A ‘failure on a spectacular level’, we take a look at how the rot set in at one of England’s most famous clubs, Aston Villa, as the club finally bowed to inevitable relegation.
The inevitable finally happened and the only surprise is that it took this long. Aston Villa’s 28-year reign as a top-flight club ended in the meekest fashion with four games still to go.
It is one thing to be relegated, it is failure on a spectacular level to go down without a fight, as “the most shambolic and pathetic bunch of overpaid, lazy, incompetent” individuals the Premier League has ever seen, as one of my Villa-supporting friends observed. .
There are those who will tell you this has been six years in the making, a period of steady decline from the end of the Martin O’Neill era to now. Forget six, try 16.
The O’Neill years were a blip in nearly two decades of ignorance and shameful inaction. Many will have forgotten Villa played in the last FA Cup final at the old Wembley in 2000. John Gregory’s team, a side that only a year earlier threatened to win the Premier League, were beaten 1-0 by Chelsea.
Less than two years later Gregory was gone after fans had demanded a change following two sixth-placed finishes and a season in eighth. The next season under Graham Taylor, they finished 16th and lost twice to the upstarts from across the City. Taylor, as you would expect paid the price. Next came David O’Leary, who duly took them back to sixth, and all seemed well with the world. Except it wasn’t, by this time Villa had settled for being the best in the Midlands rather than fight to be the best in the country.
The club that under Big Ron were the closest challengers for the very first Premier League title, were now no longer competing with the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal. O’Leary took them backwards, down to 10th, then 16th again. He called the fans fickle; an accusation they denied.
Lerner didn’t live up to early promise
O’Neill arrived and re-established Villa back among the mid-table dwellers. Then the money arrived.
American Randy Lerner came over the Atlantic with promises of a new age. He restored the associations to the 1982 European Cup win, with previous owner Doug Ellis not too keen to be reminded of the club’s greatest success coming in the only three years in 30 that he hadn’t been at the club. Lerner sanctioned the kind of spending on transfers and wages that took them back to the fringes of the Champions League, but crucially, not enough to actually break in to the top four.
By 2010, Lerner was getting twitchy. Despite reaching the League Cup final and the FA Cup semi-final that season he wanted O’Neill to trim his squad, with too many players taking home 50, 60 or even 70 grand a week, though the biggest teams were now paying over £100,000 a week.
That summer they reportedly lined up the Northern Irishman’s replacement, but O’Neill waited until five days before the season was due to kick off before resigning. Lerner said at the time he and O’Neill,“no longer shared a common view as to how to move forward”.
Thus began some of the most bizarre decision making you will witness at a so-called big club. Gerard Houllier was given the unenviable task of picking up the pieces. He was appointed at the beginning of September 2010, but bizarrely told his first press conference he hadn’t actually signed a contract yet and couldn’t start until the end of the month. By the time he actually took control Villa were struggling, only the big money arrival of Darren Bent in the January transfer window saved their blushes. Though Houllier, who was pleasant if often disinterested in talking to the media, was heavily criticised for fielding a weakened team in the FA Cup and apparent fall outs with senior players. His health issues returned and he left that summer.
Now Villa could have had the pick of plenty of managers and coaches across the world, instead they chose the man who had just got rivals Birmingham relegated. Alex McLeish was possibly the worst appointment in the eyes of Villa fans next to a combination of Trevor Francis, Jasper Carrott and Robbie Savage. He would have needed to have won the Premier League at the first attempt and probably the following Champions League to win the fans over, and still there would have been some who hated him.
Instead Villa sold their best players in Ashley Young and Stewart Downing to Manchester United and Liverpool respectively, having already lost Gareth Barry and James Milner to Man City in previous seasons.
McLeish garnered just four home wins, seven overall, as they avoided relegation by just two points. Shorn of creativity his team had drawn 17 matches in what was a lifeless season that had begun with fans turning bed sheets into banners even before the campaign had kicked off.
One of McLeish’s coaching staff told me recently the Villa fans were “delusional”, that they expected a top six team without realising they were working to a bottom six budget.
McLeish and his successor Paul Lambert were working within completely different parameters to some of their recent predecessors and Villa as a club weren’t responding to modern football, how the game was changing off the pitch as well as on it. They began to adopt almost a siege mentality. A newspaper friend of mine used to play a game, leaving a missed call for the chief executive and timing how long it took the press officer to call him asking what he wanted.
Players were allowed to avoid interviews and media scrutiny, distancing themselves from the supporters. It may be a 24/7 world but Villa are 9 to 5 and that’s that. Even after the FA Cup final, where thousands had travelled from all over the world only to witness a humbling by Arsenal, Villa’s players were told to ignore the waiting media in the mixed zone. There would be no explanations, no expressions of gratitude for their travelling support, they simply slumped their way back to the bus and off on holiday.
Villa allowed their England international captain Fabian Delph to sign a new contract with the clause he could leave anytime he wanted for just £7million. He would have stayed had they not reneged on keeping Christian Benteke, £32.5 million worth of talent replaced by Rudy Gestede and an assortment of also rans from the French league.
Remi Garde hopelessly out of his depth
The French didn’t like the methods of the old school English manager in Tim Sherwood, unsurprising really as he struggled to hide the fact that he didn’t want them in the first place and would’ve preferred home grown talent. Sherwood had lost control of transfers to the club’s first ever sporting director, Hendrik Almstadt, with Arsenal’s former head of business development now given the chance to use his analytical skills to identify players. If this sounds familiar to the “moneyball” theory that failed at Liverpool, you wouldn’t be far wrong. Villa took their head of recruitment Paddy Riley from the Anfield club.
Out went Sherwood, and in came French manager Remi Garde – a nice man way out of his depth.
Garde was massively ill-prepared to deal with the mess he was presented with. Even before Garde had properly got going Villa’s hierarchy completely undermined him by trying to appoint an English assistant he didn’t want and Garde had to deal with finding new fitness coaches, after the previous “athletic performance specialists” had clearly failed. The fact Villa’s players were recently shown to have covered the least ground this season and Gabby Agbonlahor’s recent issues make you wonder what the hell they did in training.
Villa’s players themselves shouldn’t escape blame though, from mid-season jaunts to Dubai, spitting contests on the sidelines to randomly tweeting pictures of expensive cars moments after the heaviest home defeat since 1935.
The dressing room became so out of control it is perhaps best summed up by the exploits of Jack Grealish. The talented youngster near single-handedly tore Liverpool apart in the FA Cup semi-final last season. But having spent the summer being pictured passed out drunk in the middle of the street on holiday and inhaling nitrous oxide, so called “hippy crack”, he spent most of the beginning of this campaign deliberating over a switch from representing Republic of Ireland to England, something he had plenty of time to ponder when he was suspended by the club and forced to train with the development squad after making headlines again for wildly partying hours after a 4-0 defeat at Everton.
For a while now whispers had been coming out that the squad was divided, that there were too many already planning their summer exits. Then last month midfielder Leandro Bacuna told media he wanted to be playing Champions League football not Championship football, and only this weekend Joleon Lescott told reporters: “Now it’s confirmed maybe it’s a weight off the shoulders and we can give these fans what they deserve, some performances.” Bit late for that, Joleon.
Garde had long complained he was having to remind his players far too often of the commitment levels required, yet he kept picking the same group, continually ignoring the youngsters waiting for a chance to shine, even after the development squad beat the first team in a behind closed doors friendly. Caretaker boss Eric Black bizarrely praised the team after relegation was confirmed: “Since I’ve come in the boys have been outstanding.” They lost all but one match since he arrived from Rotherham to help Garde in January.
So what hope for the future? New chairman Steve Hollis has taken steps to address some of the issues off the field. Chief exec Tom Fox and Almstadt are gone, Paddy Riley may follow suit and a new football board has been created utilising the experience of former FA chairman David Bernstein and former manager Brian Little. But there will be more unrest to come. The fans are still in open mutiny against the owner, yet he’s been trying to sell the club for years and relegation is hardly going to make them more appealing.
Only Lerner writing off large chunks of debt and converting it to capital has really stemmed what are quite concerning accounts. With the drop in revenue and the likelihood of significant losses in player sales, the financial outlook looks bleak, and they’re still to find a manager prepared to take all of this on.
There was a picture being posted around social media on Saturday night that read “We will rise again” with a list of the clubs achievements including that European Cup, but the fact the last of those honours was won back in 1996 tells the story all of its own. It’s taken 20 years for Aston Villa to turn from trophy-winning title challengers to a relegated ramshackle, and it won’t be easy to come back – just ask the 17 former Premier League teams currently in the Championship.
If Aston Villa are to have a future, they have to forget the past, and focus on the present.
By Mikey Burrows
Mikey is a Midlands-based journalist who has covered the region’s clubs for the last 10 years