The zombification of Aston Villa Football Club
With all the attention this summer focused on the World Cup, which league Luis Suarez would sink his teeth into next, and Southampton selling anything that breathes, you may have overlooked another non-entity of a pre-season at Villa Park.
You’d be forgiven for missing the news that owner Randy Lerner, long-rumoured throughout last season to be seeking an exit from Aston Villa, at last put the club up for sale at the end of May. It’s been 8 years since Lerner swept into Villa Park following a £62.6m takeover – which triggered a wave of optimism that things might actually move from the morosely mediocre to something bordering on excitement.
After some initial promise in the Martin O’Neill era, which included appearances in the League Cup final and FA Cup semi-finals and 6th place three seasons running, Villa appear to have slipped back into yet another rut. When you look at the current Premier League, they stand out as the club where as a fan you never really exceed a resting pulse between August and May. There is no real threat of relegation – there are always three worse teams. There is no hope of finishing in the top 6 – the rest of the league has pushed on at a sharper pace. They seem perennially barnacled to the middle. Come May, there is simply nothing to be remotely excited about. Doubly so for any neutral casting their eyes at the club.
For a passionate and loyal fanbase, this has to be a huge frustration. Their last real success of note, the 1996 League Cup win, is almost a distant memory. It’s so long ago that Paul McGrath was even playing alongside the likes of Mark Draper, Bossie the Aussie, and Savo Miss-a-lot-ovic. It was a wonderful age where Andy Townsend existed as the Villa captain, rather than the nightmare ITV pundit we’ve come to endure. Yes, this was a hell of a long time ago.
Yet their current status as a black hole for excitement continues to be a mystery. This will be Villa’s 27th consecutive season at this level. While other clubs have experienced great turmoil in that period, Villa have generally been fairly stable – despite former chairman Deadly Doug Ellis’s occasional trigger-happy temper. They really should be doing better than they are. While recent seasons have seen Paul Lambert scouring the Championship and League 1 for talent, it wasn’t too long ago that Villa were spending big. Around £48 million in 2008 (James Milner, Curtis Davies, and Carlos Cuellar the notable signings), £32 million in 2009 (including substantial cash for Stuart Downing and Fabian Delph), and £32 million more in 2010 (over half of which went on Darren Bent).
This is not a club that’s been idly sitting on its hands in the market in the past, but the investment in the years has dipped – and this summer seemed to grind to a halt completely. Free transfers are virtually all that Villa have brought in – the likes of Phillipe Senderos, Kieran Richardson and Joe Cole feel more like rustling through the Premier League bargain basement bucket rather than adding any real lift in talent to make a significant impact. Lerner appears to have realised spending some cash may be necessary before he sells the club, reportedly releasing £10 million to be spent by the end of August. In today’s money, that nearly buys you one Ross McCormack. Not exactly game-changing.
Lerner’s eventual departure provides both uncertainty and opportunity. Opportunity if the right owner is found, but several months on from Lerner’s announcement and there appears to have been very little interest – which is in truth a bit puzzling. On paper, this should be a very attractive club for anyone wanting to find the next club to mount a challenge at the European places. They have a consistent average attendance each year that’s on a par with Spurs and Everton, who have both regularly challenged at the top in recent years. And they also have a very decent Academy, which has produced in the past the likes of Gabby Agbonlahor, Gary Cahill, Marc Albrighton and more recently Gary Gardner, Chris Herd and Andreas Weimann. There are not many clubs with the For Sale sign up that can offer the same sort of potential for a foreign investor. But if Villa are to wake from this slumber, it requires a substantial cash influx, and a manager to use it wisely.
With 12 months left on his contract, and a record that appears every bit as mediocre as Villa’s recent seasons, you wonder whether this season might be the last for Paul Lambert. You would almost expect him to be one of the first casualties of any new regime to walk into Villa Park – a fate Lambert himself is only too aware of. Were Deadly Doug in charge you suspect he would have been moved on by now. It could have been so different had their first choice Roberto Martinez not turned the club down 3 years ago – though the fact he didn’t see it as a more attractive prospect than Wigan should have sent alarm bells ringing. The team seems ripe for someone like David Moyes to rebuild his reputation at, or a talented boss from abroad to come and bring in some desperately-needed new ideas.
Villa are a big club, with a rich history, a good all-round set-up, and a loyal (and admirably patient) fanbase. It needs to catch the imagination again, and requires wholescale changes across the top. Unless that happens, prepare to see much of the same boredom through to the next decade.