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Tranmere Rovers & Cheltenham Town Stare Into The Abyss
Between now and the start of the season, we’ll be writing up all twenty of the Premier League clubs before it all kicks off again. If you’re here looking for transfer gossip, you’ll likely be disappointed. Quite asides from anything else, it’s the second week in July (a necessity borne of the fact that these have got to be written around work commitments, amongst much else), so most of the transfer rumours circulating at the moment are the result of the fevered imaginations of the sort of fifteen year olds who spend their lives on Twitter pretending to be agents. Others will be along in the coming weeks to fill you in on that sort of thing, and we’re happy to leave that job to them.
There were many points over the course of last season that idea of writing a Premier League preview for Aston Villa for the coming season might have seemed fanciful. This, it seemed, was a club whose recent seasons of torpor had accelerated into some sort of free-fall from which there seemed to be little chance of escape. There were two particularly severe troughs during this particularly underwhelming season. From the start of the season, Paul Lambert’s team won just one of its opening nine league matches, and then, from just before Christmas until the second week of March, the club went on a run which saw them win just two league matches from eleven and get eliminated from both domestic cup competitions at the hands of lower division opposition. Safety from the spectre of relegation was eventually secured with a couple of games left of the season, but it was a closer run thing than most at Villa Park have might ever anticipated happening.
Last season may frequently have felt like a downward spiral from which there might be no escape, but eventually Lambert’s team composed itself and managed to pull just enough out of the bag to pull of that escape. This, however, was the absolute, bare minimum that Villa supporters might reasonably have had cause to expect from their club last season and it seems unlikely that a repeat of the worst of last season will not be tolerated by either the supporters or the club itself. Lambert has had his warm-up season, and that was a warm-up season more than most managers get in this age of the itchy trigger-finger. In short, Aston Villa must improve on the last two seasons – we certainly haven’t forgotten about Alex McLeish – if the manager’s position is remain anything like secure for the entirety of the next ten months or so.
In order to attempt to achieve this, Lambert has put his faith in – relative – youth. Five new players have arrived at Villa Park so far this summer, and none of them are older than twenty-two years of age. Coupled with the shipping out of a couple of the older heads in the squad – Andy Marshall and Richard Dunne, perhaps most notably – it would seem that the manager has not lost faith in the belief that he can mould a young team into something that is greater than what appears on the surface, at least, to be the sum of its parts. Such a policy comes, however, with a level of inherent risk. There were times during Villa’s worse spells last season when his young team seemed so frozen with fear that one wondered about whether what they were going through may cause some sort of lasting psychological damage. This, however, can be countered by arguing that the team ended last season with its composure restored and, quite possibly, with a few lessons having been learned that will not easily be forgotten.
Already since the transfer window reopened for business, however, a fly has landed itself well and truly into Lambert’s ointment. Villa supporters had plenty of cause to be grateful for the contribution of Christian Benteke over the cause of last season, but this summer he has been somewhat less than helpful in handing in a transfer request just eight days into the new season. The impact that Benteke had in the Premier League last season was clear and apparent – the 49% of Villa goals that were scored or created by this one player, for example – and can be gauged from the fact that the £7m that Villa paid for him last summer has already, with the assistance of the player only being twelve months into a five year contract, ballooned in terms of estimated value to over £25m already, and there will be plenty who may even argue that if the player is unhappy at the club, they would be foolish to turn down this amount of money for him.
There is, however, something fundamentally disheartening about seeing a player pitch up at a club, build his reputation there for a year and then request a move away at what looks distinctly like the first available opportunity. Perhaps, though, that is just the nature of modern professional football. Everybody’s climbing the greasy pole to some extent or other, and on top of that, of course, to suggest that players equal bad and clubs equal good in terms of what we might euphemistically describe as “industrial relations” would be to overlook the fact that clubs treated players like serfs for more than a century before legislation swung the balance of power in favour of the players, and that they likely would do so again at the drop of a hat if they were given half a chance. The whys and wherefores are one matter, though. The practicalities are something else altogether, and there can be little question that losing a player of Benteke’s calibre will be a deep blow to Paul Lambert’s plans for the start of next season. At least, Villa supporters might choose to ponder, it’s happening early enough in the summer for the club to have a decent chance of replacing him with a signing that isn’t an end of transfer window panic buy. Onwards, as they say, and upwards.
Off the pitch, meanwhile, the club’s finances seem to have stabilised over the last couple of years after a period during which there was a chance that they might spiral out of control altogether. During the 2011/12 season, the club cut its financial losses from £18m from the £54m loss during the season before, with a mixture of player sales, staff cuts and a reduction in the amount of money paid out in wages being the chief motivating factors behind this improvement, and much as some have complained about the comparative parsimony that the owner of the club, Randy Lerner, has exercised over the last couple of years, the idea of what might have happened to the club had costs not been cut and relegation occurred at the end of last season is a sobering one. Lerner is understood to have been significantly affected by the wider economic woes that have become so apparently perpetual in recent years, and he seems to have learned a harsh lesson about a football club’s ability to gobble up money for seemingly no return over the last couple of years or so. With Villa having survived in the Premier League into the new television contract, however, the club’s financial future seems likely to be rosier than its recent past. It is to be hoped that those lessons don’t end up getting lost in the excitement of increased television revenue.
This has been a mixed one for both Paul Lambert and Aston Villa so far and, in a Premier League that might just be as unpredictable as we have seen for a number of years, predicting how this phase in the manager’s evolution of his squad might turn out is far from easy. Last season was about as bad as things should reasonably get for Aston Villa Football Club, and there are plenty of reasons to be encouraged that this season will be an improvement on that. It could scarcely be any worse. And perhaps, after a couple of seasons of looking over their shoulders at the bottom line behind them and wondering whether it might be they who fall through that particular trap-door, perhaps a genuinely transitional season is exactly what the club needs. One gets the feeling that the club would be quite happily play out a season in mid-table, troubling neither end of the table and putting security before all other considerations. It would certainly be a considerable improvement on the unwanted dramas of last season. In view of the world of instant gratification that the Premier League has become in recent times, though, would that be enough? He may be able to see calmer times ahead, but Paul Lambert isn’t quite out of the woods just yet at Villa Park.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.