The haste with which football clubs dispose of their managers has been discussed in depth on here before. It has long been a peculiarity of this particular sport that managerial positions have been treated so frivolously by clubs, and the folly of doing so has been shown up in fairly strong terms over the last couple of days with the release of Aston Villa’s disastrous financial results for last year. Aston Villa has been, by tradition, a reasonably well-run club and is a club with the potential to challenge near the top end of the table. Over the last two seasons, however, a sense of torpor has come to hang over Villa Park and the feeling is starting to grow that this is a club that is in decline at the moment, both on the pitch and off.
There was little cause for optimism on the part of the club from the figures released yesterday. Aston Villa lost £54m in the year from the first of June 2010 to the thirty-first of May 2011, a worsening in performance of 42% when compared with the year before while the club’s owner, Randy Lerner, has himself put £25m into the club over the last two years. What crumbs of comfort that Villa supporters could take from it all was a small increase in turnover – to £92m – a reduction in bank debt to £8.3m and a 15.9% increase in commercial revenue, which came in spite of a fall in attendances over that period. Every cloud has at least one silver lining and it should also be added that these financial results go a long way towards explaining the sales of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing to Manchester United and Liverpool during last summer.
Perhaps the single most interesting aspect of the figures released by the club yesterday, however, was the £12m in paid “exceptional charges” during this period relating to changing the club’s “management personnel”. This is understood to relate to the departures of Martin O’Neill in August of 2010 and possibly of Gerard Houllier at the end of last season. O’Neill departed from Villa Park five days before the start of last season in mysterious circumstances. The exact reason for his abrupt departure from the club has never been made public, but what we do know that it led to a protracted dispute between O’Neill and the club which led to a claim for constructive dismissal that was settled in O’Neill’s favour last year.
This week’s news adds to the sense of despondency that has been hanging over Villa Park for some time, now. Aston Villa are currently in fifteenth place in the Premier League table, eight points clear of the relegation places and with only one win in the Premier League since their surprise win against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on New Year’s Eve. As such, they have probably done just about enough to ensure that they will not be relegated this season – an eight point gap would be a huge bridge for the sides below them in the table to be able to make up – but they are not completely out of the woods in terms of their safety just yet.
Ultimately, all roads lead back to the club’s controversial decision to appoint Alex McLeish last summer. McLeish’s prior connection with Villa’s local rivals Birmingham City, their relegation from the Premier League at the end of last season following their win in the League Cup and McLeish’s apparent prediliction for a defensive tactical formation made this an unpopular appointment with many of the club’s supporters and, while many of them would be prepared to give him the chance to prove himself in the position, all that McLeish has had this season as a cushion to fall back upon has been results. If they had been okay, a state of detente might have come to exist between him and the more vociferous of Villa’s support. As things have worked out, though, results haven’t gone well and open season upon him seems to be well and truly under way.
Much has been said of the sense of entitlement of the modern football supporter, and it is worth reiterating that supporters of no particular club have an automatic “right” to see their team lift trophies. Indeed, this is something that older Aston Villa supporters, who may well remember the club’s spells in the Second and Third Divisions during the 1970s, will already be sharply aware of. Aston Villa, however, is a club that has been with us since the birth of professional football in Britain and is a club which carries a sense of history. The 2011 edition of the club, however, feels directionless, as if it is drifting in the wrong direction without any significant action being taken to reverse the trend. Aston Villa supporters may be used to not regularly winning silverware any more – it is a feeling that the supporters of all bar a select few clubs have come to get used to over the last two decades or so – but frustration at the club’s current inertia is understandable.
When Alex McLeish was taken on by Aston Villa last summer, he was signed on a three year long contract that was understood to be worth £2m per year. As such, regardless of what happens before the end of this season, it would cost the club should they choose to replace him once this season is over. What we can say with a degree of certainty is that the club’s current rudderlessness is unlikely to improve its financial position over time. Premier League prize money will drop with each league position down the table that the club finishes in, and season ticket sales for next season seem unlikely to go through the roof in the near future, at least if McLeish remains in control of the club. Now is probably not the right time to take the sort of decisive action needed to set Aston Villa on a straight course again and, as such, Villa supporters may just have to keep their fingers crossed for the remainder of this season that the club can do enough to avoid that dreaded dotted line near the bottom of the Premier League.
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