Relegation has long been a foregone conclusion for Aston Villa in the eyes of their own, as well as neutral, fans. The overwhelming lack of activity in the January transfer window suggests the board at the club feel the same. It is only a matter of time; and it’s only been a matter of time for some time now.
Ever since Martin O’Neill left Villa five days before the 2010/11 season, the club has been on a steady decline. Of the five seasons that followed they have only reached the safety of 40 points twice, and in this, their sixth season since O’Neill’s departure, they look hard stretched even to make 20. This has been coming for some time, but instead of trying to stop the rot, Villa have allowed themselves to fall deeper into despair.
It’s a sorry state of affairs. Villa are a proud club with a proud history, an ever-present top flight team in the Premier League era, but they have been allowed to deteriorate due to a complete sense of apathy from those at the top of the club stemming from the final days of Martin O’Neill’s tenure as manager.
In a 2010 article for The Guardian, Paul Haywood wrote of “(Randy) Lerner being spooked by the rise of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur” and how “O’Neill turned his thoughts to the possibility that (James) Milner, Ashley Young and others may be auctioned off along with Villa’s recently restored ambitions.” In 2016, it has become clear that O’Neill had every right to feel concerned. In just under six years, Aston Villa has transformed from a club that was once flirting with the possibility of Champions League football to a club that has a sole aim of avoiding relegation.
The “auctioning off” of Villa’s ambition has perhaps been highlighted this season more than any other. The pre-season saw the club lose their spine; Ron Vlaar rejected a contract extension, Fabien Delph left for Manchester City and their top goalscorer for the last three seasons, Christian Benteke, was sold to Liverpool. With the money acquired, Villa brought a host of new players but few had any Premier League experience. It was a huge gamble from Tom Fox, the chief executive, Henrik Almstadt, the sporting director, and Paddy Reilly, the recruitment director, and ultimately it is one that has not paid off.
By the end of his time at Villa, Tim Sherwood was not selecting many of the 13 players they had signed to replace those that had left. They weren’t adapting quickly enough, and over time have proved to not be good enough. Now, they have the inexperienced Remi Garde as manager, who is suffering the same struggles that Tim Sherwood did with the exact same players after one transfer window.
Questions should be asked at Villa Park. Randy Lerner hired Tom Fox, a man who helped Arsenal get huge deals with Emirates and Puma, and Henrik Almstadt, also from Arsenal, whose experience in football before entering the role of sporting director was purely commercial. How did those characters find themselves in charge of transfers at a Premier League club, let alone a Premier League club in desperate need of playing quality? Who decided that the transfer policy at the club should be to sign untapped young potential from overseas rather than quality, experienced players? Why was nobody brought in, even on loan, in January?
Lerner recently appointed Steve Hollis, a former chairman of an accountancy firm, as chairman of the football club. In a recent interview, Hollis stated that “The only thing (Villa) can focus on now is the best we can do both in terms of the capital resources and human resources to put this club on the best footing possible. Just…look at the clubs that are doing well at the moment. Most of them haven’t spent big money. What they have done is invest in the infrastructure of the club and invested in that hard work culture, culture of continuous improvement and team spirit.”
A cynical person would be forgiven for believing that was Hollis preparing the fans for a lack of spending in the transfer window. An even more cynical person could be forgiven for thinking that Hollis’ appointment is part of a trend set by Randy Lerner for appointments in the boardroom.
On Thursday, Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England, was appointed on to the board. Along with Hollis, it represents the recent hiring of two people from financial backgrounds. Both Tom Fox and Henrik Almstadt, with their commercial experience, add the prospect of financial benefits.
Randy Lerner, who by 2013 had lost a third of his fortune to the club, is clearly acquiring people who will ensure financial stability for the club, more than likely to ensure he doesn’t make such heavy losses as he continues to look for a buyer for the club. However, in treating the club as a business, Lerner and his cohorts seem to have neglected where it matters most to the ordinary fan, and now Lerner looks set to lose out on the massive TV rights Premier League teams will receive next season.
The real danger for Villa now is that when they get relegated, where does it stop? Remi Garde strikes the appearance of a man who is fast losing the will to go on, and has been left clearly disgruntled by the lack of activity in the transfer window that he will see as a complete lack of ambition and maybe even a lack of trust. That Garde has stuck it out thus far is a testament to the drive and commitment of the man who has been dealt more than just a bad hand, but a couple more bad results may be the tipping point for him. Even if he does stay, if the summer once again sees Villa fail to invest then it must be believed he will leave for similar reasons as Martin O’Neill did six years ago.
On Tuesday against West Ham, Villa started brightly, and to be fair to them under Garde they have looked better in patches, but the sending off of Jordan Ayew was telling. Stories fly around of players who have got sent off and/or feigned injuries in times of crisis in order to get out of the team. When Ayew, unprovoked, elbowed Aaron Cresswell in the face, it seemed impossible not to think that this was possibly a case of a player finding a way out of the firing line for a few games.
As the saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” and Villa don’t get going, and too many of the players hide. The Championship will present an entirely different challenge, as every team will view them as a major scalp, a cup final, and it will again be tough for them. The question Lerner, Fox and Garde need to be asking is: “is this team tough enough?”
Leeds United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield Wednesday—even Manchester City once upon a time—found the drop from the Premier League tough and dropped even further. Villa fans will be worried that they could be looking a long way down, unsure where the bottom really is.