For the second successive year, Aston Villa’s season all boils down to yet another Wembley showdown. The heartbreak of the 1-0 defeat to Fulham one year ago took some getting over. It’s not like losing a one-off cup final. Defeat in what is dubbed ‘The Richest Game In Football‘ means that the whole season’s toil and hard work has ultimately all been for nothing. And seeing the other side of the stadium celebrating makes it hit home just how close you were to being back in the big time.
In due course, losing that game was actually a massive blessing in disguise. The financial peril that Villa was faced with in the aftermath of the defeat showed just how recklessly the club had been run under then-Chairman Dr Tony Xia. It was literally boom or bust. All or nothing in reaching the Premier League. And nothing is what we were very nearly left with.
A £4 million tax bill was struggling to be paid which further exposed the financial shambles that the club had been steered into. We were even selling off pieces of land at one point to keep the taxman at bay. On top of this, CEO Keith Wyness was sacked, for which the exact reasons are still shrouded in mystery. A falling out with Xia over making executive decisions without the Chairman’s input was rumoured.
As for Xia himself, the true extent of his financial clout was and is still uncertain. Is he a billionaire?! He may well be, despite the lack of evidence to say so and difficulties we found ourselves in. But what we did learn for certain is that whatever finances he does possess, getting the money out of his native China is far from straightforward. We looked doomed.
In hindsight, Villa winning at Wembley last year would’ve been disastrous for the club long term. We would never have known how close we were to the edge. Xia’s enthusiastic, but ultimately misguided, way of running a football club would’ve most likely have seen some exciting and ambitious looking signings on huge wages. In the background, money being borrowed left right and centre all on the promise that Xia’s money in China would eventually see it right.
It can be argued that with the riches of the Premier League on offer, Xia wouldn’t have needed to continue to borrow so extensively. Either way, having an owner with such an irresponsible outlook on getting the club to where we want it to be is simply a no-no.
The playoff defeat to Fulham exposed the extent of the peril and for me, has saved the club from financial ruin further along the road at some point. Xia’s heart was in the right place, but he was unable to responsibly run this club and would certainly have gone further out of control with the fortune of top-flight football coming into the club.
One Year On
One year on however and Villa seem to be in a much more stable place and with a much brighter outlook. The biggest plus point to come out of the fiasco of last summer is that we ended up with owners that certainly have the resources to attempt to make Villa a force in top-flight football again.
Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris between them are, to be blunt, filthy stinking rich. A combined fortune of around $10 billion (which unlike Xia’s wealth, can be verified) means that Villa currently has the third richest owners in English football. That should ensure that significant funds are available for Dean Smith should Villa prevail over Derby next Monday.
But having the money and using it correctly are two different things. As we know, Villa has spent big still, certainly upon dropping into the Championship, and it hasn’t worked out. Simply throwing money at it doesn’t work and it often leads to overspending and being stuck with players on huge wages on long term contracts.
Time will tell whether Edens’ and Sawiris’ business acumen pushes Villa onwards. So far it’s been very much ‘behind the scenes’ in terms of what we’ve seen of their work. Both were present at Villa Park for the season finale against Norwich City which was good to see. After the extremes of radio silence of Randy Lerner and then Tony Xia’s incessant cryptic tweeting, perhaps some middle ground isn’t a bad thing.
Smart Decisions and Stability
What we have seen is some smart decisions, such as the appointment of current CEO Christian Purslow. A man who had significant input in creating the Financial Fair Play regulations is crucial in helping guide the club through any potential fiscal ramifications. And of course, the insistence that Jack Grealish would not be sold last summer was a huge stance to take. That alone highlighted an understanding of the importance of key players over bringing in money, especially in the face of financial peril, which bodes well for the future.
In general, there is a much stronger sense of stability. Which of course is easy to have in hindsight. Everything seems to be geared up for a period of patiently building the club. The sticking plaster approach of the last few years is gradually being phased out.
The manager’s position is much more secure for example. For me, Steve Bruce was always seen as a short term measure simply to gain promotion. Yes, he may have been given a chance in the Premier League, but I’ve no doubt that at the first sign of a bad run of results he would’ve been replaced. Dean Smith is seen as a much more progressive manager to take the club onward. Smith has given the team an identity already.
All or Nothing
Overall, you just get the feeling that things are a bit more different this year. More relaxed. The ‘all or nothing’ mentality isn’t quite so intense. Losing the match is obviously unthinkable and has disastrous consequences; not least losing Grealish for certain this time. But there is a kind of comfort to know that if it comes to it, there is a foundation which gives the club a chance of still being competitive next season. More importantly, avoiding another close call with a winding-up petition.
As I’ve said previously, for me, getting past West Bromwich Albion was the toughest test. I also expected to face a vibrant Derby side over a tiring Leeds outfit. Those 3-0 and 4-0 victories during the season over the Rams count for little going into this. A psychological edge maybe. But Derby are a much-improved team with Mason Mount paying well and he missed both of those games.
That said, man for man, I think we are the better side. Jed Steer must feel unbeatable right now. Tyrone Mings is at his colossal best. Jack Grealish was still controlling the semi-final games without being anywhere near his best. And Tammy Abraham has scored goals for fun this season. With Dean Smith’s promise of playing to win, I fully expect to be celebrating promotion to the Premier League come 5 pm on Monday. And if so, I think we are now well primed as a club to not only survive but make inroads into enjoying another long stay in the Premier League.
Last year happened for a reason; we weren’t ready. Now is our time for success.