Sunday 25 September 2016

End of the affair for Aston Villa

Paul Wilson

Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30

Protesting goods against Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner are on sale prior to the match between Aston Villa and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Villa Park. Photo: Getty
Protesting goods against Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner are on sale prior to the match between Aston Villa and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Villa Park. Photo: Getty

Aston Villa have been resigned to the worst for some time now, it was significant that when indicating they would not be rushing to replace Remi Garde they expressed a preference for a manager with Championship experience, yet in one of those ironic twists that tend to go hand in hand with sporting disappointments it has emerged that the club will actually be unprepared next season after all.

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Long-suffering supporters would hardly be surprised, though this relates to the club's official badge, not the abject performances on the pitch. Villa have been having a close look at their branding during some of the longueurs this season has provided, and decided, not unreasonably, that the lion rampant introduced by proud Scot and football league pioneer William McGregor in 1878 was no longer projecting the desired level of fearsomeness. It had had its claws removed some years ago for a start, which made it look more like a soft toy than a savage beast, and was fighting a losing battle for space within a shield-shaped badge with Villa's initials, the star for winning the European Cup and the club motto: Prepared.

The last has had to go, and it must be admitted the new, reclawed version looks better without it, even if the unfortunate timing led to obvious jokes and hoary allusions to deckchair shuffling aboard the Titanic. "Our badge was not performing as well as it should," a club spokesman explained, resisting the temptation to add that the first team was not winning any achievement awards either. "In the new version both the lion and the club initials sit larger within the shield."

As Villa's season has long been destined to end with a whimper rather than a roar there have been few howls of protest so far, though there may yet be if the club persists with its original plan to remove the Prepared motto from the stained glass designs within the stadium.

Clubs meddle with their heritage at their peril. Everton fans were mightily displeased a couple of years ago when following an alleged process of public consultation the club tried to dispense with its famous Latin motto for similar reasons of brevity. There was no room within the shield they said, what with laurel wreaths, club name, all-important year of formation (14 years before Liverpool) and idiosyncratic depiction of a local bridewell.

Even though Everton attempted to soften the blow by plastering Nil Satis Nisi Optimum all over Goodison Park, the people at the people's club were having none of it. Everton, it was made clear, were somehow incomplete without a motto that began with the word nil, and within a season the Latin was back.

Why Everton supporters are so attached to a tag that has been majestic in its inappropriateness most seasons since the '60s is a mystery, but attached they certainly are. Villa, likewise, have been anything but prepared for some time, though their fans will possibly forgive the streamlined badge if the club shows a similar amount of gumption in their reduced circumstances from next season.

The statue of McGregor outside Villa Park's main entrance, apparently in the process of suggesting to other clubs that some sort of regular fixture list might be a good idea, is a reminder that the Premier League is about to lose a major player. Stained glass windows in the Trinity Road stand are another. Like Everton, Villa are founder members of the Football League. Like Goodison, Villa Park was a venue in the 1966 World Cup. Villa are a big, big club by English standards, and Birmingham is far too large a city to have no direct representation in the top flight.

Yet then again, so is Sheffield. So is Leeds. So, dare one say it, is the Newcastle-Sunderland axis in the north east.

It was widely feared when the Premier League came into existence that it would soon come to be dominated by big city teams in major population centres. This never really happened, although it remains the case that 22 of the 23 titles so far decided have ended up in London or Manchester.

With Leicester sitting on top of the table and Bournemouth and Watford both thriving after promotion the Premier League is arguably more diverse and accessible than ever, though that does not mean it can afford to wave goodbye to both north east clubs at once or such a grand place to spend a Saturday afternoon as Villa Park.

One fears for Villa in particular, because unlike the half-dozen teams immediately above them, they have no recent experience of relegation. Despite increasingly thin returns in the last few seasons they have remained in the Premier League since its inception in 1992, and many have remarked already that on the basis of their inability to compete this season they are likely to struggle in the Championship too.

They stand to lose a lot of money by not being around in the top flight when the new television deal kicks in, and owner Randy Lerner is not going to find it any easier selling the club once Premier League status is lost, but Villa really need to take a long view now.

It should not be imagined that rejoining the elite will be easy, instant or possibly even achievable with the present group of players, although few Villa supporters will be labouring under any of those delusions.

Nor will Championship football necessarily provide breathing space for the players or morale-boosting wins to cheer up the fans. That seemed to be the mistake Wigan made when they went down after eight years in the Premier League and before they knew it they were in League One.

Villa must keep hold of long-term prospects such as Andre Green, a 17-year-old already attracting interest from rivals, and move out most of the bigger-name players who have under-performed so badly.

Tricky, but selling the club itself remains trickiest of all. Villa need a new owner to provide drive and direction, and are trying to smarten up their act to present themselves to potential buyers in the best light. Hence the recent additions at boardroom level. Hence, it turns out, the badge redesign. Titter all you like but don't say no one at the club is making an effort.

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