Off Garde: Villa & Remi Go Their Separate Ways
During the first half of last night’s international friendly between England and the Netherlands, the news emerged that Aston Villa and Remi Garde had parted company after just five months together. The cynics amongst us might have noted that, if there is any such thing as a good time to bury bad news, hoping that an England international match would be it might only have been betraying the extent to which those running Aston Villa Football Club do not understand much about the nature of the game in this country.
Opinion amongst the Villa support itself seems to still be somewhat divided over whether Garde was more sinned against than sinning or otherwise. His critics have pointed to a lack of tactical flexibility within matches and what is considered to be some poor team selection. Those who have sought to defend him, meanwhile, have argued that the club’s apparent paralysis during the January transfer window has been a bigger influence on the club’s lack of improvement this year. It has even been suggested that not only did the club not pursue the players that Garde had identified as potential improvements to his squad, but that they told him that they were pursuing these players when actually they weren’t.
Many of these whys and wherefores are speculative in nature, and the ultimate fact of the matter is that reflecting on the past is of little use if lessons aren’t learned from it. The club is where it is – marooned at the bottom of the Premier League with only the cold (and in this case most likely misleading) logic of mathematics separating the club from relegation at the end of this season. Considering the stories that have been coming out of the club over the last few days or so, though, it feels as though the worst that can be said of Remi Garde is that he was a symptom rather than the cause of the club’s current malaise.
That the club was so inert during the January transfer window becomes more understandable – if not necessarily more comprehensible – when viewed through the reported prism of what David Bernstein found when he was called in to begin an investigation into recent goings on within the club. Bernstein is widely reported to have found issues within its organisational structure that range from the mildly bewildering to frankly astonishing. At one end of the spectrum, Garde was understood to barely be on speaking terms with the club’s head of recruitment, Paddy Riley. At the other, the club’s head European scout is reported as having emigrated to Australia whilst remaining on the club’s payroll, whilst another scout was university student and other senior staff, with the exception of goalkeeping coach Tony Coton, had no football experience whatsoever.
So it is that the changes have finally started to ring through Villa Park at a more institutional level. Chief Executive Tom Fox and Sporting Director Hendrik Almstadt have gone, whilst Adrian Bevington, a former Football Association executive, has joined Bernstein – himself a former chairman of the FA – Sir Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England, and new chairman Steve Hollis in a restructure of the club at boardroom level. When we consider that the ultimate responsibility for the management of a company should always rest with its directors, this feels like it could be a significant step in the right direction, a shakedown that probably should have been carried out many months or even years ago.
Replacing Garde until the end of the season will be Eric Black. Black has earned himself something of a niche position as a caretaker manger – this is the sixth club at which he has been appointed into this position over the course of the last nine years – with his last full-time managerial role having been over a decade ago. Black was the manager of Coventry City between December 2003 and May 2004, but Coventry’s decision to replace him was considered somewhat contentious at the time, with some Coventry supporters taking the opinion that he was only replaced as the club’s manager in order to bring in a more prestigious name – that prestigious name, for the record, turned out to be Peter Reid and the less said about his time in charge of the club the better – so perhaps Black will be hoping to show that, against all available odds, he has the skill-set to be able to negotiate a route back into the Premier League for the club next season.
There is little question, however, that he will have his work cut out doing very much of any use with this current batch of Aston Villa players. The club isn’t mathematically relegated at the time of writing, but this is surely a matter of if rather than when. In any case, the stories regarding the club’s negotiations with the former Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson have been so persistent that it already feels like a fait accompli that Pearson will be parking himself in the managerial seat at Villa Park come the start of the summer break. Black might have to do something spectacular in order to disrupt this coronation, and when we consider his previous history as a serial caretaker manager it doesn’t seem unreasonable to speculate that the possibility of him staying in the position might not even have been significantly discussed.
A change of plan is possible – they always are, in the cut-throat and results-driven world of professional football – but, at the time of writing, it remains most likely that the players will return from their summer break to face the watchful glare of possibly the scariest manager currently in the market. There may well be plenty of Aston Villa supporters of the opinion that those Villa players who aren’t somehow offloaded during the summer could most likely do with a damn good frightening in time for the start of the new season. This disastrous season will, after all, cost the club a share of the dramatically increased television money pool that will kick in with a new contract this summer, a financial loss that will be felt all the more keenly at Villa Park than at most other clubs due to the fact that Villa have been haemorraghing money so badly over the last few years.
For now, though, there is a semblance of a plan at Villa Park, and that’s the first time that we’ve been able to say that with any confidence for some considerable time. The potential fly in the ointment for the club’s prognosis remains Randy Lerner’s ongoing inability to sell the club, though. It’s been up for sale for twenty months now, and the relationship between the owner and the institution itself long ago passed that of being akin to a loveless marriage. Reports, however, suggest that Lerner wants between £150m and £200m to sell, and if this was a tall order while the club remained in the Premier League, it’s an inconceivable valuation in the Championship. If we hazard a guess that he’s aiming to recoup the £64m that he paid and the losses incurred since then, he may well be a long time waiting and the question then becomes whether it is more advantageous for the club to be owned by an absentee landlord than one who returns and makes the hash of it that Lerner did before in throwing good money after bad in the transfer market.
So it is that Randy Lerner is the key to the puzzle that Aston Villa has become. This year’s imminent relegation – assuming Eric Black doesn’t turn out to be one of English football’s greatest escapologists, that is – can go one of two ways. On the one hand, it may turn out to be the start of a tailspin from which it could prove difficult to pull out, and there are plenty of other clubs that can provide salutary lessons in this respect. On the other, however, the end of the period of mundanity and mediocrity provides a glimmer of an opportunity for the club to be able to sweep the deck clean and start afresh, united in the aim of getting back to the Premier League as quickly as possible. Recent changes offer a glimpse of possibility that this could yet happen, and the question now is one of whether those now seeking to steady the ship have the wherewithal to be able to do so. Against such a background, the departure of Remi Garde feels like a symbolic decision on the part of the club, recognition that something had to be done, rather than the resolution to anything in itself. The future direction of Aston Villa, however will be determined not by this decision, but by what happens next.
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