Aston Villa: On The Verge Of Relegation

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How have Aston Villa found themselves on the verge of Premier League relegation? How can provincial clubs survive and succeed in England's top flight? Today on the blog Daniel Evans dissects the troubles at Villa Park and offers some cause for hope.

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Villa are having a tough season. This has been a source of mirth for many people, simply because it’s funny to see big clubs struggle. This is hubris. This is what you get when you harbour delusions of grandeur. Many neutrals are still angry at Lambert for leaving wholesome Norwich, and Newcastle fans may be forgiven for enjoying Villa’s plight: not so long ago Villa fans jeered as Newcastle were relegated at Villa Park.

But Villa’s on field struggles and the bizarre appointments of Gerard Houllier and Alec McLeish have masked more serious structural issues facing the club, and question marks over Paul Lambert’s ability point to a misunderstanding of the extent of the problems and the changes made of late at Villa, whose struggles should serve as a warning to fans of other ambitious provincial clubs.

Villa’s decline was inevitable, but it should not be all doom and gloom. The Swiss Ramble brilliantly illustrates what has gone wrong at Villa. To briefly summarise:

  • Randy Lerner bought Villa in 2006 and pumped money into the club in pursuit of the top four.
  • His manager, Martin O Neill, spent 119 million on players during this period (a net spend of 84 million after sales).
  • During O Neill’s reign the club broke into and stayed in the top 6, and had relatively successful cup runs (albeit without actually winning anything).
  • But now Lerner has belatedly realised that this pattern of spending with no return is unsustainable, and has said that there will be no more money forthcoming.

 

The nature of the expenditure under O Neill’s tenure illuminates the problems faced by football’s middling nouveau rich. O Neill brought in Ashley Young and James Milner, two exciting young prospects, but also brought in uninspiring journeymen who proceeded to get fat off exorbitant wages. Reo- Coker, Sidwell, Curtis Davies, Luke Young, Zat Knight, Habib Beye, Emile Heskey. All mediocrity personified.

The Plight Of The Provincial

Sadly, provincial teams like Villa will never be able to attract top tier players, regardless of the wages they can offer. Their fanbases are too small and their recent pedigree not distinguished enough for them to ever be ‘global brands’. Painful as it is to admit, success breeds success in football, and Champions League quality players move to teams in the Champions League. Teams who qualify for the tournament become richer and stronger, whereas permanently finishing outside the top four perpetuates a vicious circle.

At best, teams like Villa can attract promising youngsters who will use them as a stepping stone, or talented but aging/ inconsistent individuals. But squads of journeymen (i.e. ‘proven premiership players’) are sadly a more common outcome. In many ways this is understandable: unexpected investment brings pressure to spend, to prove you’re building something. We’ve all been shopping after pay day (ok, after we get given pocket money) and bought something we don’t need for the sake of buying something. Football clubs do the same. This pressure to spend also leads to clubs overlooking young homegrown players, who are deemed ‘risky’: teams chasing success can’t afford to drop points because of inexperienced rookies. The Winston Bogardes are the only winners in these situations.

QPR represent a glaring example of this policy, assembling a team of paralysingly mediocre (and now obscenely wealthy) rejects under Mark Hughes. Even Manchester City, ostensibly a more successful ‘project’, have just four world class players, and have assembled serious deadwood because of the pressure to spend.

Wage bills are one of the main reasons that clubs rack up debt. Once owners fail to see a return on their investment, they bail out, leaving the club and fans to deal with spiralling debt. Players and managers abandon (or get thrown off ) the sinking ship, which normally begins to freefall down the divisions.

Watching ‘Premiership Years’, you cannot fail to be struck by the amount of big provincial clubs who, once seemingly secure in the premiership, are now languishing in the football league. The story is almost always the same: big name managers bringing in their own ‘experienced’ players on crazy wages who then fail spectacularly (e.g., Platt at Forest, Redknapp at Soton, Pleat/ Wilson at Wednesday etc) causing the club to implode. Once the club starts to slide, the frenzied managerial merry go round begins, exacerbating the instability.

Cause For Optimism

Things could therefore be far worse at Villa, as it seems unlikely that Lerner is going to bail, but is rather instituting some necessary austerity. Wages have been slashed accordingly. Escaping financial meltdown- which could feasibly have happened the way Villa were spending- is a reason to be cheerful.

This idea of Villa’s ‘tragic decline’ thus ultimately depends on your perception. The paradox which lies at the heart of modern football is that the pursuit of success- an intuitive desire amongst fans raised on Champions League envy- can be highly dangerous. Villa are paying the price for their ambition and ego, and fans’ pessimism is down to artificially inflated expectations.

To me it seems that Villa should be grateful for this reality check: if you are diagnosed with pre-diabetes you adjust your diet and lifestyle and thank God for the early diagnosis, you don’t moan about not being able to eat McDonalds. Relegation ultimately rejuvenated Newcastle, who got rid of their expensive dross and rebuilt. Villa shouldn’t have to hit rock bottom to change their ways.

Playing youth may have been forced on Paul Lambert, but he has had the courage to persist with his youngsters and resisted the temptation to panic buy or loan his way out of trouble- the usual response to a relegation battle - or indeed to walk from an unenviable position.

Final Thoughts

Villa have played some good stuff in patches this season, and if they stay up with their young team, many of whom are local, may be in a good position to rebuild and consolidate.

Swansea and West Brom show that (relative) success can be achieved without risking financial ruin, and Villa should seek to emulate them.

 

The Odds: Villa are best priced at odds of 3.10 with Ladbrokes to win at Reading this weekend, while being odds of 2.10 also with Ladbrokes to avoid relegation this season.

 

 

Follow Dan on Twitter: @theenverhoxha

And read more of his work on his blog: WittyPlayOnWords.Blogspot