What next for Aston Villa?

It’s pretty unlikely that many of the new followers of the Premier League in the past few seasons when picking a club to follow will have chosen Villa.

I can understand why; they have been largely terrible in recent seasons, and have only really avoided relegation because there have always been three worse teams. For the most part, the football they have played has ranged from insipid to totally boring. With a couple of exceptions, they’ve not made much of an impression in the transfer market either. The whole club is stale.

But actually, Villa are one of England’s biggest clubs. They’ve won the European Cup. They’re founder members of the Football League and, for a few weeks longer, are one of the seven teams to have been ever-presents in the Premier League since its debut season. Only four teams have more league titles than Villa.

Birmingham City and West Brom fans will disagree, but Villa are the biggest club in the UK’s second biggest city, have an excellent stadium and a large fanbase which includes Prince William, and, when he remembers he ‘supports’ them and not West Ham, the Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron.

While it’s still mathematically possible that Villa could avoid relegation, they have done nothing on the pitch to suggest that their first relegation in 29 years is anything other than a foregone conclusion, with a meek capitulation at home to Everton last night being the latest in a long line of dismal defeats.

While relegation isn’t a good thing, some clubs do manage to make the best out of a bad situation and emerge stronger as a result. Relegation presents the opportunity to clear out some players and rebuild the team. It gives a team a chance to review and reflect on what went wrong, and how those mistakes can be avoided in the future.

In theory, a relegated side should be stronger than most other teams in the league, so should have a good chance of coming back up the following season, or give teams who have become accustomed to losing games the chance to win games and restore some confidence.

But, the concern Villa fans have is that they are in such bad shape, both on and off the pitch, that returning to the Premier League won’t happen next season or anytime soon. There’s even the fear amongst some Villa fans that they may be relegated again next season, which has only happened twice before, to Swindon Town and Wolves,.

That’s not a likely scenario in my opinion, but it’s not wholly unjustified either. Villa are a bad team. They have some players in their squad that they can build around in the future, provided they stay, but also a ton of players on big contracts that it’s unlikely any other club would want.

So, Villa need to rebuild their team. That requires either money to go out and buy better players or having people at the club smart enough to be able to shrewdly operate to build a competitive team within a tight budget; and that may be a problem as Villa currently have neither.

Villa have a rich owner in Randy Lerner, but Lerner got fed up funnelling money into Villa years ago and actively wants out. In fact, he’s wanted out for 6 years but hasn’t been able to find a buyer. In that time, Villa have gone from a team challenging to get into the Champions League places to a team about to drop out of the Premier League altogether.

I think Randy Lerner believed that he could buy Villa, invest some money to get them into the Champions League, which then would have increased the value of Villa and he could sell the club on for a profit.

That didn’t happen, and after a few seasons where Villa, under Martin O’Neill, couldn’t quite make the jump from top 6 to Champions League, Lerner decided that the amount of spending was getting out of hand and made it clear Villa had to economise. O’Neill walked out and Villa have been in decline ever since.

A recurring theme amongst new Premier League owners is that they have little to no experience of how to run a football club. That isn’t necessarily a problem, so long as that owner then employs people who do know how to run a football club.

To be fair, Lerner did appoint people to run the club on his behalf, but evidently they weren’t the right people, as shown by some of the uninspiring manager choices that have been made and some of the expensive mistakes the club has made in the transfer market.

Villa have shown no signs of having a clear plan as to the direction they want the club to go in. Their transfer strategy seems non-existent, with the result being a squad with an unhealthy mix of injury-prone veterans, players who just aren’t good enough and players having to play out of position with disastrous results playing alongside young players whose confidence is being eroded with every defeat.

What hasn’t helped in their recruitment of players is their hiring of coaches and managers. Villa have never seemed to know what they wanted and have made some bizarre decisions. After Gerard Houllier had to step down due to ill health in 2011, Villa turned down Mark Hughes, who had quit his job in expectation of becoming Villa manager, only for Villa to then lead a weird manager search where they tried to hire managers who played completely opposing styles of football before settling on Alex McLeish, who was hated by the fans.

After McLeish went, Paul Lambert came in after impressing at Norwich. Lambert never really won over the fans, but in hindsight did a brilliant job in keeping Villa up while under some severe budget restrictions. Lambert left Villa, a lot greyer than he had been before taking the job, and then Villa turned to Tim Sherwood, a guy who had looked out of his depth at Spurs.

Sherwood did nothing to dispel the perception of him as being tactically clueless, and after a start to the season where Villa only picked up 5 points from their first 12 games, he was gone. In his time in charge, Villa sold their best striker and best midfielder and failed to replace either.

It was clear that Villa were in trouble, but rather than appointing a manager with experience of successfully surviving a relegation battle, they locked in very quickly on Remi Garde, a highly-rated manager who was tipped as a potential future Arsenal manager (Garde was Arsene Wenger’s first signing as Arsenal manager), but a manager with no Premier League experience.

Garde arrived, and unfortunately for him, and for Villa fans, he didn’t bring his can of turd polish with him. It’s not his fault that Villa are in the position they are in. Garde is doing his best but has been given nothing to work with. In time, Garde could revamp Villa, but the question remains if he will want to stay.

It’s understandable, and sensible, that Villa didn’t make the mistakes other clubs have made in spending a lot of money on a lost cause in January. But, they still could’ve signed somebody, even if it was just to shake the squad up and to prepare for next season. They did try to sign Nemanja Vidic, who was so thrilled at the prospect of joining Villa that he retired instead. 

Villa are left in limbo now, as this is a particularly bad time to be relegated. Dropping out of the Premier League means that the club misses out on the bumper TV contract that kicks in next season, which is a major carrot to dangle in front of investors.

It seems strange that Lerner hasn't been able to find a buyer for Aston Villa. Other clubs, less prestigious clubs, or clubs that need greater amounts of money spending on them than Villa do have been bought out, including Everton last week, who despite having a superior playing squad to Villa, need hundreds of millions of pounds of investment in a stadium, which Villa doesn't. So unless Lerner has grossly overvalued the club, I can’t understand why there haven’t been any serious investors interested.

Villa are a club that was back-pedalled over the past few years. The whole club is stale and in need of new life being breathed into it. But, that doesn't look like happening any time soon, and they may find next season that it is a new division but the same old problems that will hold them back and prevent a return to the Premier League any time soon