Here you go
Smart guy, Randy Lerner. In 2006, he bought an underperforming company whose annual revenue was £49 million. It is still underperforming, but now it generates more than £100 million a year – and this before an imminent new Premier League broadcast deal which, on its own, is likely to be worth upwards of £70 million a year for a club like Lerner’s Aston Villa, just as long as they stay up.
What has Lerner done to turn this historic football club, from England’s second city, into a financial success story? Remarkably little, actually. He spent heavily for the first four years and then spent another four years wishing he had not. It has cost him a lot of money to take Villa full circle, to the Premier League’s glass ceiling and back, but, by restoring them to their pre-takeover state — stable and self-sufficient but depressed, tired and severely in dire need of reinvigoration — he has seen his asset triple in value.
From 2006-07 to 2009-10, spending heavily and chasing the dream under Martin O’Neill, Villa finished tenth (50 points) sixth (60 points), sixth (62 points) and sixth (64 points). From 2010/11 onwards, in post-O’Neill austerity, it has been ninth (48 points), 16th (38 points), 15th (41 points) and 15th (38 points). In the past three-and-a-half seasons, two-and-a-half of them under Paul Lambert, they have won 32 out of 138 Premier League matches, which is less than one in four, and have scored 134 goals, which is, on average, less than one per game. Pitiful records, both.
The financial picture has improved, but these are dismal times for Villa, who, with 11 goals in 23 matches so far, are in danger of setting a new record for the fewest goals scored in a Premier League season. More seriously they are haunted once more by the spectre of relegation – ever-present, it has felt, since ambition followed O’Neill out of the door.
Attendances held up for a while, but their average for league matches has dropped from 40,029 in 2007-08 to 36,080 last season and now to 32,922 — nearly 10,000 empty seats, on average, which is alarming at a time when Leicester City, Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion are filling their admittedly smaller grounds on a regular basis. For as long as they can continue to avoid relegation, though, even if it continues to be by small margins, Villa will be in the money. According to the Deloitte Money League, they had the 22nd highest revenue in world football in 2013-14. By 2016-17, when the new television deal arrives, they should climb higher, quite feasibly beyond Atletico Madrid or Inter Milan.
In other words, it is boom time in English football, even for those clubs where austerity reigns. While Everton, Southampton, Swansea City, West Ham United and others attempt to be creative and dynamic in their efforts to break — or at very least touch — the glass ceiling, Villa, like Newcastle United under Mike Ashley’s cold, unfeeling ownership, seem almost to have given up.
It is a worry, a debate that extends far beyond whether Lambert is the right manager to take the club forward. A financial chasm separates Everton, Villa and Newcastle from the top six now. Everton still have the will, if not necessarily the means, to try to bridge that gap, or at least to try to give their supporters something to cheer about (less easy this season, it must be said), but in Villa’s case the gulf in resources seems to be equalled by a deficit of ambition and belief.
Certainly, compared with clubs of comparable size and resources, Villa have made worryingly few waves in the transfer market. Villa have spent £53 million in transfer fees in two-and-a-half years under Lambert’s management, but this covers 26 players, of which only Christian Benteke cost more than £5 million.
Villa’s recruitment record, based around free transfers and low-price deals from the Football League or from the less glamorous European leagues, has tended to reinforce that there are not many bargains to be found in bargain basement.
So what will a huge new broadcast deal mean for Villa? A slight raising of the bar in terms of transfer and wage policy? This would be welcome, but the bar will be raised similarly by Southampton, Swansea and West Ham, three clubs who have seemed shrewder than Villa, as well as more ambitious, in recent years. For Villa to become one of the world’s top 20 richest clubs might sound good, but, in terms of on-pitch competitiveness, it will mean little if they cannot outspend Swansea.
Lerner stated last summer that he wished to sell Villa. There was some interest, but not for the initial £200 million sum he was looking for as he seeks a return on his investment. Even if a buyer is found, though, how much money would it take to re-establish Villa as a top-eight club? How much more, beyond that, would it take to re-establish them in the top six? And how realistic is that now that spending will be curbed under the new financial regulations?
The concern would be that, with the Champions League bringing such huge disparity, widened over the past five or six years by the commercial explosion at those clubs (including City and Chelsea) who now have the biggest global profile, and now with financial regulation biting, ossification has taken place at the very time that Villa and indeed Newcastle have settled for life among the also-rans.
The outlook is worse still, of course, at those Sky Bet Championship clubs for whom life aboard the Premier League gravy train in the 1990s did not come with the long-term guarantees they thought. Leeds United are now in their 11th consecutive season without Premier League football, Sheffield Wednesday their 15th, Nottingham Forest their 16th. They will find it is a different world if and when they finally claw their way back to the big time.
Inequality is everywhere in football’s new financial landscape — so much so that the Premier League’s collective approach to broadcast revenue is a model for others, such as Spain, to follow, however grudgingly and half-heartedly. Even the team that finishes bottom of the Premier League will earn more in broadcast revenue than all 18 clubs in the Dutch Eredivisie combined. Is that healthy for the Premier League?
Is it good for English football if proud, historic clubs, under wealthy ownership, are content to tread water in order simply to collect their money? Over the past four-and-a-half years, Villa’s has seemed a sorry, joyless existence. Their supporters will live in hope that there are better days ahead, but, even if they emerge from this malaise, they might find their horizons are not nearly so broad as they looked before.