J.J Lee looks at the Curious Case of the Aston Villa Football Club.
European Cup Winners, 7 Time FA Cup Winners, 7 Time First Division Winners, 17th in the second tier of English football. From an upper echelon Premier League staple, to perilously teetering on the brink of relegation from the Championship, what has gone so horrifically wrong for Aston Villa?
11 years ago, Aston Villa looked to be on the brink of something special. Martin O’Neill had been appointed manager after a highly successful spell as Celtic boss and American business man Randy Lerner had taken over as the majority owner signalling a new era for the football club. Villa finished 11th that season, a solid return and more importantly, a steady foundation. The Villains duly built upon this, finishing 6th in the 07-08 season qualifying for the UEFA Cup and reaching the group stages. Villa maintained this European status for the following two seasons and progressed to the final of the 2010 League Cup losing 2-1 to Manchester United. The Birmingham outfit were riding on the crest of wave, but the 2010-11 season would signal the beginning of a near fatal slump.
O’Neill left the club only a few days before the Villains began their league campaign, and was succeeded by former Liverpool coach Gerard Houlier who would only hold the reins for one season. A disappointing finish of 9th was the result and was an especially bitter pill to swallow for fans considering the talented squad and Houllier had inherited. Brad Friedel, Richard Dunne, Stewart Downing, Ashley Young and Gabby Agbonlahor formed a solid spine, but Villa failed to put meat on the bones. Alex McLeish was the next managerial appointment, crossing the city divide from rivals Birmingham City FC.
The rot well and truly set in during this campaign with McLeish barely keeping Villa from plummeting into the Championship. McLeish was inevitably dispatched with fellow Scot Paul Lambert taking his place. Villa would not improve greatly under Lambert, with the signing of Belgian hitman Christian Benteke for £7 million proving to be the only bright spark. The downward slide did not continue during Lambert’s tenure; the former Norwich manager instead just about managed to keep the crisis club afloat with a young side. Despite this, he was given the sack in the latter stages of the 14-15 season in the midst of an unbelievable goal drought. The managerial merry-go-round began again with Tim Sherwood being given the poisoned chalice, and he somehow brought Villa all the way to the 2015 FA Cup Final, where they were destroyed by Arsenal before being replaced by Remi Garde who would only see out 4 months of a three and a half year contract, with Villa being finally relegated from the Premier League on the 16th April 2016.
At the beginning of the Championship season in August 2016, Villa looked destined to be set for only a brief stint outside the Premier League. An impressive squad, a European Cup winning manager in Roberto Di Matteo, and a healthy fan following seemed to be the perfect recipe for an instant return to domestic footballs top table. Wrong. The Championship is a different beast to its more distinguished counterpart, a more rough and tumble, physical environment. The pampered nature of the champagne Premiership footballer just simply does not gel with a waterlogged pitch in Huddersfield on a Tuesday night. Villa cleared a lot of the deadwood in the summer in an attempt to halt the decay, with players like Kieran Richardson and Joleon Lescott springing to mind. However, they also sold players that could’ve been invaluable; Ciaran Clark was inexplicably sold to fellow promotion hopefuls Newcastle, and Scott Sinclair, who is a proven Championship player, was allowed to leave for a paltry £3.5 million. Herein lies the problem: a lack of stability and clear, effective leadership seems to be hampering Villa. Under Steve Bruce’s guidance, one would expect results to turn around but they are still floundering and hovering dangerously close to the relegation zone of the Championship.
So, what has happened? A combination of many things; poor transfer dealings and lack of stabilities are hamartias that have cost the West midlands side. At the end of 2009-10 season, Villa were on the verge of something special, but they required strong financial backing, with 1 or 2 big signings needed to be made to ensure they could push on but it wasn’t given. The signals of regression were evident for all to see but were ignored by the board repeatedly leading the club to dangerously flirt with relegation for a number seasons before eventually biting the bullet in 2016. Now that the true downward spiral has begun, it doesn’t show any signs of stopping. It could be many a year before we see the claret and blue grace the top flight once again.