Ambitious owners not short of a bob or two promising to take Aston Villa back to the elite podium of European football is no new phenomenon for Villa fans accustomed to the lofty aspirations of new investors.
The ownership of Aston Villa Football Club has been passed across four continents in the past 15 years with European tours, top-flight relegations and promotions the price of swapping the keys to Villa Park around the billionaires club all too often.
Regimes past and present have all shared the common goal of restoring Villa’s status as an elite European club, but so often in the past these goals have failed to wash for Villans tired of false promises.
Perhaps matching Barcelona’s global appeal within five years of Dr Tony Xia walking into Villa Park were unrealistic, but actions speak louder than words and Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens are becoming quite the power couple.
The two billionaires have ploughed over £140m worth of transfer expenditure after taking control of the club just over two years ago. Their first statement of intent was to reject Daniel Levy’s approach for prized asset Jack Grealish whose move to Tottenham was blocked when Sawiris and Edens swooped in to save Villa from financial ruin in 2018.
Winning promotion back to the Premier League through the play-offs a year earlier than expected was the first step achieved for NSWE who had big plans for Villa upon arrival back in the big time. Dean Smith hadn’t been in the job longer than eight months but Villa’s daring owners would put their money where their mouth is and back their head coach to the hill.
In reality, for Villa, they’d have a mountain to climb to survive relegation come the turn of the year with some slack recruitment to blame for under par performances on the field last season – the first time Premier League football had returned to Villa Park for three years.
Despite calls to replace Smith, CEO Christian Purslow and NSWE backed the man who guided the club back to the top-flight, understanding that he was hamstrung for most of the campaign by matters off the field.
Continuity a key ingredient for success
It was a sign that whilst Villa had it all still to do if survival was to be achieved in the Premier League, Purslow and Villa’s directors were keen to implement some much needed continuity.
As a football club, Villa have been starved of continuity with negligent ownership regimes on the whole to blame for a decade of upheaval, from back to front, top to bottom. Players, managers and coaching staff have all been turned over at an insufficient rate.
Villa’s promotion partners Sheffield United, and current Premier League side Burnley are the two shinning lights who represent where a bit of faith and trust can get you in the most demanding league of them all. Too often are football clubs these days desperate to chop and change with knee-jerk reactions and premature sackings a plenty.
Watford were the latest club to lose their top-flight status after years of upheaval. They’d employed nine managers in five years en route to their eventual relegation from the Premier League last season.
It’s a cut throat business and you only have to watch Scott Parker’s emotional, raw interview after he won the 2020 Championship play-off final with Fulham last Tuesday. One week you’re the bee’s knees, the next, an all too familiar scapegoat.
By hook or by crook Villa retained their Premier League status and Smith will be a better coach for it. He proved he can keep a side in the top-flight whilst coping with a huge overturn of players, and spending £11m per player during the summer overhaul was not a bad achievement with everything considered.
It was an overwhelming sense of relief and joy when Michael Oliver blew the final whistle at the London Stadium a couple of Sundays ago. Smith’s immediate thoughts were of that of pride for seeing the job though, but above all, he was looking forward to a bright future.
Creating a culture the focus for Villa
After staying up on the final day, Smith was keen to reiterate the exhausting process Villa had been through since securing promotion back to the Premier League a year before.
“I thought we used the pandemic really well,” Smith said.
“We’ve been solid defensively, we have looked strong and managed to stay in the Premier League. It is something to build on.
“We sat down in Minneapolis (on a pre-season tour) over a year ago and came up with three words between us as to how we wanted to be known – and they were: togetherness, prepared and relentless.
“It takes a long time to build a culture but we are growing into that.”
Smith has been an advocate of creating a strong culture within each football club he has been at before taking the job at Villa.
Villa’s boss was invited by Birmingham City University to deliver a speech on creating a culture in the workplace and how it can be translated into a sporting environment.
“I like to see people grow and learn, that’s who I am and that’s how I’ve been brought up. It wasn’t just about creating players to play better football, I wanted to help create better people as well.
“We worked big-time on building a culture at Walsall and there was one story that we knew we were on the right track. Whether I’m at Walsall, Brentford or Aston Villa, people ask me about culture because there can be good culture and bad culture.
“For me, if someone comes into our training ground they should hear it, see it, feel it. It should be good feelings, good sounds, good sights. Everyday, that’s what I ask my players to show.”
Bodymoor Heath has shared the highs of an era headed by Martin O’Neill when the club was knocking on the door of Champions League football, but also the toxic lows of relegation from the Premier League for the first time in the club’s history.
Smith was reluctant to take his dream job at Villa if the culture wasn’t right.
“I was quite happy to walk if it didn’t fit. Everyone knows that Aston Villa was my club growing up but it wasn’t a no-brainer,” Smith said in his speech.
“It had to be right. The culture, how we want to grow the football club because there was no difference to Walsall – there was a disenchantment between football club and supporters. That had to come together and the only way to do it is from the top all the way down.
“And it fitted. I sat down with Christian Purslow, Jesus Pitarch and had a phone chat with Nassef (Sawiris) and Wes (Edens), the owners, and they are everything about education, learning, progressing, getting better – that’s all they want to do, for everyone at the football club to get better.
“I believe there is a good culture here but within that there has to be a togetherness of pushing in the same direction, because it is very difficult if you don’t do that.
“You can’t have individuals, you can’t have fragmentation of any sort.”
Villa will be active during this summer’s transfer window with a reported £100m transfer kitty available for Smith to spend on additional quality with the assistance of Purslow and new Sporting Director Johan Lange.