For the supporters of Aston Villa Football Club, last season ended forty-eight hours after everybody else. Nine months of purgatory under the managership of Alex McLeish had resulted in the team finishing in sixteenth place in the Premier League, two places and two points above the relegation places, and it wasn’t until the clubs senior management and bowed to the inevitable in getting rid of McLeish that their season could truly begin. Although the team had seldom felt in genuine danger of relegation – they always seemed to be be a win or two clear of getting dragged into the mud-wrestling fight that the end of any Premier League season becomes at the wrong end of the table – it was in this act that the inner calm of the Aston Villa could finally begin to return.
McLeish’s replacement was Paul Lambert, who led Norwich City from League One to the Premier League in successive seasons and then to a highly creditable twelfth placed finish in their first season back. Lambert is something of a gamble – all new managers are a gamble, and a new manager with only one season of Premier League managerial experience is perhaps more of a gamble than most – but so far Villa supporters seem reasonably pleased with the modest progress that he has made in tidying up the squad and saying the right things in public. But can he arrest the subtle decline that this club has shown over the last two or three seasons or so, and what might happen if the new season doesn’t start perfectly for the club?
It frequently feels these days as if there is no such thing as a long-term managerial appointment any more. The need for immediate gratification means that, in a division in which only a few can be successful, almost all clubs are expected to deliver on something, and the cost of failure can be high. Even at a club that avoids relegation, the cost of empty seats and lost prize money can rise significantly, and there were plenty of empty seats at Villa Park last season. The appointment of Alex McLeish had always had an element of deal with the devil about. McLeishs style of football – dour, reductionist – was well-known, and his arrival at the club from Birmingham City only had the effect of shortening tempers in his direction still further, although it could be argued that the identity of his previous employers was somewhat overstated in some corners of the press. His only option was to win a lot of matches or to play with a degree of elan that his managerial history didn’t seem to indicate that he was capable of, and he couldn’t manage either. His dismissal was the least surprising of the summer.
Lambert’s arrival at Villa Park, however, was a little bit of a surprise. He might have been expected to stay at Carrow Road for another season or two and see through a job that he had performed with stunning success, but the lure of departing to one of the bona fide institutions of English football is understandable and from a pragmatic point of view makes perfect sense. Aston Villa, after a couple of profligate seasons in the transfer market under Martin O’Neill, perhaps don’t have the resources to spend lavishly on transfer fees and wages in the way that they did under O’Neill. Lambert, it is certainly fair to say, has developed quite a reputation for managing to get players to perform above the expectation of others and it is this, perhaps, that Aston Villa Football Club needs after a couple of difficult seasons.
The new managers operating in the transfer market so far this summer is perhaps best defined as “shrewd.” The releases of Carlos Cuéllar and Emile Heskey have lopped a sizable amount off the wage bill, whilst the arrivals of Brett Holman, Karim El Ahmadi, Matthew Lowton and Ron Vlaar – who is still subject to a medical this week, though this should be a formality – have the feel of being signings aimed at building a squad with a seam of quality running all the way through it, which is perhaps appropriate when we consider how unbalanced they looked at times last season. It was suggested at the start of the summer that Lambert would be given £20m to rebuild his squad this summer, and considering that he has thus far spent less than half of this amount (Vlaar’s arrival, for example, has been reported as having set the club back £3.2m, which seems like excellent business for a twenty-seven year old Dutch international), it is likely that more new players will arrive at Villa Park before the new season begins.
For all the talk of fresh investment, though, the clubs annual accounts, which were released in January, hinted at an organisation which needs to get itself onto an even financial keel ahead of the introduction of UEFAs Financial Fair Play regulations. The club lost £54m throughout 2011 – a little over £1m every week and the third highest loss in the entire Premier League behind Manchester City and Chelsea, who have the fall-back of ear-bleedingly rich owners and the honeypot that is the Champions League – and has lost £148m since Randy Lerner took control of it six years ago. The clubs annual turn-over was reported as the seventh highest in the Premier League, but this figure in itself only tells half of the story. It is below sixth place that the figures drop off – below Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, predictably enough – meaning that while Aston Villa might be considered “The Best Of The Rest” in this respect, their annual turnover is more than fifty per cent lower than the club in sixth place in the turnover league and not much higher than those below it.
These figures are likely to have shown a modest improvement last season after the sales of Ashley Young to Manchester United and Stewart Downing to Liverpool are taken into account, meaning that the obvious prediction for Aston Villas 2012/13 season might be to say that this is a club plenty capable of finishing in the top half of the Premier League table, but which will find it enormously difficult to break into that top six. Yet for the supporters of Aston Villa, a mid-table finish might even be enough for next season after the mild histrionics and flirtation with relegation that came with last season. With a strong start to the season, the feel-good factor around Villa Park may come to have a positive effect on the team. If things do not start that brilliantly, though, the question of what effect any fog of despond may have upon the team may well become a very real one.
And herein lays the conundrum for Aston Villa’s new season. Many supporters of the club may have felt that the squad that the club had last season was good enough to achieve more than it eventually did. If Paul Lambert is going to tweak rather than revolutionise his squad, he is going to have to bring the best out of them in order to stop the barracking from starting again. As such, a considerable weight may come to rest on the shoulders of players that underachieved last season. Managing a top half finish in his first season would be a reasonable achievement for Paul Lambert at the end of his first season at Villa Park, though a mid-table finish may be a little more likely. That seventh place may have to be the summit of his ambitions is, perhaps, more a reflection on the balance of inequality in the modern Premier League than on his merits as a manager or upon Aston Villa Football Club. There is catching up to be done at Villa Park next season, after a couple of seasons of disappointment and decline.
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