Relegated as one of the worst sides in Premier League history, despite being a league member since its inception, many believed at the end of the 2015-16 season that Villa were destined to jump on the Pompey highway and tumble down the divisions.
Their relegation came following the initial optimism of management under the enthusiastic Tim Sherwood, which quickly turned to realisation that his management skills were limited to jumping around the touchline wearing a fashionable club gilet and trying to motivate his players to perform – a task he failed somewhat miserably at. Sherwood was replaced by Remi Garde, a man linked with every vacant job in the Premier League since his successful stint on the coaching staff at Lyon with Paul Le Guen during which they won the title. Garde brought with him a sense of optimism that they could get out of the struggle they found themselves in and potentially aim higher with a bright young manager in future seasons. How wrong they were – the rot continued under Garde, at arguably a worse rate as they failed to muster any sort of fight to stay up; if only Villa’s performances had been as impressive as Joleon Lescott’s ability to unlock his phone and post a picture of his Mercedez all whilst being in his back pocket. By mid-April their fate was sealed, following the sacking of Garde who won only 3 out of 23 games he took charge of, with Eric Black taking charge until the end of the season.
So Villa tumbled through the trap door and in to the Championship, manager less and with a mixture of experienced players on high wages, and youngsters who had looked somewhat out of their depth in the top flight. A worrying time for Villa fans as the scaremonger’s circled and hinted at a bigger demise. Villa turned to Roberto Di Matteo to get them back to the Premiership or at least stop the rot – a Champions League winning manager and manager who had previously got local rivals out of the Championship (remember the last time they appointed a local rivals’ manager?).
Since appointing Di Matteo Villa have spent approximately £38m on the signings of McCormack, Chester, Jedinak, Elphick and others; whilst selling £15m-worth of players in Gueye, Clark and Sinclair – a net spend of £23m; not a lot, but a significant amount in the second tier.
Thus begins a cautionary tale:
In 2012 Blackburn Rovers were relegated from the Premier League with a relatively good squad and decided that in order to get back to the big time, and fast, they had to invest in players. That summer before the 2012-13 season they spent roughly £14.4m (a considerable amount in the pre-mega TV deal days) on transfers and a hefty amount in wages to free transfers like Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu, all in an attempt to jump straight back up using the money left over from the Premier League and the money to come from parachute payments. The gamble didn’t pay off and by the turn of the year the club was facing a double relegation following 3 managers and a court case. They didn’t get back that season, the following season, nor the season after that, and they now find themselves propping up the Championship in +£100m debt.
So are Villa walking a tight rope and is their spending reckless? On first glances you would say it is a massive gamble which is heavily reliant on the managerial expertise of a man who most recently guided a talented team the Champions League trophy, getting the most out of a relatively average squad of players, bolstered by some big money signings. Dig a little deeper though and this is a different scenario all together to the one at Ewood in 2012.
When Blackburn were relegated they stuck with the man who took them down, Steve Kean, a man who fans had turned on many months earier and a man who defiantly insisted he was the best man for the job despite evidence to the contrary and a man who argued he still had the support of the fans (which he definitely did not). At Villa they have brought in a manager who has experience of the division and of English football in general, who has successfully gained promotion before – he is a gamble, but a measured one given his experience.
Aston Villa followed relegation by being sold to a new owner with enthusiasm to take the club back to the top, and who has backed-up his enthusiasm with finances to potentially achieve this. At Blackburn, the Venkys were already well established for not really ‘getting’ football, the realism of transfers or the fact that relegation can happen (we’re still awaiting the arrival of Beckham and Ronaldhino), and in the summer following relegation it is rumoured that they put the future of the club in the hands of others to agree transfers. It might have looked like ambition and promise at the time, but it soon became clear the problems at the club were far more deep-rooted than the playing staff. At a time when the supporters wanted dialogue and communications with those running the club there was a deafening silence from Pune, which only soured relations further. At Villa they now have an owner in Tony Xia who tweets and interviews and tells of his ambition for the club. At Blackburn we struggle to get a press release from the owners when a viable, fan backed, takeover bid is put forward.
The investment in players and the appointment of an experienced manager at Villa won’t guarantee success in terms of promotion or stability in terms of survival but they are making the right steps, and by keeping the fans on board the new owner has given the club a chance – whether they have the players, talent or mental capacity to achieve either of these is still to be seen.