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2011 Away Match Reports





Sunday, August 28, 2011

The retrenchment of expenses plan and the future of the club

Archie from the latin lions started a good debate about the finances of the club on the VillaTalk forum. He posted:
“I have been very struck by the recent decision of the club to cut paltry expenses like the free cup tickets for the staff (when the stadium is half empty in the first cup ties) and the free Match Programmes for the Lions Clubs' chairmen. 

Obviously I have no problems to pay the match programmes from now on, this is not the point. 
What leaves me perplexed is that the sums that you can save with this plan of retrenchment of expenses will be about 1/1000000 of the costs that you have for some average players with top player wages like Dunne, Beyè and others. 
So, decisions like these, on one side don't improve the financial situation of the club and on the other side cut to the quick the most genuine part of the club, the staff and the fans, giving the strong impression that the property is preparing to sell up the club, and in order to do so must give the purchaser the impression that the books are balanced and that there are not useless expenses. 

Obviously I hope to be wrong but this is my impression at the moment”. 

The discussion is a good one, and led me to the following thoughts

There are two sides to this coin, and they're both valid. The one side is that over the past 3 Summer windows, and the January windows the net result of transfer spending is a sizeable income. Over the whole of Randy's time, the total is a net outgoing of about 32 million (it's impossible to be precise, because a lot of fees are undisclosed). 

So in recent year supporters have seen us very much as a selling club, selling off the better players and not replacing them with the same quality, after an initial period when a great deal of money was spent, that took us from down the bottom of the league to consistent top 6 (but no better) with good cup runs, too. 

The other side is the wage bill. It was allowed to get out of hand. Far, far, too much money went out of the club to players and agents that was simply out of proportion to their contributions to the club and team. That situation has to be addressed, the wages have to be at a sustainable level. 

Making that adjustment was always going to be painful and involve a period of transition for the team. That's still going on. 

So how's it progressing? What's good and what's bad? 

Well, clearly, a significant number of highly paid players have gone - Barry, Friedel, Milner, Young, Downing, NRC, Luke Young and so on. 
Then again, others have come in - Shay Given, N'Zogbia, Darren Bent, Ireland... and some remain - Beye and Cuellar are not first team regulars, but are surely on high wages. 

So I suspect that there's still a way to go, yet, to bring down the wage bill. Additionally, of course there's the wages paid to managers, and pay-offs to them and their staff when they left. Those one-off hits will affect the figures. And we don't know what moneys were paid to players leaving, in terms of them claiming all kinds of bonuses and so on, to which they would claim entitlement under their contracts, if they did not formally ask for a transfer. It might seem "wrong" to the likes of us, but that's the mess football is in, generally. 

So cutting the wage bill - work in progress. Hard for everyone, basically. 

What's good? - well, it may not be exciting, exactly, but the facilities for corporates (>100 boxes and suites) and to an extent some of the facilities for fans - the Holte suite for example, have been upgraded and enabled more income to be taken on a match day. Sponsorships are much better than a few years ago. These are good things for the club, financially. And the TV deals are much higher than they were. 

What's bad - ticket prices. Also the way it is reported that sundry minor costs such as the coats in Archie's OP, and SC chairmen's Programmes - various trivial items are being made into a big thing at the cost of goodwill. That's bad. 
They really messed up with the ticket prices, IMO. To have an increase of around 7% on average, in a recession, whilst selling the best players and appointing a manager who was not exactly wildly popular and who has a record of dull football was both insensitive and counter-productive - particularly when so many games are moved for the TV. 

It's extremely unfortunate that while doing all this the only communications from the higher echelons of the club have been what looks right now like a deal of bluster from General Krulak and a letter from Randy which looks like an accountant got hold of it, left just the first part untouched, changed the rest and then forged his signature. Paul Faulkner sent a slightly better version out later on. 

People might comment that as fans we're over-demanding, for ever wanting "spend spend spend" and have no appreciation of the intricacies of running a club. And they'd probably be right. 

But then the club doesn't exactly go out of its way to inform us, to teach us, to help us understand. The communication we get seems to be of a fairly basic style - bombard us with texts and e mails about shirts, tickets and packages - tell us we're great and our support is great in missives handed down, or the kind of friendly, well meaning tub-thumping from the General. 

What's utterly lacking is any shade. A form of communication that fills in the gaps between "buy stuff", "we're going to win" and "great fans". There's nothing influential or informative coming out of the club. Stuff gets raised and then quietly forgotten about. For example the Olympics next year - VP dropped out of hosting games because the ground would be being rebuilt at the North stand end. HO'K's plans would be revealed to us., we were told. But nothing.... 
OK, change your plans to adjust to changing situations, but perhaps having told us one thing, they have a duty to tell us about the change? And it's that same thing with the plans for the team, or for that matter the Club. 

"Committed as ever" is about the size of the detail we've been given. Well sorry, but the evidence before our eyes says something different. The evidence before our eyes says that we're not aiming for the Champions League places, we're all about financial retrenchment. So talk to us. 

I'm certain that better and more honest communication could have seen things turn out differently. As it is, because of the lack of proper information us fans have been stridently voicing our displeasure, the Club people feel bombarded and defensive and even less inclined to talk to us, thinking that all we do is unjustifiably moan. 

What's that saying about before criticising a man, walk a mile in his shoes? - in other words try to understand his situation for a time before you have a go at him. 
Both the Club and us lot, the fans, need to try that. The club, to their credit have been contacting and speaking to us individually about why we haven't renewed season tickets. I wonder what they'll do with whatever conclusions they draw? Will they tell us? 
Then again "why haven't you spent 500 quid on us?" might also be seen as a bit "me" focused - you know "why have you stopped paying me money". For football fans, I think, the relationship between fans and their club is not about and certainly should not be about money. Which is where many of us are massive hypocrites, of course. We want them not to just treat us as consumer units from whom they can take their 50 quid for a shirt and 38 quid for a ticket whilst simultaneously we demand that they spend 15 million on a winger. 

The only way that situation can change is by communicating. We know what we think (I think) and we write it on here and on other sites, we talk to Radio and sometimes even the telly and the local or national press. 

The club has the odd SCG forum and talks to some fans they know personally, but there's not been enough communication for us masses, that at a level much beyond "buy this thing". 

Now, more than for a long time, the Club should be a force for a "feel-good factor", but it's not, is it? It was when Randy was spending money, and we loved it. We still admire him greatly for the good things he's done, but currently I think we have every right to be concerned about the future and the plans for the club. They really need to talk.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Backdrifts (honeymoon is over)

Here we are in the middle of summer, there’s no cricket on today, and with only men playing with their sticks and little balls to occupy the commentators, I thought I’d sit down with a cup of tea, a chocolate biscuit and ruminate over the state of things at Villa Park.

Now obviously there’s a lot gone on over the past few months, and equally obviously there are very few fully content Villa fans around at the moment. So this article tries to look at things from a wide angle and voice some opinions on the general air of frustration and anger apparent on the message boards.

Let’s start off by going back 6 months or so. The team was losing rather more games than was comfortable, the manager was deeply unpopular with a large part of the fanbase and a number of the players. There was real concern over the possibility of relegation. A concern that was only eased in the last couple of weeks of the season. We also had 2 of our better players who seemed unlikely to sign new contracts, and who would therefore be candidates for sale. In the case of Ashley Young it had been apparent for a while that he wanted to move on and with Stewart Downing, though he had initially indicated how happy he was at Villa, there was a change of heart or maybe he just said he was happy, because players often don’t tell the truth about their true intentions? Either way, before the season had reached its end he was clearly wanting to go.

So what’s happened more recently?

Well, firstly we have a new manager. Leaving aside the circumstances of the change - unfortunate, serious illness - most fans would have been pleased that a change would be made. It just didn’t work out with Gerard Houllier did it?

Secondly, Manchester United came looking for Ashley Young, and he duly went, with Villa getting around £15 million in exchange - not bad for a player who didn’t have a great season (though he shone at times) and had only one year left on his contract. Decent business by the club.

The next event to look at is the choice of new manager, and the process around identifying and recruiting him. Leaving aside rumours and speculation we know that Steve McLaren was due to be interviewed and that Villa, for some unknown reason, cancelled the scheduled interview and ruled him out. A wise move, in my view, though we don’t know what that reason was.
We do know that Robbie Martinez was a target, and we also know that, admirably and unusually, he decided loyalty to his club Wigan was of primary importance. Whether he’d have done the same if, for example, Liverpool had wanted him is another matter. We also know that (many people’s favourite) David Moyes said that he had no interest in moving to Villa. Mark Hughes was said not to have been a target, despite his sudden resignation from Fulham. 
With things dragging on rather, we then had the bizarre sequence of events that saw Alex McLeish appointed, after he resigned from the Small Heath Alliance role. Whatever our travails, that lot are in a much worse state.

Anyway, his record is mixed. Good and less good with Rangers, and 2 relegations with the Small Heath as well as, strike a light a trophy and their highest ever finish a couple of years back. He has also done solidly at Motherwell and Hibs in the past. A mixed bag.

In some ways he is an impressive man - dignified, straightforward and highly recommended by many who know him.

What he is not, is “glamour”. There’s a fair part of the Villa support that yearns for a “star” name - BFR was perhaps the last man with the sparkle to lead the club. Others point out that Villa has often thrived under the control of the less extravagant types - from Mr Saunders, to Brian Little, Graham Taylor even. Of course what people really want is someone who wins.

With no games to judge Alex McLeish by, many look at his association with “them”, the 2 relegations he oversaw and have simply decided “no way”.

My reaction was rather more confused. When I first heard he was a serious candidate, I didn’t think “yes” or “No”, but I reacted to the likely reaction of others - “that’s not going to go down at all well” and “Jees, have they gone totally chuffing mad?” Still, he’s ours now, and I wish him well and the best of luck. He’s definitely going to need it.
He's started off well, in getting 20 million quid for a player who clearly wanted to be elsewhere, who was apparently moping about the place and who has had perhaps 7 good months in the time he's been at the club. Stewart Downing is a good player, but he's definitely not worth 20 million quid. Good work 'eck.

Anyway, all this carry on at Villa, in isolation, wouldn’t really be of much concern to me, we’ve had ups and downs, ins and outs and all that many times before, but there’s something else, something more general and it’s best summed up, perhaps by the phrase ”what is the (football) world coming to”.

In this, I know I’m far from alone. The majority of my football mates are of the same feeling. It ranges in intensity, but all of us are pretty dejected at the general state of the game.

For me, when Randy took over at Villa, I was thrilled most of all that we had a bloke in charge who seemed to be at the club because of football. That might sound odd, but I look around at other clubs and see a number of owners who seem to be in charge because of money. Randy with his renovation of the place seemed to understand and to demonstrate that he understood the importance of the Club as a sporting institution, not as “an asset” or “an investment” or “a franchise”. I liked the way he stayed in the background, in he didn’t interfere, he just got people in and let them get on with their business, unlike owners at many other clubs, or the previous chairman at this club (and he didn't even own it). Randy was a barrier against the prevailing attitude that Premier League Football is simply a "product" or a means to get some limelight or influence that has so disillusioned many of my friends.

I’m not quite sure I still feel that way. Maybe I’ve been spoilt, or maybe no-one, not even Randy, can hold back the tide. Who knows?

The thing that’s so galling about football being marketed as a product (apart from even having to use words like “marketed” and “product” when talking about sport) is that there’s no active place in it for supporters. There’s a deliberate downgrading of us from being a core part of the game, to being passive units to whom nylon replica shirts and season tickets must be sold, all kinds of “purchase opportunities” thrown at us. Can’t I just watch 22 men kick a ball about, please? And can’t I please do so for a reasonable price? and may I do so at a time that is broadly convenient to me, rather than to satellite TV, or the police?

It’s like we're just units corporate football wants to sell to. We're not treated as a part of the game. We have no value other than as a means of shifting nylon shirts and expensive season tickets, or Sky subscriptions. The game is "sold" at such a base level, there's no depth to it, no appreciation of the culture and ethos of support. They want us to cry if we lose, wear a replica shirt for the camera and be part of the background to their 3D programme. They use us, they think we're theirs. They don't value us. This, I think, together with the predictability of the final placings is what has done for many. None of that was caused by, or is unique to Villa, but our club is a part of it now. As I said, I thought, when RL came along "here's a bloke who values the club the players and staff and fans as something other than money. He's a bloke who already has money, he wants to be in the game, for the sake of the game, for the sake of the club." But it doesn't look like that's the case any more. He doesn't speak to us, which is fine, but his mate, the General, says "judge by what we do" and then they do something daft, or do nothing, or do the same as the other clubs and owners. Sponsorships get cancelled, kits are late, players leave...

Maybe that’s harsh on Randy and CO. - maybe it’s a not the case in reality. But it appears to be like that. Could the reason be that one man (or one man and a couple of mates) cannot run multiple Sports clubs? Cleveland & Villa and still also do all the other stuff - the art, charity, finance and so on?

MO'N as a bit of a control freak was happy to take on that workload at Villa, to run the club as he saw fit (which had it’s downside), but broadly worked, then, whatever you think of the football style, or players bought and sold.

The club was run as a team. We were part of it, but after Martin O’Neill left it looked like GH and PF have been less capable at the whole leading and initiative thing. Bluntly, where's the action that shows us what the board is about?

I’m sure some adjustment to FFP rules and overall accounts is necessary. If so, I think we should be told. What I’m talking about here, though is that there’s been no authoritative figurehead, and this gap, combined with a clear lack of information about the aims of the club, about the overall direction we want to go has left not just me, but many more supporters quite downcast. 
What too, does it say to sponsors, to players, to all the other people involved with the club? Can anyone say with any certainty what the aims of the club are? Is it to balance the books and survive? Is it to aim for the top 10, the top 6, the top 4? Is it to be a kind of production line for good young players to be sold on at a profit? What is Aston Villa for, these days, exactly?

If Alex McLeish can get of to a reasonable start, the current antipathy towards him will fade and maybe he can, with his directness and honesty start to tell us what the heck we aim to do - he’s, to my ears and eyes, and better communicator than Houllier. So far we’ve heard cautious words about money available and working with what we’ve got. Hardly stirring stuff. When fans see rival clubs buying our players, spending gazillions and moving up the pecking order many think that with Villa seemingly all spent up and intent on profiting from sales and cutting wages that we have no hope. I doubt that season ticket renewals and shirt sales are going to be what they were a couple of years ago.

Despite all this, football is not completely broken, as many people proclaim. It’s still possible, as the likes of Blackpool, Swansea, Norwich, Brighton and so on have shown, that good management at board and team level is the defining factor, rather than pure money. There are other examples too, though most are in the Football League, rather than the premier league, which was set up for money, operates for money and has money is it's core reason for being.

It is still possible to find examples of outstanding managers, people who can work and build attractive, successful sides without simply buying everyone else's players. So what I want as a Villa fan is for the Club to try, I also want the club to be sustainable and still here in 100 years and fully accept the need to operate sensibly. Tell me what the lay of the land is, and I’ll set my sights accordingly.
The template for Villa is with a good manager, a board that works with the manager towards a common agenda and goal, with players who are committed, staff who want to be here, who enjoy the work they do and with the whole club operating with a touch of class and style, the whole thing from fans to the man at the top will go in the same direction. And all of those things are possible with no money (relatively). Every single one of them.

Can we say that over the past couple of years that’s what‘s been happening? I think not. The respect for those things and the focus has gone. The Club these days is more likely to say one thing and do another, or just to say nothing. No explaining, no communication. Raise ticket prices and sell the best players. These behaviours are factors that lead to the opposite of a "common goal". You can see the evidence all over the messageboard, in the form of fans comments. You can see the evidence in want-away players, in the downgrading of the status of the club from “challengers” to “mid-table at best”.

Some people have said this has all occurred because the board is not "football savvy", but the things I’m talking about are common to all walks of life, whether it be running a business, a political party, a charity, or organising a village Fête...

It's my belief that there are many good people at our club, it's not lack of good intent, or lack of integrity or honesty that's the issue. What needs to happen is that the ragged ends need tying back together. They need to open a fresh can of Leadership, look up the word "Communicate" in the dictionary and then get back to pointing us all in the same direction (once they've decided what that direction is, of course).

Finally, back to those horrible words "product marketing" - the team is the thing that sells tickets, it sells shirts, it also sells pies and beer and hospitality and sponsorship and TV rights. It always will be. So make sure it's as good as can be.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Gérard Houllier - Au revoir

Soon another name will get to have the privilege of managing Aston Villa Football Club, The new manager will, in all likelihood have the opportunity in the closed season to assess and rebuild the squad here, and will be able to set the team up in the way he wants, after a period of pre-season friendlies, training sessions and a fair bit of “getting to know you” time. None of those things was available to Gérard Houllier when he joined Villa in early September last year

Instead he was brought in after the shock walk out of Martin O’Neill (in timing if not in eventuality) and had to take the controls of a club that was reeling and veering in the wake of MO’N’s departure.

In such circumstances things were never likely to run altogether smoothly. The club had perhaps been wrong footed, and whilst the efforts they went to to try and identify and recruit MO’N’s successor were thorough and diligent, the search took longer than ideal and left supporters and players restless in the uncertainty.

These were the cards Gérard accepted as his hand. To be frank he didn’t play them well. He spoke of the club that had finished 6th in the preceding 3 seasons as being a natural 7-12th placed club. Perhaps, given the situation, that was a realistic objective for the season ahead, but it certainly got the goat of the fans - it sounded unambitious, it sounded, to some, like a slight on their team and a pre-prepared excuse not to aim higher.

There were also some issues regarding players who had previously played under Gérard at Liverpool - Friedel, Warnock and Heskey. He certainly seemed to revitalise Emile, who along with Marc Albrighton was a dynamic force in our attack. Brad Friedel remained the true professional, kept his head down, and concentrated on keeping goal. But in Stephen Warnock we saw that things were not all sweetness and light. Warnock was exiled, seemingly never to return.

Results were up and down in the early months, and away performances were largely poor, and if the performance wasn’t poor, then we still managed to lose.

The meeting with his former club, Liverpool, at Anfield on a Monday night 3 months into his time in charge at Villa was to prove another débâcle. Not only was the team given a shoeing by Liverpool, themselves struggling, not only did the players look utterly demotivated, but then Houllier added salt to the wounds by firstly completely ignoring the Villa supporters who had been singing and cheering all night for their team, for HIS team, in favour of opting to applaud the fans of his former club on the Kop, and then compounding the error by post match comments appearing to suggest that he was happy to lose to Liverpool.

Unsurprisingly a furore errupted. Angry supporters, a media that’s always ready to jump on a story and then the damage limitation exercise. The whole escapade was revealing. It showed several things. Clearly Gérard had, in part, come back to English football to try and prove something to his former club, a club whose supporters he holds in high regard, and fair enough. But that drive led him to show, perhaps, at best, a disregard for the Club, players and supporters of his present employers. He sort of apologised, but didn’t seem to acknowledge, or maybe even realise, that he had been unwise.

Efforts to repair the damaged relationship with us Villans followed - the club tie, the thanks to the fans after games. These efforts looked stage managed, but things began to pick up, to move on. The FA cup gave us good wins over Sheffield United and Blackburn and maybe, just maybe, a good cup run could be the saviour of our season?

But like that game with moles and mallets, as soon as you pop one on the head, another appears. At a team bonding session it was alleged that Collins and Dunne had over refreshed themselves and let rip with their views on training methods and coaches.

It was evident that perhaps too many changes had been made, too quickly. yet at the same time there was an old Houllier habit of blaming others - a defeat to Bolton in March was blamed on Martin O’Neill’s defensive zonal organisation. In truth while the defending all season was largely poor, it was bad finishing that cost us that game. Darren Bent a welcome January signing, who scored the goals to keep us up and whose finishing is normally so good, had missed 3 clear chances, Stewart Downing another and there were numerous other near things. In Downing and Bent, Heskey before he was injured, in Bannan, Albrighton, Clark and others from the youth set up we could all see there was talent at the club. The results were not matching the sum of the squads parts. For every performance like the 2-2 draw at home to Man Utd, where a injury hit and youthful Villa side tore them apart, playing an attractive brand of football, before tiring and succumbing to 2 late goals, there was an utterly woeful performance, like the defeat at Man City in late December, in which the players didn’t seem to know what to do, to care, or to be playing “for the manager”.

And it was Manchester City who played a part in the next foot/gun/bang moment. Drawn away to them in the FA Cup, Houllier put out a depleted side. Despite some good football, the side was shown up and then dispatched by a full strength City side.

Fans were again furious - there were only 2 league games in March, why rest players? That we then lost the next game at Bolton only made things worse. And the league table wasn’t looking pretty.

Following a grim home defeat to Wolves, the fans turned on Gérard Houllier big style. I’ve never heard or seen a Villa crowd turn on a manager with such intensity. If I thought in December that his time was up, it was clear at the end of that Wolves game that there was going to be no way back. While feeling for someone subjected to that level of antipathy, in what is after all, only a game, and must be a dreadful experience to undergo...well it just wasn’t working.

After thinking that Houllier would never regain the sympathy of the supporters, and that he had brought much of the situation on himself, things took an altogether more serious turn. Houllier was taken ill with chest pains, a legacy of previous problems, and no doubt exacerbated by the reality of his working situation. Thankfully he appears to be on the mend, I truly hope so, and perhaps too it’s made a few people realise that there’s a lot more important things than games of football. Certainly the best wishes of all Villa fans, and many more from the wider world are with Gérard Houllier.

In his enforced absence, the team brightened towards the end of the season, probably co-incidentally. Though we lost another local derby, this time to Albion, we managed to win against Liverpool and Arsenal, and end up somewhere in the middle of that “7th - 12th” place bracket the Houllier mentioned back in September. Throughout most of the season, ironically, we’d have snatched anyone’s hand off, offering 9th.

If I was to summarise my feelings about the time Gérard Houllier spent at Villa it would be along the lines of “a decent man, with a philosophy about the way to play that game that I understand and like, but one who through circumstance and his own flaws, as well as his strengths managed to live up, and down to all the expectations of him” which as summaries go is pretty muddled.

It’s undoubtedly the right thing that he leaves the club, football’s not worth dying for, or getting ill for. And Aston Villa needs a change, too.

Salut et bonne santé, Monsieur Houllier.


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