As Alan Hutton and Jermaine Jenas arrived from Tottenham on transfer deadline day, Aston Villa fans were forced to confront the new and unsettling economic reality at their club. After years of sustained heavy spending by owner Randy Lerner, in a determined attempt to break through into the top four, costs are now being cut in recognition that a brief window of opportunity has closed and a new hierarchy is asserting itself at the top of the Premier League.
This summer’s appointment of arch pragmatist Alex McLeish as manager signalled an implicit acceptance that Villa’s status has shifted from that of an upwardly mobile club to one that is content to tread water in an environment where ambition comes at an exorbitantly high price.
When Lerner took over from the parsimonious Doug Ellis in the summer of 2006 there was a wave of renewed optimism around an almost constant top flight fixture which had begun to spend more time battling for survival rather than success, posting a lowly 16th place finish in manager David O’Leary’s final season. One of Ellis’ last acts as chairman was to bring in Martin O’Neill, who, as a much in demand managerial talent perennially linked with the England post, was regarded as an astute appointment by the media.
With the influx of Lerner’s millions O’Neill became the flagship figure for this project aimed at the revitalization of one of England’s traditional big clubs. A concerted effort was made to update Villa’s image as an ageing force both on and off the pitch, while paying respect to its proud heritage. Gestures such as the introduction of a new club crest and sponsorship deal with the local Acorns Children’s Hospice showed that change was afoot, while the decision to build a bronze statue of Villa icon and football league founder William McGregor represented a concern for the club’s past.
In the five years since Lerner has sunk more than £200 million of his personal fortune into Villa but is yet see any tangible return on that investment in the form of silverware. Consequently his commitment to such heavy and ultimately fruitless expenditure is on the wane, with expectations under McLeish limited to keeping the club in midtable as its best prospects, those previously central to a push for Europe, are moved on for big sums which Lerner is reluctant to reinvest: Villa currently possessing a patchwork squad capable of reaching these more modest targets.
It seems that after a short spell as an aggressive force in the transfer market Aston Villa are reverting to their prior state, being regarded as a useful stepping stone on the way to bigger things, as evidenced by Gareth Barry and James Milner leaving for Manchester City, and this summer’s sales of Ashley Young to Manchester United and Stewart Downing to Liverpool.
In this context the purchase of Darren Bent in the January transfer window for a club record fee of £18 million should be seen as an emergency measure necessary to protect Lerner’s sizeable investment. As Villa hovered precariously close to the drop zone midway through last season, the club’s American owner was forced to contemplate the unthinkable and Bent was identified as the shortcut to goals that would guarantee survival. However, following this unprecedented show of spending power Villa have bought in just four players in preparation for the forthcoming campaign, with Charles N’Zogbia and Shay Given the other arrivals alongside the aforementioned Tottenham duo. With the team’s main goal creators having left in search of elite European football, which notably eluded them during their Villa careers, the slippery N’Zogbia is tasked with supplying Bent with sufficient ammunition to keep them clear of the bottom half under a notoriously defensive manager. But it is the last day deals for Hutton and Jenas which offer the most damningly accurate appraisal of their diminished status, Villa Park providing a last refuge for the unwanted fringe players from Harry Redknapp’s overstocked squad.
So what exactly has Lerner got to show for his substantial investment, spread across five years in English football? The answer is not very much. O’Neill led the team to a League Cup final, ending in a 2-1 defeat to Man United, and three successive 6th place finishes, guaranteeing consistent appearances in European competition (albeit of a second tier nature), but if anything the gap between Aston Villa and the Champions League places is even greater than when he arrived. An unfortunate truism of modern football, especially in the Premier League, is that money talks and Villa’s spending has been dramatically eclipsed with the arrival of even more outlandishly wealthy owners. For a couple of seasons Villa, along with Everton, were seen as the biggest threat to the security of the established big four yet by the start of the current season this seems like a peculiarly quaint notion. Everton now operate under much tighter financial parameters than even Aston Villa, while Manchester City’s incredible splurge, fuelled by Arabian petrodollars, makes a mockery of their rivals’ infinitely more limited means.
The root cause of Lerner’s current reluctance is a failure to capitalise on the brief spell before Man City were able to make real strides by exerting their unrivalled might in the transfer market. Lerner could never hope to compete with his Abu Dhabi counterparts at Eastlands but the wherewithal to wrest control of a Champions League spot away from one of England’s powerhouse clubs was within his grasp during O’Neill’s reign and could have had a transformative effect on the club. The chance was there while Liverpool and Arsenal faltered in recent seasons but even when Villa did temporarily muscle in on the top four during the 2008-09 season they wilted under pressure towards the end, winning just two of their last 13 league games to finish a disappointing 6th.
When Martin O’Neill abruptly left a week before the start of last season, having been informed that not all funds from the expected sale of James Milner would be reinvested, blame was directed towards the owner for a perceived unwillingness to support his manager in the transfer market. Such lack of ambition may have proved the last straw for O’Neill, but the true catalyst for his eventual resignation was an inability to make the most of Lerner’s earlier largesse. Net spend on transfers for the four years of O’Neill’s reign totalled over £80 million and with the vast increase in wages this inevitably entailed, which more than tripled during his time as manager to the point where they represented an unsustainable 88% of the club’s turnover, further spending on such a massive scale was deemed unwise.
Aston Villa have routinely made a loss under Lerner’s leadership, with the figure for 2009 being an incredible £46.1 million, and this can largely be attributed to O’Neill’s recruitment policy, directed towards older, more established and predominately English players who always come at a premium. The result of this is that they have overpaid for a large number of reliable yet unspectacular players who, as a consequence of their age, have negligible resale value.
Having typically been awarded lengthy and highly lucrative contracts these players have been reluctant to leave, leading to many being sold or released at a significant loss (Nicky Shorey, Luke Young, Zat Knight, Marlon Harewood, Nigel Reo-Coker, Steve Sidwell and Curtis Davies). A number still remain at Villa Park with O’Neill’s successors having been unable to shift them off the club’s hefty wage bill (Habib Beye and Carlos Cuellar).
Even ostensibly successful signings like Richard Dunne, bought for just £5 million from Man City, would be better viewed in light of the £50,000 weekly wage he is set to earn for the duration of his four year contract. In football wages often constitute a hidden and more crippling cost than the headline transfer fee, particularly with regard to older players who may appear cheaper on the surface but are more likely to command a higher wage, be more frequently injured and ultimately sold at a loss. In the long run, therefore, young players will always tend to represent better value for money as a high initial outlay, based on the player’s potential, is offset by a smaller pay packet and the ability to recoup more of the original investment through subsequent sales.
O’Neill’s insistence on buying players at their peak brought immediate benefits in the form of improved league placings but the long term effect is that Villa are now saddled with a squad of increasingly burdensome older players earning unjustifiably high wages.
Unsurprisingly the best value deals of the O’Neill era came in the form of youthful talents like Ashley Young and James Milner who matured into key players at the club and, despite being bought for a combined £21 million, when sold were able to fetch profits of £8 and £14 million respectively. However, outside of these examples, and notable elder statesmen such as Brad Friedel and Stiliyan Petrov, O’Neill’s signings are very much a roll call of mediocrity, and are even more inexplicable when you consider the good young players who have been let go to accommodate more costly alternatives. Craig Gardner and Gary Cahill, both products of the highly rated Villa academy, would have been valuable members of the current squad but were pushed out by a glut of new, and not particularly inspiring or imaginative, signings.
During his time as manager of Aston Villa Martin O’Neill undoubtedly constructed a strong and athletic outfit, well suited to his favoured high energy, counter attacking style of play, but was unable to elevate an often predictable team to the next level, with poor decisions in the transfer market responsible for their failure to take advantage of a short-lived gap at England’s top table. In the coming years the Villa team is likely to become more dependent on youth, with academy prospects Barry Bannan, Marc Albrighton, Nathan Delfouneso and Ciaran Clark increasingly involved in the first team in these times of relative austerity. However, had the club’s attentions in the transfer market over the last few seasons shown a similar emphasis on youth and quality, following the template of the Milner and Young deals, they may not have found themselves in their current dilemma, reduced to feeding on Spurs’ scraps as they count the cost of missing out on the Champions League.