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Backdrifts (honeymoon is over)


blandy
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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.

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Very good piece - encapsulates what a lot of people are feeling at present. Unfortunately, I don't see a great deal changing any time soon so the pressure is very much on McLeish to take advantage of a relatively kind run of fixtures over the first three months of the season to turn this pervasive mood of antipathy, if not outright hostility, around.

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I'll have to disagree on one point: I think football - at least in the Premier League - is broken.

I, too, believe in the ideal that a champion team can win the competition when all parts of the team as a whole - management, players, coaches, staff and fans - pull in the one direction.

My basis for this belief has been Arsenal - but I see them slowly drowning, not succeeding. They are struggling to keep their better players. They are not winning trophies. They are re-adjusting their sights from winners to CL places - and only just hanging on.

I have long thought that their model was one we could follow to be successful....

... but I no longer believe that. The teams with the money will eventually, inevitably and regularly take the top places. And nothing will topple them.

If that is not broken, then what is?

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Good stuff as ever Blandy ...........I am praying for something radical to happen - the collapse of the Murdoch empire and the demise of SKY would be my preferred choice. We cannot be too far off a major club collapsing under massive debts. If the US economy is on the verge of sneezing the western economies may be in for a severe bout of flu - the repurcussions will widespeard across all sectors.

Personally I would love to see - "the so called big four or five" go "tits up" or clear off to compete in a European or World super league , leaving us mere mortals to compete in a "new first division".

There must come a point when the ridiculous wages get capped - the greedy players and agents are currently haemorrhaging the game .

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Personally I would love to see - "the so called big four or five" go "tits up" or clear off to compete in a European or World super league , leaving us mere mortals to compete in a "new first division".

There must come a point when the ridiculous wages get capped - the greedy players and agents are currently haemorrhaging the game .

I wouldn't want the 4 or 5 to either clear off or go belly up, myself. I like the notion that the field could be levelled, though, to an extent, to make the league more open, rather than them just clearing off or disappearing. That's to me, not what Sport should be about.

I hope, perhaps forlornly, that the UEFA Fair Play thing might tilt the balance back a bit, but I'm not sure they'll enforce it and suspect it might end up being not so much a net to catch the "financial dopers" as just full of holes.

As for wages and that - it's the owners that need to get a grip. No one else can do it.

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Personally I would love to see - "the so called big four or five" go "tits up" or clear off to compete in a European or World super league , leaving us mere mortals to compete in a "new first division".

There must come a point when the ridiculous wages get capped - the greedy players and agents are currently haemorrhaging the game .

I wouldn't want the 4 or 5 to either clear off or go belly up, myself. I like the notion that the field could be levelled, though, to an extent, to make the league more open, rather than them just clearing off or disappearing. That's to me, not what Sport should be about.

I hope, perhaps forlornly, that the UEFA Fair Play thing might tilt the balance back a bit, but I'm not sure they'll enforce it and suspect it might end up being not so much a net to catch the "financial dopers" as just full of holes.

As for wages and that - it's the owners that need to get a grip. No one else can do it.

Fair comment - with regard to the money, some of the owners are so cash rich its all like a game of monopoly to them. It will be interesting to see who will be the first "big club" to go under.

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Great article (as per usual, Mr Bland). A pleasure to read. I don't have much to add, I'm afraid.

I remember writing a piece almost five years ago cautioning that Villa fans may be expecting too much, too soon from Randy Lerner et al. The gist was that we should hope for a European place in 06-07, but we should by no means begin to expect it so soon. The optimism amongst Villa fans was infectious. The winds of change were blowing in the right direction, but it seemed some people were getting carried away. Those days are long, long gone.

I still hope for the best, but the positives coming out of Villa Park are few and far between. I am expecting very little this year. The winds of change feel as though they're blowing in the opposite direction... and once again, some fans on the VT on-topic board are getting carried away (perhaps the same folks who were getting carried away five years ago?)

I'll be watching the matches when the season starts, probably wearing one of my retro Villa shirts. But I won't be excitedly rushing out of bed on match day the way a child does on Christmas morning or the way I was doing on match day a few years ago. The new-owner smell has faded badly. The hope has been tempered. The sky is not falling though.

It's been a strange ol' summer. It's been a strange ol' time since Martin O'Neill's departure.

The question "What is Aston Villa for?" deserves more thought than I'm able to give it right at this wee hour. Time for me to go to sleep (little man being erased).

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