Over the last couple of weeks or so, our new chairman, Dr Tony Xia, has decided to take to Twitter and has begun interacting with supporters in a refreshingly open manner that we are unaccustomed to. Xia has quickly amassed a following of thousands that continues to grow daily. On the face of things, it is brilliant for supporters to be able to have certain questions answered by the man at the top. However, whilst everything is rosy right now, is the owner setting himself up for a massive fall?
Firstly, I do firmly believe that it is a good thing for us to have a chairman willing to be accessible in this manner. After the deafening silence of the Randy Lerner era, when fans had literally no idea what was going on with their club, this new approach is more than welcome. Finally, supporters can feel that they are being heard in some capacity. We cannot overestimate just how important this is, especially in the context of our recent history. The unscalable wall of silence from Lerner became one of his trademarks. A handful of long-winded statements in which he told us he was intent on selling the club due to no longer having the energy to drive the club forward were the only scraps of information we had to feed upon. By that point, we were only being told what we already knew. It was clear to all that Lerner’s passion had gone long before he decided to let us know. Those occasional club statements were all we had. There was no interaction, no public appearances, no interviews and not even attendance at our matches. At a time when the club was being taken down and rotting within, the fans had more questions than ever and we were kept in the dark without a voice, which eventually led to the protests we saw towards the end of last season.
We seem to now have the polar opposite with Xia who has engaged with supporters, answering questions posed to him about plans for the future of the club and even making some very bold statements regarding certain players. The fact that he is being transparent to such an extent has even led to accusations of his account on Twitter being fake. It is an incredible sea change given what we have been used to. However, I can’t help feeling that Xia is raising expectations to an extent that isn’t sustainable. Along with this, a couple of his tweets in particular appear to be setting himself up for a fall should his promises not materialise.
This is still very much a honeymoon period for Xia. Whilst a minority of supporters are still sceptical about his wealth and true intentions for the club, the vast majority are now looking ahead and happy to get behind the revolution. In many ways, Xia is riding the wave created by Lerner’s departure and simply having the American leave is enough to have reignited many supporters’ enthusiasm. Xia has obviously heard the grumbles of fans from the previous regime and has set about creating a more personal relationship with fans. For that he should be commended. At the moment, in the main it works extremely well. After the takeover and with fans not knowing much about the man, Xia is building bridges, becoming familiar and repairing the damage that Lerner caused whle also endearing himself to fans. The excitement for the new season is building, transfers are being negotiated and Xia is contributing to this excitement with his regular tweets. Is there a drawback of being so accessible? Right now, things are good and the sun is shining. Will Xia still be so forthright in the depths of winter should we begin losing games and fans are demanding answers at that point? I’m not sure how that would play out but, should Xia become less active on Twitter if the going gets tough, it is easy to see accusations that he is a fair-weather tweeter and only available to face the good times. Things can turn very quickly. In many ways, Xia has made a rod for his own back already: the expectation is that we have a chairman who will front up to the fans and at least let us know what is going on, but can this lead to problems?
The majority of Xia’s tweets have been a delight and really promising stuff. Already a wide variety of issues have been addressed, ranging from introducing a safe standing section back at Villa Park right through to the club shop not stocking enough womenswear and to the introduction of some better food to purchase within the stadium on match days. It is pleasing to see that these matters are at the very least being acknowledged in real time. The owner is there, reading what the supporters want and they are being recognised with replies, with the owner copying in our Chief Executive Keith Wyness and basically telling him to sort the issues out. It’s hugely important right now after we have been made to feel isolated from our club previously. A big plus from supporters’ point of view is also the recognition that to ship out the dead wood ‘even with losses is a must’. In his keenness, Xia may also have overstepped the mark somewhat by assuring fans that both Jordan Amavi and Jordan Ayew will be staying at the club. My initial reaction was of course to be pleased with this – but it doesn’t half set an extremely dangerous precedent. Should either Amavi or Ayew leave, Xia’s credibility would instantly take a major hit. To many, these words are gospel. After all, if the man at the top says it’s so it must be. I’m also not sure how Amavi or Ayew would take such a declaration being made on their behalf. Should they leave, Xia’s statement also impacts on the supporters’ view of those players. To some, they could become seen as turncoats, despite having not actually said themselves they were staying. It is an extremely bold announcement. I can’t help but feel uneasy with it: we know that there are clubs circling both players and, with more than a month of the transfer window left to withstand, Xia could be left with egg on his face. It would seriously undermine the goodwill that he has built up to this point and the doubters who remain will have their ammunition handed to them.
It is important to remember too that, whilst Xia now seems to be everything we’ve ever wanted, Lerner was initially praised for keeping such a low profile and seemed to be everything we wanted in part due to his trait of keeping hidden. After succeeding Doug Ellis, there were many expressing admiration that we had managed to land a chairman who finally kept himself to himself. Ellis was seen to be an interfering sort, who would often meddle in affairs that were best left to his managers. Whilst not as prolific in the media, unlike other chairmen of his time such as Sam Hammam, Ellis’ views were nevertheless well known and he was certainly one of the more noticeable figures in the football hierarchy. Lerner was seen as an antidote to this – a man who would let his manager get on with things with no interference, a man who did not seek public approval, or any attention in the media, a man who didn’t make the back pages and kept his comments and opinions in house. It was perfect.
Lerner was unable to realise that, at a certain point, he needed to adapt because his sustained silence was doing more harm the longer it continued. We thought that we wanted a silent chairman rather than one who interferes. Xia is his paradox and a man who is currently giving the fans what they want. At some point down the line, I can see a time where we won’t want Xia to be passing comment on every single issue. I’m sure Roberto Di Matteo certainly won’t be happy should Xia air his thoughts on playing staff and such like. With anything in life, finding a balance is important. At the moment, this is exactly what the fans need and we’re lapping it up. We needed to be recognised, to be drawn back to the club that had shunned us and have our concerns addressed. Whilst there will always be a time for responding to supporters on those day-to-day issues such as improving the match day pie and keeping us informed regarding what is going on with the club, there will also come a time where the enthusiasm about certain things in particular turns into interfering. Hopefully, Xia will recognises the point at which the honeymoon is ending and find the right balance which will keep the fans happy and the people within the club happy too.