Aston Villa: The Shambles Continues
The full time whistle, when it blew at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon, only really confirmed what was already essentially known. Aston Villa, founder members of the Football League and former champions of the whole of Europe, were relegated from the Premier League. Villa’s final surrender came very much in the style of the rest of the club’s season – lethargic and sickly. Anybody hoping for this team to show much semblance of a willingness to put up a fight had either not been paying much attention to this shower of shadows over the previous eight months or was demonstrating levels of optimism so high that they could be categorised as a form of insanity.
Even in the days following relegation’s sweet kiss, there seem to have been few indications that many within the club have learned many lessons from what should – in theory, at least – have been a chastening few months. Joleon Lescott, a player whose media interactions this season have come to resemble Sideshow Bob in a garden covered in rakes – blotted his copybook yet again almost immediately after the end of the Manchester United match by commenting that relegation was a ‘weight off the shoulders’, a comment which one could be interpreted either kindly or harshly. Given everything that has come before this season, it’s hardly surprising that Villa supporters went with the latter of these two options, and one can only wonder whether Lescott will ever learn the old adage that it’s better to remain silent and be considered a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.
Lescott isn’t the only Aston Villa player with an apparent pathology towards learning from the mistakes of the past, either. Gabriel Agbonlahor was suspended by the club after being photographed in Dubai with a shisha pipe, and had subsequently been left out of the first team squad because he wasn’t considered fit enough to play. On Saturday night in London, however, as supporters licked their wounds after the club’s relegation from the Premier League, Agbonlahor was photographed again, this time with canisters of nitrous oxide. Under the more than somewhat disingenuous nickname of “hippy crack”, this particular drug has been vexing the tabloid press for some time, but how dangerous or otherwise it might be for anybody using it is hardly the point, here. Getting involved in something like this just a few weeks after the shisha pipe story either proves that Gabriel Agnolahor is pretty stupid, or that he simply doesn’t care too much for being a professional footballer any more. Or, perhaps, both.
Those slightly higher up the club’s hierarchy should not have really have the same right to silence, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not exercising it anyway. Takeover talk at Villa Park this season has frequently been long on conjecture and short on detail, but there was cause for some hope of progression in this area when Sir Mervyn King appeared on Bloomberg TV earlier today, stating that, “I hope the sale will proceed speedily.” King, a former governor of the Bank of England, had been appointed to the club’s board of directors in February and had been followed into the boardroom by David Bernstein, a former chairman of Manchester City and the Football Association, with a view to plotting out a post-Premier League future for the club. Both were sound appointments that would be a credit to any club in the country, but this is, we must remember, the 2016 edition Aston Villa.
Both Bernstein and King tendered their resignations on Monday, with both stating – using slightly different wording – that their respective positions on the club’s board had already become untenable. Nature, of course, abhors a vacuum when it comes to gossip surrounding the behind-closed-doors at football clubs, and so it was that the conjecture surrounding the takeover of the club mentioned in King’s resignation letter was interpreted as being a hint at the decks being cleared on account of new owners of the club being imminent, a viewpoint further reinforced by King’s comments on Bloomberg TV. For all their experience, a new owner would most likely want to bring their own people to oversee the running of the club, and King’s assertion regarding “the sale” might well have been interpreted as a suggestion that the club has moved beyond the stages of mere negotiations.
This imagined sequence of events in its entirety was, however, dealt something of a blow this afternoon by a BBC article which signaled that the reason behind King and Bernstein’s departure from the club came as a result of growing frustration at the lack of progress that they were being able to make in seeing through their plans to restructure the club, and that this was topped off when an email exchange between the two that was critical of the club’s owner Randy Lerner was leaked to Lerner, which led to a blazing argument and the viewpoint that their positions within the club were no longer tenable, a sequence of events which feels much more in line with the club’s recent King Midas in Reverse tendencies than smoothly proceeding takeover negotiations.
The identity of those who may be involved in any negotiations to purchase the club at the moment is unknown. Sources have sought identify the group behind a prospective takeover as being backed by Wang Jianlin, founder of the Dalian Wanda Group and named as the richest man in Asia in 2015 with a personal net wealth of $28.7bn, but there is little solid evidence to prove this at the moment, and until such a time that anything concrete – beyond the fact that Wang recent spent £80m on a house in London – becomes known, it’s difficult to be persuaded that linking him with the club is a great deal more than wishful thinking. After all, Villa’s relegation has cost the club a minimum of £97m in Premier League television money for next season – albeit an amount that will be modestly offset by parachute payments – has a disgruntled support-base which may well be forgiven for being in two minds over whether to bite the bullet and buy season tickets for next season, and has just two of the players from a misfiring squad – Kieran Richardson and Charles N’Zogbia – falling out of contract this summer with it being unlikely that there will be queue around the block to take many of the other players (and their Premier League wage expectations) off the club’s hands this summer.
On top of this, Randy Lerner’s current valuation of the club is unknown and, whilst no-one can say for sure that buyers would be put off by it without knowing what it is, it is as clear as day that relegation from the Premier League will have significantly reduced this value. As has been the case for longer than many can remember, the ball is in the court of the club’s owner and no-one can force him to sell up should he not wish to. We don’t know the inner workings of Lerner’s mind, and he may be holding out in the belief that he will eventually make back the money in the fullness of time. All that we can say with any degree certainty is that, unless he gets extremely lucky indeed, the likelihood of this happening prior to the club being promoted back into the Premier League is probably fairly thin.
With two directors brought in to try and push the club in the direction having resigned, two players crossing paths with the tabloid press, no confirmation of who any prospective new owner for the club might be and no indication having been given of who it’s next full-time manager will be just yet, Aston Villa ends the season in a state of shambles that is unbecoming for a club of its stature. It’s tempting to write off supporters of the club who fear the worst as being overly-pessimistic or even melodramatic, but the truth of the matter is that signs of anything to the contrary are becoming increasingly hard to find. It had been believed that, if the club’s Premier League status this season couldn’t be saved, then at least the arrival of Bernstein and King might be the stirrings of signs that the club could be revived. It only took a few weeks, however, before the club found itself back in a state of chaos. It’s a state that is starting to feel worryingly like its normal state of being, and something has to give.