Aston Villa’s summer thus far can be neatly condensed into two words, and the second of those is “Milner”. Their own supporters will be thoroughly sick to the stomach of the constant pas de deux that has been going on over the last couple of months between their most-prized asset and a team which they last season regarded as rivals for the final Champions League place, and it is starting to become a little wearing for the rest of us, too. Consider, for example, the front page of The Guardian’s section on Villa. At the time of writing, eleven of the fifteen main articles on the site concern the long, drawn-out saga. Aston Villa Football Club are at the point of becoming a single issue party.
These stories tend to follow a predictable arc and it now seems difficult to believe that that Milner won’t go to Manchester City. The only questions that remain are those of how much money Villa will be able to wrench out of their crown and ermine wearing foes and how much time Milner will spend fine-tuning his Sudoku skills whilst warming the bench at The City of Manchester Stadium next season. For Aston Villa supporters, though, this isn’t their clubs only possible loss this summer. It now seems almost certain that Luke Young will be leaving for Liverpool (the suggested fee is £2.5m) but, while Milner’s loss could at least be regarded as a major loss of face for a club that still harbours ambitions of Champions League football, but Young’s loss seems unlikely to see many too many tears being shed amongst the supporters.
Of course, this being the silly season in the national press, a story concerning the transfer of the other Young, Ashley, caused a stir in the press last weekend. The Daily Mirror ran with a story on Saturday which stated that, “consider his future at Aston Villa if there is any attempt to sell Ashley Young behind his back”. The aforementioned quotation contains one significant caveat on the Mirror’s part. Such a sale would have to be “behind his back”, which means that, if Young was sold with O’Neill’s permission, there would be no need for the manager to leave the club even if it were his intention to consider it under the circumstances that they have described. A handy get-out clause, that. The rest of the quotations from “a source close to Martin O’Neill” are also worth a little closer consideration:
Martin intends to build on Villa’s from last season and the sale of key players at the club would severely undermine his ambitions.
Young is priceless to Martin and if there was any attempt to enter into negotiations over his sale behind his back he would feel completely undermined and put in an untenable situation at the club.
The Milner situation is completely different. He has two years left on his contract and intimated that he wants to leave and has no intention of signing a new deal at Villa Park. It makes financial sense for Villa to consider selling him.
Well, every single one of those statements is mere common sense, and little more. Of course the sale of key players at the club would undermine Martin O’Neill’s ambitions, presuming that his ambitions are not for Aston Villa to stagnate or take a backward step this season. Of course O’Neill would be furious if players were sold without his consent and such policy on the part of the club might well make his position untenable. The Milner situation is certainly different and, with the money that Manchester City are offering, it certainly makes sense for the club to sell him. There is nothing in that particular set of quotations that reveals anything that we wouldn’t have been able to work out for ourselves with five minutes, a pen and the back of a cigarette packet. While the “source close to O’Neill” was anonymous, though, The Mirror did manage a quote from Young himself, which the player said, “If an offer comes about I’m more than happy to stay at the club”, which could have been said at any point and in response to any one of a good number of questions.
As every transfer decision is within a football club with anything like a budget to work within, those being taken at Villa Park this summer are calculated gambles. Just as important as whether Milner is sold and how much they get for him is what they do with the money. It would be easy to leap to the conclusion that if they don’t spend all of the money that they receive from his sale they will somehow, by definition, be taking a backward step. This, however, doesn’t have to be the case and Aston Villa may be better advised to save that money for someone that is really worth every penny rather than throwing good money after bad, especially at the end of a summer during which there has been a World Cup – exactly the sort of circumstances during which transfer fees and player valuations become distended beyond all reason.
Where, then, do Aston Villa go from here? If O’Neill is pinning his sense of success this season upon winning a place in the Champions League, he seems likely to be disappointed. However, Aston Villa do at least seem to be cutting their cloth accordingly and, whilst selling players to buy other players may not be a terribly fashionable way to run a football club these days, it does mean that the club is being run sensibly. Having finished in sixth place in the Premier League last season, Villa will play-off for a place in the Europa League and are plenty capable of having a run in one of the cup competitions this time around. The sale of James Milner, presuming that it occurs, may sting the pride of some briefly and slightly, but if the player doesn’t want to be at the club they are best off without him and with £30m in the bank to spend on players that might actually want to play for their club. There is more than one type of pride, after all.