotes about being in the Champions League within 10 years before actually getting his feet under the table.
In came Roberto Di Matteo and a simply shocking start saw us looking at a possible back to back relegation as opposed to any credible thoughts of instant promotion. Incredible money was spent by Championship standards and high earners continued to remain as they became hard to shift.
Then came Steve Bruce and as the parachute payments dried up, high wages were still shelled out along with numerous loans meaning failed promotion would result in losing half of the squad again.
Playoff heartbreak against Fulham led to a fallout far bigger than initially feared. It was basically 90 minutes that would result in another quick win or failure and it came to light that the board had gambled both the future and sheer existance of our club with massive financial issues.
Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens came in to save the club and restore belief (yet again) and the first decision was a big one in keeping Bruce in charge. The sheer scale of their financial wealth is frightening. Sawiris a major shareholder in Adidas an international brand that accounts for some of the biggest club and individual sponsorship deals across a realm of sports. Edens has sports background in buying into the Milwaukee Bucks, a team with a sole NBA Championship back in 1971. Since the acquisition of the Bucks in 2014 the Wisconsin based team have made the playoffs in 3 of the last 4 seasons. They currently boast the best record in the current season and have perhaps the most exciting prospect in the league today in Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Avillafan.com were present at the first FCG meeting involving their arrivals and were introduced to them.
It was clear that they would be building a model that had specialists in specific roles behind the scenes and it would take time to do things the way they saw as being the best.
Not long after the appointment of Bruce came another slump and the end of the Bruce era with a toxic atmosphere at Villa Park and the infamous cabbage thrown in frankly disgusting and embarrassing scenes that so many of us felt ashamed of.
Dean Smith, a local man and self proclaimed Villa fan was given the job and he would include John Terry the captain from the previous season.
The initial new manager syndrome kicked in and there was the usual and somewhat expected improvement. However, since 1st December Villa have picked up only 2 wins in the last 13 games and 13 out of 39 points which doesn’t take a genius to work out is a solitary point per game.
The current situation and state of squad has led to further toxic outbursts amongst the fans and fighting within the stands. Granted this is a minority with the club but it doesn’t do us any favours.
Whilst some will blame the players, others will blame the manager and his tactics and already some are calling for a change.
The wish for a future that sees both sustainability and longevity is one that we all need to invest in emotionally. The recent history has proved that instant success isn’t realistic within the situations we have found ourselves in. FFP is an ongoing confusion, a footballing Brexit so to speak with everyone having an opinion but no one seeming to have a definitive understanding of the constraints as to where we stand with new owners and past expenses.
The biggest investment in the future to help to grow the club is the next generation. The importance of inspiring youngsters is an undervalued weapon and as others move on they are quite simply the future of the club.
Society today breeds a habit of instant success and wanting a goal instantaneously. Social media being the single biggest example of this. Man United throughout the 90s inspired a generation that still gives them the worldwide fanbase they have today. It wasn’t instant success for Sir Alex Ferguson for the younger readers amongst you. Chelsea invested heavily but it was still a process ensuring some of their players weren’t necessarily the best at the time but rather players that had big futures and would grow with the club and become fan favourites. Frank Lampard and Joe Cole being prime examples. Even Manchester City, throwing huge money at the club are also doing an incredible amount of work away from the pitch building entire community projects and improving the lives of their local youngsters who can now take their ‘dare to dream’ philosophy as a realistic ambition.
There will always be us die hard fans that will go week in, week out regardless of our level due to our inherited love of the club but it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
It’s painful to talk about Wolves as I’m one of the 90s generation that only really knew Aston Villa as being a Midlands club recognised as being a top club. But Wolves have invested and are continuing to build plans for a bigger stadium, the biggest in the Midlands and also continue to develop their work in the local area. Whatever you say or think, they are doing a superb job and with the finances available and success so far they should continue to build on what they are doing.
Villa need a belief in younger players and to cut out the fast track gambles and high wages. Leeds being an example of believing in their youngsters with a blend of experienced players on more sensible wages.
Spurs are another team that have shown the importance of managing wages vs success with more bonus related incentives over high wages. Granted the likes of Kane and co have had to be paid more but consecutive building in terms of securing Champions League football and growing the stadium have seen them have a contrasting fortune to ourselves when both clubs and Everton too were all finishing in similar positions on similar points a decade ago.
If the club want to rejuvenate the support and the youth to make them become regular returning fans they need to build a team to be proud of and a team to grow up with. Fans need to unite and try to cut the infighting. There will always be differences in opinions, that’s football but some of the scenes that have become more prevalent will put more kids off going than returning.
Having spoke to other fans this week they have openly said some pretty sorry and sad things.
One of which being a consistent regular for a long time saying, “It’s been like it for a few years. One of the things that has put me off away days. Our fans used to be quality. Now it’s feeling like it’s all about getting to the pub as early as possible, getting smashed. Virtually no singing at the home games. Concede and prepare for the arguing and fighting.”
I’ve mentioned before about being a teacher by trade and the amount of football shirts you see now compared to when I was a kid 15 to 20 years ago. It’s frightening at how much success now means over local heritage and family inherited support.
One of the pupils, old beyond his years said about how embarrassing the reception was for Hourihane at the weekend and speaking to their dad he said he’s going to start taking his lad to the rugby as they feel more welcomed and there’s no toxic atmosphere and they actually enjoy it more now.
With the playoffs all but gone in my opinion the plan needs to start now and with the amount loaned out I believe it has already begun.
This coupled with amount due to leave in the next year or two with contracts winding down and probable sales, the opportunity to rebuild properly starts now.
Hopefully the specialists off the pitch in the likes of Christian Purslow, Jesus Garcia Pitarch and the owners themselves, coupled with the decisions made on the pitch will serve us well. Hopefully they can deliver the bright future that so many of us crave and so many of our children will hopefully benefit from as they grow up.