Steve Round’s appointment as Technical Director at the beginning of September saw the last remaining prominent figure of the disastrous old regime finally removed. Paddy Riley had somehow managed to dig in and cling on to his job during the summer rebuilding process, long after the likes of Tom Fox and Hendrik Almstadt fell by the way side.
Riley was, for all intents and purposes, a glorified scout. His last role at Villa as Director of Scouting and Player Recruitment was to find players and oversee the scouting network. Ultimately, Randy Lerner and Tom Fox allowed him to become involved to such an extent that was detrimental to the club. By all accounts, there is little doubt that Riley certainly contributed to the toxic atmosphere that engulfed the club last season. He worked with Lambert, Sherwood and Garde and all three managers, whatever faults they may have had themselves, could not find a way to work productively with Riley. Roberto Di Matteo apparently flat out refused to work with him this summer as he clung on to his job for dear life instead of doing the honourable thing and resigning.
While there is no doubt that Riley’s position was untenable, there is still a slight anomaly that surrounds him. For all his failings, it cannot be denied that he identified some decent talent.
Riley is a statistics man – a modern scout, if you will. His background is as a performance analyst. Science is his tool. You wouldn’t find him talent spotting on a Saturday afternoon out in the lower leagues. However, his methods, whilst being criticised, have worked to some extent.
Much has been made of our transfer policy over the last few years – and quite rightly so, as it has obviously been shambolic. Much of this blame lies at Riley’s feet, which, to me, has always seemed slightly unfair. A multitude of factors meant incoming players have been below par. Lerner, in my opinion, is to blame more than any other. A tightening of the purse strings meant that managers had to dance to his tune rather than have freedom in the transfer market. This led to transfer policies that were restrictive. First came Paul Lambert’s experiment with youth, which was mostly a failure. Then Lambert switched to the other end of the spectrum and decided to bring in older players who hopefully still had something to prove. This didn’t work either. Riley was present at the club during the first part of Lambert’s reign, holding the position of Head of Player Recruitment. There is debate as to whether Riley was involved with the signing of Christian Benteke, although it seems that it was Lambert who identified the Belgian.
Riley’s real input came during last summer’s original rebuilding job. After a short stint with Liverpool, Riley returned, brought in by Tom Fox and bumped up into the Director of Scouting and Player Recruitment role. With the Benteke and Delph transfer fees, Sherwood had money to spend and Riley was on hand to oversee the spending.
As we know, the 2015-2016 season was one of the very worst imaginable and resulted in our relegation. The signings that were made only contributed to a poisonous atmosphere at the club, with Joleon Lescott and Micah Richards bearing the brunt of the supporters’ unrest. Yet Lescott and Richards were not Riley recommendations. They were Sherwood’s.
It is difficult to label anything, or anyone, from last season as ‘successful’ yet, any glimmer of hope came from players who were recommended by Riley, namely Idrissa Gueye, Jordan Amavi and Jordan Ayew. Even in a difficult season, Jordan Veretout still assisted five goals.
Gueye has gone on to so far prove his worth in an Everton side that has made an impressive start. Jamie Carragher singled him out for praise in his post-match analysis on Sky Sports after the Toffees’ 3-0 win against Sunderland last Monday evening. So far, Gueye is proving that he belongs at the top level. Villa fans knew he looked good last season, perhaps without being spectacular, but he alone was unable to prevent a landslide. Yet another incredibly stupid release clause fee has seen the Toffees pick up a bargain at £7.1 million, in a market which has seen a similar player in N’Golo Kante transferred for £30 million. Everton supporters are frequently hailing his performances so far. In a team featuring eye-catching players such as Romelu Lukaku, Yannick Bolasie and Kevin Mirallas, that is no mean feat.
Statistics obviously aren’t the only way to identify talent and they can be manipulated to convey whatever one likes. For example, I could say that we are unbeaten at home this season, which of course hides the truth of the matter. Gueye is a particular case in point when it comes to the figures, however. I have to admit that I was surprised to see that he was second only to Kante last season for tackles made and interceptions. Watching him last season, for someone who was tackling and intercepting so much, it never felt to me that he was a solid enforcer and the match results certainly didn’t reflect that we had any midfield steel. Perhaps criminally, the Villa faithful also largely didn’t seem too upset at his departure.
Of course, to expect one man to make a difference is unfair, especially in a team as rotten as ours was. Despite any reservations we may have had, it is clear that Gueye is flourishing in a better team. So, can we really blame Riley for our mess when it seems that he actually may have done his homework on this particular player – and others? Surely it is up to the management to get the best out of a player who possesses quality.
Riley’s true downfall stems from being given too much responsibility at the club. He held an enormous amount of sway with Fox and, bizarrely, Lerner. It is clear that he was completely out of his depth in his role, which also included having an input in negotiating contracts. It is absolutely mind-blowing that a guy who is effectively a scout is crunching numbers to do with top level sports contracts. It is likely that Gueye’s aforementioned pathetic release clause was dreamt up at least in part by Riley, which is unforgivable.
Similarly, the deal to bring in Adama Traoré also had the stench of Riley about it. It is well documented that Riley pushed extremely hard for Traoré and, in due course, we signed the Barcelona prodigy. To entice him to the club, a clause was included in his contract to increase his salary to around £75,000 a week if he played just a handful of games. It’s no wonder we were in such a mess.
In spite of all this, I find it difficult to lay the blame entirely at Riley’s feet. Lerner and Fox are equally to blame for giving Riley a role that he clearly was not cut out for. He is an analyst. He should never have been a director of anything. The thought of Fox and Riley representing us in contract negotiations is completely embarrassing. Regardless of this, it is also clear that Riley was too inept to even head up an entire scouting network. According to reports, our Madrid-based scout, Simon Ward, was merely a journalism student and another European scout, Jon Bickers, had emigrated to Australia! Similarly, whilst Riley may have been trying to flood the team with French imports, who was there to stop him? He had too much power and influence.
Every workplace has one – that guy who seems to get ahead and gets the promotions despite being awful at what he is supposed to do. Riley should never have been anything other than a scout within a network of other talent finders. Gueye, Amavi and Ayew suggest that he can identify decent players. That should have been the extent of his association with the club. Perhaps with a better infrastructure and more knowledgeable, stronger people running the club, Riley’s reputation as a good scout would have been assured. However, he will forever be associated, alongside Randy Lerner, Tom Fox and Hendrik Almstadt, as part of the Villa Mafia, – the men who brought our club to its knees.