I agree with a sustainable model of running a club, yet it will require major changes next season.
So Aston Villa embark on perhaps the biggest three games in their history, games which could determine the future of the club. These are not about winning trophies, or getting into the top four, this is much more serious. It is about survival.
Villa lie in 15th, with 35 points from 33 games. The next three games are against Sunderland, Bolton and West Brom. Many people are saying that 36 points will be enough to stay up, in my opinion Villa must be aiming for 40+ and 6 points must come from these three games.
Last weekend Alex Ferguson came out with support for Alex McLeish, commending the “remarkable job” he has done this season. Yet although Ferguson’s comments can be deemed as mere support for one of his own, it made me think if this season has actually been a success. Are Villa actually in a good position considering their circumstances?
Last season Villa appeared doom for the drop around Christmas; results were not going well and the mess that O’Neill had left was falling apart. Randy Lerner threw Villa are lifeline with the purchase of Darren Bent, who scored 8 goals after January to keep the side up. In the final three games Villa drew one and won two; against Arsenal and Liverpool. The scorers of the goals; Bent, Young and Downing. The thing is this time, we don't have any of those. Remarkably last season they finished 9th, which papered over a lot of cracks.
O’Neill had brought in players to play a certain way, and in all fairness to them they did it well. However, they were not malleable and this led to Villa being poor due to a manager trying to do things that his players couldn’t do. It led to Villa being too open and resulted in 59 goals being conceded. This season they have conceded 48. However, the biggest problem has been scoring goals, this season we average a goal per game.
However for all the doom and gloom out there we won't go down. And the reason we won’t go down is due to our goal difference. Right now it is -13, it is on par with those above us, not below. QPR have -19 and the rest are in the late 20’s or in Wolves case -39. Last season Birmingham had the third worst goal difference in the league, and they duly got relegated. I don’t hear this been talked of often, but it shows that goal difference makes a big difference.
What has gone wrong this season?
Alex McLeish was not a popular appointment for obvious reasons. And yet his reception from the fans has been nothing short of shocking. Those who believe that McLeish has ruined the season need to consider their part in it as much as anyone. Attendances and the atmosphere have been dire at Villa Park and have played a part in the poor performances and results at home.
In my opinion of course he should never have come to the club, even if he hadn’t coached Blues there were better candidates; Houghton and Lambert would have been ideal for us and they have shown they can improve the sides they have worked with. Yet, all credit to McLeish, he has received a lot of criticism from the fans and the media this season and he could have easily blamed a lot of things for the poor results, but he has bit his lip and got on with the job. Has he done well, in my honest opinion, if we don’t relegated it is an accomplishment. When the two favourites for the drop, Swansea and Norwich are clear from relegation, it means there is a chance that your team could be dragged in, it is important to not be their replacement.
Of course there have been too many draws, yet they could easily have been losses, think what happened to the free flowing attacking Blackpool. Defensive security is a big part of a successful side. Perhaps McLeish’s negative tactics have held Villa back from being further up the table, and there appears to be little work done on set pieces which have cost us goals and points. However, it is important to understand and stress the difference in the team this year than the last several years. Fans keep forgetting this.
Losing not one but two of our most effective providers would cause problems for any side. N’Zogbia seemed like a good signing, and many were commending it when he came, yet he has not performed as well as expected. The same goes for Albrighton, who has been a little found out this season. Can McLeish be blamed for losing top quality wingers and replacing them with average ones? And has Darren Bent suffered because of the change in quality? Of course he has. McLeish's signings have been poor though, Hutton is just not good enough for the Premier League and his creative midfielder Jenas got injured after 20 minutes.
A time of cuts
Randy Lerner wanted to cut the wage bill and stressed this last summer. Why? Because Lerner gambled on taking Villa to the Champions League and although we were so close, the gap between the top and the rest is larger than he realised and is even further now. It would be folly to try to compete for a top four finish now, especially with City and Tottenham creating a new top six. This is the issue at Villa now, under Ellis we were sustainable, he was sensible with the wages and we lived within our means.
This last financial year Villa reported losses of £54 million despite the sales of Young and Downing. The year before suffering losses of more than £37million. Villa saw wages increase to almost £80 million in 2009/10, an increase of £9million and they now account for 88% of the club's £90million turnover. This is staggering and it is understandable why changes need to be made.
Robin Russell, Villa's chief financial officer, said: "The board is confident that the actions taken since the end of the 2010-11 financial year have galvanised the longer-term sustainability of the club and have given us a better financial platform on which to build for future success."
This means that we have sold our assets and will continue to, will need to reduce the wage bill and ultimately it means times of mediocrity are abound. This should not been as a negative but a lesson to what we did wrong for the past five years. I agree with a sustainable model of running a club, yet it will require major changes next season.
We stay up, what now?
So we cannot aim to get into the top eight, so we must be content with maintaining our top flight status and doing it sustainably. The wage bill needs does need to be cut; we have players on simply ludicrous wages which should never have been justified or approved. McLeish agreed to come into a situation which was more precarious than many believed, which no-one else wanted. The lack of money to reinvest, the lack of strength in the side and the constant changes had destabilised the side. It was seen by many managers as a sinking ship, so credit to McLeish whose job it was to get Villa back to sustainable levels.
I think McLeish is a decent man and one who has done admirably this season. I am sure he will keep Villa up and the fans should praise him for that. However, I do believe that he has to go this summer. The situation is untenable and I just cannot see that changing in the near future. Will the fans accept him and support the club with the ferocity they did? Doubtful. What needs to happen is a new man must come in to galvanise the club. McLeish should be given a golden handshake for his handling of a precarious situation and Villa can then move on.
There is one man who Villa should get over any other, and this is Paul Lambert. He has proven, with a drive and determination that not many managers possess, that he can take a side languishing in league 1 and take them to the top league in two years, and keep them there. He is made for the top echelons of the game and Villa would do good to get him. He has shown at Norwich that he can bring in players cheaply on low wages and bring out the best of their abilities. This will be key for Villa aiming for sustainability.
This summer Emile Heskey, Carlos Cuellar and Brad Guzan’s deals run out this summer. Villa need to convince Cuellar especially that he has a future at Villa, as a centre back. He is the best centre half we have and has been wasted playing at full back for the past seasons. Guzan is good enough to be Given’s replacement, yet Heskey must go. In his time at Villa he hasn’t been played to his strengths; he is an excellent target man who can bring players into the game, yet the players around him don’t link up with him well enough or he plays in midfield. We have wasted three years of his career and now he is suited only to the Championship.
Other members of the squad should be moved on too; Warnock has been very poor, and Houllier’s reluctance to play him last season appears justified, apparently O’Neill wants to take him to Sunderland, let’s hope so. I also don’t believe that Richard Dunne and James Collins have a place in the team anymore, since O’Neill left they have not played to their best and they only getting worse. They just doesn’t justify their high wages. Habib Beye needs moving on too, another poor O’Neill signing.
I have been very disappointed with Fabian Delph, again another overpriced English player signed by O’Neill. He was bought for £8.5 million and a lot was expected of him, yet he has been very poor. I am sure the injury contributed to his loss of pace and movement yet I don’t see a top flight midfielder in him. We would be lucky to get £2 million for him, yet I am sure a Championship side would take a look.
Stephen Ireland has been a surprise this season, although he has not played remarkably, but he has contributed more than expected and this should be pleasing to us; because hopefully we can look to move him on and get more for him. In his time at Villa he has been a negative influence on the team and we do not need this type of player in these new austere times.
Warnock and Ireland have been used because their wages were too high to not use them, players being paid well should be contributing, and although they have played a part this season I don’t see them in the long term vision of Villa.
The big move may have to be Darren Bent. A prolific goalscorer there is no doubt and his record is impressive, yet his attitude and demeanour has not been of a man who enjoys playing at Villa and he appears more to be the one “left behind” in the summer exodus. He kept us up last season yet I don’t believe he does enough when he doesn’t have the support; his hold up play is poor and he doesn’t move into the channels well enough. I think if we can get £20 million for him then we would be doing good business. There will be sides like Liverpool who would take him from us in their search to find a natural goalscorer.
It is a time to be excited more than disheartened.
All this talk of players leaving and cutting wages sounds disheartening, however there is a good core of young players at Villa who are beginning to get their taste of senior football. They have not disappointed, and it may be that the future at Villa will require more of the academy and emphasis on producing home grown players. This is a positive step forward and this current crop may be the best Villa has ever produced.
Bryan Jones, Academy Manager said that “I think people recognise that if you are not a Manchester City or a Chelsea with bucketloads of cash the only way to survive is by producing your own players."
Against Liverpool at Anfield there were six players aged under 23 and who had been brought through the academy; Lichaj, Bannan, Baker, Weimann, Gardner and Carruthers all played a part in the 1-1 draw. With players like Weimann, Callum Robinson, Daniel Johnson, Michael Drennan, Graham Burke and Jordan Graham with bright futures playing regularly in the reserve league and tasting success and with those like Albrighton, Delfouneso and Agbonlahor who have come through in the past several years, then Villa may find their sustainable model more than easier to achieve.
This season Villa entered into a U19 tournament called the NextGen series, a tournament where youth players can experience something similar to the Champions League. It was a great experience for the players to play against some of best youth sides in Europe, and their class showed. Villa beat Ajax, Rosenborg and Fenerbahce en route to the last eight, they went out to a 2-1 extra time defeat to Marseille in the quarter finals. The players involved would have got a lot of valuable experience from that tournament and we are seeing them coming through now.
And the reserve side, which contains many of the potential senior players, has won the southern league again, which makes it four wins out of five seasons, a great achievement and a strong indication that there is a bright future for many of the Villa youngsters. Led by Kevin MacDonald they clearly show the potential to be part of the Villa senior side.
Weimann believes developing young players is a major part of Villa’s identity, now more than ever before. It must be the foundation, where Villa can develop a group of players who are part of the club, who cost relatively little and perhaps if needs must, are sold for profit. This is the key to being sustainable.
A new time of sustainability
The new philosophy of Villa is about cutting costs and being sustainable. Many may argue this is a remedy for relegation, I don’t agree. It can be done if the management, the scouting and board are all working together. Look at Everton, in the past six years they have a net spend of £9 million. This is incredible. Villa in fact are the fifth ranked side behind Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham. Spending has not resulted in success.
The truth is that the money spent did not reflect in the quality of players brought in; Lerner got it wrong trusting O’Neill to achieve that top four finish. Of course we had talent yet they have moved on and the side needs to move on from the O’Neill era where we now have too many average players on the books with high wages who are bringing down the finances and not contributing on the pitch. The O’Neill era consisted of frivolous spending and giving average players top quality wages, this is not sustainable.
Everton and now Newcastle have shown that the right management and a good scouting network can lead to success on the pitch and can be sustainable to the finances of the squad. We are in times of austerity and clubs need to plan for the future as well as the present. It is a difficult time at Villa now, the time of lavish spending is over and the type of player who is realistic to us has changed.
What is required is simple really; know what you want and how you are going to achieve it. If you want sustainable growth then you need to focus on bringing in good players for cheap. This is where scouting is a major factor; Newcastle have done superbly with their scouting of players like Tiote, Cabaye and Cisse. Everton have brought through players like Jagielka, Cahill and Arteta for little money also. And they have been successful by spending less.
Many Villa fans want the club to spend big, that they believe will be the answer to everything. What this enables is perhaps short term gain but little long term success or sustainability. It is easy to throw money around, yet Villa cannot do that now. Look at Bolton, they are in £90 million of debt and relegation beckons, this is a side who invested beyond their means and may face the consequences of their indulgent and ambitious ways. Villa cannot allow themselves to do this.
Can we challenge for the top, perhaps like Newcastle we could go for the top four again, in a few years maybe, but we need to do it the right way. The key for this has to be with the right man in charge, it will need everyone supporting the side and contributing their part, with McLeish there, this will not happen and the consequence will be relegation. This cannot be allowed to happen.
Paul Lambert is my choice to take Villa on, I look at his old Dortmund side and see the work that Jurgen Klopp has done there today and believe that Lambert is the same type of man, with tactical skills to go along with his excellent management abilities, he has shown he can lead a team of players and galvanise a club which lost its way. This is the man that Lerner needs in order to implement his sustainable model and get the fans back on his side.
A time of austerity is upon Villa, yet it doesn't mean doom and gloom, it may actually be just what we need to get the club back on track.
I appreciate any feedback you have.