Aston Villa fans were still licking their wounds following play-off final agony when a grim reality surfaced – one that had potentially catastrophic implications for all associated with the club.
It was hard to ignore the dejected expressions of John Terry and Jack Grealish while 38,000 in Wembley’s East End danced deliriously in the sunshine – Aston Villa were facing a summer of major upheaval, but nobody could have predicted what would follow in the summer of 2018.
Financial Fair Play had loomed over Villa Park during the club’s three-year Premier League exile and after spending £76 million in his first season as owner, Dr Tony Xia’s bullish but ultimately reckless approach was laid bare from the start.
It was revealed only a fortnight after a single Tom Cairney goal condemned Villa to another season in the Championship that the club had been seeking insolvency advice for more than a week following their defeat in the Championship play-off final at the national stadium.
The financial consequences were so severe it took this great football club – a cornerstone of the English game – to its knees. Xia had been bankrolling Villa for months with money arriving from China and into Villa’s bank account to make good the shortfall in normal trading operations. One missed tax bill however following a failed Premier League return was ever so nearly the end of Aston Villa as we know it, the former European Cup champions.
After a couple of nail-biting weeks later, Aston Villa’s modern-day heroes Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens swooped to save the club from the abyss.
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 a sustainable, 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 Xia walking into Villa Park were unrealistic, but actions speak louder than words and Sawiris and Edens are becoming quite the power couple.
Villa Park never seems to be quiet for too long, but after the Coronavirus pandemic hit, B6 was quieter than it had ever been before. The longest Premier League season was the stroke of luck Villa needed to achieve survival having been written off before Project Restart. From afar, Sawiris would watch Grealish – the player they kept at the club as their first statement of intent – carry the club over the dotted line.
Between Sawiris and Edens, the two boast some serious financial muscle, and according to Forbes, their combined wealth comes within the top six of the Premier League owners rich list. After private-equity investor Sawiris and his American partner bought a majority stake in Villa from Xia in 2018, the two immediately pumped £30 million into the club, solving a liquidity crisis that had dogged the Chinese businessman and led to his sale of the club.
Their investment certainly didn’t end there, and their ambition is for all to see. From significant transfer fees to providing enough funding to ensure all non-football staff would not be furloughed during the first lockdown period, NSWE has been nothing short of exemplary in the running of the club so far.
Bodymoor Heath’s state-of-the-art expansion
Chief executive Christian Purslow, who runs the club on a day-to-day basis on behalf of Sawiris and Edens, said in a Villa TV interview it’s an all-hands-to-the-pump effort to “make this club great again.”
He’s seen, first-hand, the level of investment Villa’s ambitious owners have pumped into the club. At Bodymoor Heath, a brand new £14 million academy site was completed last year, with a 500-seater stand, match pitch and other facilities also built to mimic matchday at Villa Park.
Up to £6 million has also been spent on extending the first-team’s headquarters with a state-of-the-art performance centre perhaps the most eye-catching of NSWE’s investments.
A brand new multi-purpose gym is now home to Villa’s incredible sports science team who will endeavour to maximise player potential with all the tools and modern technologies available.
Dean Smith, John Terry and Villa’s ever-growing performance team were said to have been impressed on their summer visit to the Minnesota Vikings’ NFL training facility. Edens previously discussed in a Q&A last year that football as a sport has “got a long way to go in terms of analytics data,” compared to the standards seen in the NBA and other American sports.
“It’s something we have to make a big investment into,” he said. “If you have great information most of the decisions are pretty darn simple.”
Purslow added: “I’m also very pleased to report that our first-team HQ is being upgraded hugely with the building of a new performance centre. It increases the workspace for the physical preparation by our athletes by a factor of eight. It’s an absolutely enormous project.”
“I know something about ownership in football. I’m lucky enough to have been in the game a long time and have worked with a lot of owners. I really hope, honestly, that the fans understand when I say to them that Dean, myself and all the staff know that we are backed in all we’re doing to try and make this club great again across all aspects of what we do.
“We’re so lucky and I could not be more sure that the arrival of Nassef and Wes was one of the most important moments in this club’s history because of everything we’re now being able to do that would not be possible without shareholders’ support.”
The impressive North Warwickshire complex at the rear of The Belfry will soon be split apart by the £100 billion costing HS2, that will eventually slice through the training ground. The hub for Villa’s youth sides has moved as a result.
Bodymoor Heath’s main entrance will also move, towards Middleton Lakes, with the new academy base situated a short drive past the first-team entrance.
“A huge amount of work has been ongoing at Bodymoor,” explained Purslow.
“I think most of our fans know because of the HS2 project we were essentially forced to rebuild large chunks of our academy operation. That work is complete. Our facility is one of the largest in Europe. It’s open, it’s working. We’re hosting under-23 and youth games now here at Bodymoor in our wonderful new facility.”
Inner-city campus with views of Villa Park
Plans to build a brand new inner-city football academy near Villa Park are also underway. The Premier League club has lodged an application with the city council to develop the state-of-the-art complex on land off Tame Road, close to the stadium and Witton train station.
With Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground around 13 miles away from Villa Park, the facility will cater for youngsters in the surrounding catchment areas. The site is currently being used as a car park for match-day staff, but the proposal put forward to Birmingham City Council includes a full-size indoor 3G pitch, an outdoor floodlit 3G pitch, plus a purpose-built two-storey building that will house six changing rooms.
As well as being used by the club’s youth academy teams, it would also be available to the local community and for the club’s foundation work.
“I’m aware of it and it’s something the football club needed to do,” Villa’s first-team head coach, Smith commented. “We’ve got a fantastic training facility here at Bodymoor Heath but it is nearer to Tamworth than Birmingham and, to have somewhere in Birmingham, would be ideal for us.”
Warwickshire-based HB Architects have been chosen to lead the city academy build, having recently renovated the Holte Suite at a cost of £8.5 million.
In its design statement, a spokesman for HB Architects said: “The club’s focus through the city academy will have two primary aims; to assist Aston Villa in identifying talented local young players (male and female), and to provide access for the local community through the Aston Villa Foundation and partnership working with local junior football clubs.
“The location of the city academy will ensure that young people in the city can access these new facilities easily within the urban area, with direct links available locally via public transport.
“By providing the facility in the shadow of the main stadium, and also in an urban location that is easily accessible on foot, cycle and by public transport, there is a greater opportunity for those young people who may not have access or the support to travel the 12km to the Bodymoor Heath training ground facility.”
Villa’s owners are also thought to have exciting plans to completely overhaul the North Stand once normality resumes, with initial plans including a hotel, museum and a new superstore to replace the one-time ‘Villa Village’ building.