Friday 13 December 2019

A cautionary tale of missteps and bad judgement

Aston Villa fans make their feelings clear at yesterday’s FA Cup matchthe. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images
Aston Villa fans make their feelings clear at yesterday’s FA Cup matchthe. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Dion Fanning

On December 12, 2009, Martin O'Neill's Aston Villa travelled to the home of the Premier League champions, Manchester United. The club hadn't won at Old Trafford in the league since 1983, but Villa had already beaten Chelsea and Liverpool during a fine start to the season. In the 21st minute, Gabby Agbonlahor headed in an Ashley Young cross. Villa held on to their lead for the remainder of the game. The victory moved them up to third in the table.

"Our record this season is pretty exceptional," O'Neill said later. "There were times when United penned us in, but when we broke out we still made chances. Not only have we tightened up defensively, I thought we played pretty cleverly, standing off their forwards rather than diving in."

The following Tuesday, Villa won on the road again, beating Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. They were five points behind leaders Chelsea, who had a game in hand. More importantly, there was a gap between them and Tottenham and Manchester City, their main rivals for a Champions League place.

Over the next two months, Villa would win only two more league games. In January 2010, O'Neill praised the approach of owner Randy Lerner, who had bought the club shortly after O'Neill was appointed in 2006.

"He's still very enthusiastic about it all, he's still got some plans for Villa Park as well, which will be great if they happen, but overall his view is not one where he will be reckless.

"The owner put in a substantial amount of money in the third year which has been good and given us a springboard to keep momentum going. But ours has never been a case of going out and throwing lots of money at the whole scenario for a short-term fix. It's great if that materialises but you have to look at the overall structure."

Villa signed nobody in that January transfer window, an indication that Lerner, after three years during which he had invested more than £170m, was becoming more cagey.

On Monday, August 9, 2010, Martin O'Neill resigned as manager of Aston Villa, five days before the start of the Premier League season. James Milner had been sold to Manchester City, who had lost out to Spurs in the fight for the final Champions League place. Villa, for the third year in a row, had finished sixth.

The Guardian reported that "the tipping point for O'Neill was when he learned he would not be able to reinvest the majority of the money generated from James Milner's move to Manchester City".

There had been criticisms of O'Neill's recruitment. For example, he had signed Emile Heskey, who he had also worked with at Leicester City, and this reflected a general approach which centred around British players, who are always more expensive.

Last year, O'Neill pointed out that the club had made profits on players he had signed, like Stewart Downing and Ashley Young.

O'Neill had benefited from Lerner's investment, but he had managed well too, creating a strong, competitive team which looked like being a force, even if the arrival of Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City ensured that Villa would find it hard to compete in the new financial world.

This week, Aston Villa have two league games which would be considered critical if they did not appear to be doomed already. Their result in the FA Cup yesterday against O'Neill's old club Wycombe Wanderers was an irrelevance, notable as much for the Villa supporters chanting abuse at the team coach beforehand as anything on the pitch.

It is the Premier League which defines everything for a club of Aston Villa's size, and they have won once in the league this season, an opening day victory at Bournemouth.

On Tuesday night, Villa are at home to Crystal Palace, and next Saturday they play Leicester City at Villa Park. Both clubs are examples of how Villa could have done things, but then they have tried everything since August 2010.

A month after O'Neill's departure, Gerard Houllier was appointed manager. Lerner was committed to prudence at that stage, but in January, concerned by Villa's position in the table, £18m was spent on Darren Bent.

Houllier's time at the club was rancorous. Shortly before the end of the season, he was admitted to hospital with chest pains and he missed the final month of the campaign through ill health. In the summer, Houllier left the club by mutual consent. Villa, with time to make a considered decision, approached Roberto Martinez at Wigan, who decided not to leave the club. Instead, Alex McLeish was appointed. McLeish was manager of Birmingham City. They had won the League Cup the previous season, but that might not have been enough to justify appointing a manager from Villa's closest rivals, especially as Birmingham had also been relegated. He also had an approach to football which was nothing like Martinez's, who had been Villa's first choice.

McLeish also lasted only one season. On the final day, Villa played away at Norwich City. The away supporters jeered McLeish and chanted the name of Paul Lambert, who was managing the home side.

At that stage, Lambert was regarded as one of the brightest prospects in British management. When he left Villa last year, the brightness had been taken from him and his prospects. Villa and their manager were dour and dull.

"I wasn't given the funds for that club to move forward. I knew how big that club was," Lambert said in an interview late last year. "It wasn't as if I was going in there with my eyes closed. I knew the prestige and history it had behind it. To do that and keep that club up there you had to go and spend. You had to spend just to stand still, but he didn't want to do it."

Lerner had new objectives. Lambert developed a young squad, savings were made and then, in 2014, the club was put up for sale. None of it seemed to work. Lambert was dismissed last season. In his place, Tim Sherwood brought his shiny optimism to Villa Park and it was enough to keep them in the Premier League. Last summer, Aston Villa spent more than £50m on players. They had lost Fabian Delph and Christian Benteke, but Sherwood spoke of "a new dawn".

Villa had a new structure too, another example of a club which remains unclear about what it is actually trying to do.

If the O'Neill era was an example of what would happen when a manager bought mainly British-based players in their prime, Villa would now demonstrate their knowledge of the global market. Under a relatively new chief executive Tom Fox, there was a new sporting director Hendrik Almstadt who, like Fox, had previously been at Arsenal. Paddy Reilly, previously a scout at Liverpool, was head of scouting and recruitment. Villa, having avoided relegation by three points last season, were going all-in on a youth-based policy which would ensure they weren't stuck with an ageing squad again.

At Christmas, Rémi Garde, who was appointed manager in November after Sherwood was sacked, called on his side to take inspiration from Leicester's run last season when they had escaped relegation despite having only ten points after 18 games.

Some might have wondered if the man to inspire Villa to do a Leicester might have been the old Leicester manager Nigel Pearson, who was available when Sherwood left. He would, perhaps, not have been as smooth a fit in the new model, which was more suited to an elegant coach like Garde.

Villa have eight points from 20 games this season. They lost two key matches to Norwich and Sunderland after Christmas. Garde's talents as a coach had been displayed at Lyon, but this is a different and unfamiliar challenge. The Championship next season will be even less familiar. Villa may try and gamble in this transfer window, but it is unlikely any signing could save them now.

They will receive parachute payments if they are relegated, but the new TV deal beginning next season means that no club wants to be outside the Premier League at the beginning of this lucrative new dawn.

Aston Villa, champions of Europe in 1982, and representatives of England's second city, Birmingham, look like they will be scrabbling to return with all the others who believe they belong in the Premier League.

Their story is a story of missteps and bad judgement. Lerner has invested heavily in the club, but the experience has been a gruelling one. Last year, O'Neill reflected on his time at the club, pointing to the success he enjoyed, and the money the club had received from players he brought in.

Others will continue to believe that the decline began with that ageing squad and the radical attempts which followed to change direction, especially as the changes so often lacked purpose. "I often say that the people who stay are the people who write the history," O'Neill said as he looked back at his time. History is often written by the winners. At Aston Villa, it continues to be written by those who stayed, and those who have lost.

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