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Don't see this posted elsewhere, but if I'm duplicating please remove, mods.

Aston Villa's outlook is bleak, whichever way you look at it

An unclear transfer strategy and expensive pay-offs have cost the club financially and led to poor results and crowds.

It was May 2010 and Randy Lerner was holding court in the Holte pub, a landmark building that Aston Villa's benevolent owner had spent £4m restoring in an early demonstration of his generosity. Villa had finished sixth for a third successive season and there was a feeling that, with Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City emerging as major players, the Midlands club had hit a glass ceiling. Lerner, however, disagreed. "I'm not so sure the game's over yet in terms of us catching up or doing better," he said.

That was the last time Lerner gave a press conference at Villa. His words have a hollow ring to them now. These days Villa are closer to the Championship than the Champions League. They flirted with relegation in 2010-11, under Gérard Houllier, finished only two points above the bottom three last year, during Alex McLeish's miserable tenure, and face a major battle to retain their Premier League status in Paul Lambert's first season in charge, which started full of optimism but has turned into little short of a disaster.

Villa, who make the short trip to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, are third bottom in the Premier League and, to put it bluntly, playing relegation football. Only Queens Park Rangers have scored so few goals (17) and only Reading have conceded as many (42). Perhaps most damningly of all, Villa have picked up only 30 points from their past 38 games, which is one point fewer than QPR, who went 16 games without winning at the start of this season, and 13 points fewer than any other Premier League club.

The Capital One Cup, which promised to deliver some much-needed good news when Villa were drawn to face League Two Bradford City in the semi-final, threatens to bring further ignominy if Lambert's players are unable to overturn the humiliating 3-1 defeat they suffered at Valley Parade in the first leg. The second leg takes place at Villa Park on Tuesday and is followed by an awkward fourth-round FA Cup tie at Millwall on Friday night and a crucial Premier League home game against fellow strugglers Newcastle four days later. It looks like being a season-defining period, especially with the transfer window open and Villa in dire need of new players to inject fresh life into a callow and struggling team.

All clubs go through peaks and troughs but Villa's sharp decline over the past few years feels more alarming because of the huge amount of money Lerner has pumped in during his six-year reign to underwrite considerable spending on transfer fees and wages in particular. According to the last set of accounts for Reform Acquisitions Limited (RAL), Lerner's holding company which owns Villa and a number of related companies, the overall wage bill in the 2010-11 season climbed to £83m, which was £25m more than Everton's corporate equivalent. The club's net transfer spend over the last five years is the fourth-highest in the Premier League, behind only Manchester City, Chelsea and Stoke. Yet despite those figures, Villa find themselves in the slipstream of clubs such as Albion, Swansea and Norwich, who have performed far better over the past 18 months even though they are operating at a completely different financial level.

Villa finished 16th last year, which was also their final position when David O'Leary was in charge in 2005-06, the season before Lerner's takeover and the appointment of Martin O'Neill as manager. The average attendance in 2005-06 was 34,111 compared to 34,084 now. Villa, in other words, are back to square one on the pitch and in the stands, which must be hard for Lerner to accept when he reflects on the £200m he has invested and thinks back to the days when the club were chasing a place in the Champions League with plans to increase capacity at Villa Park to 50,000.

Lerner is rarely seen at Villa these days – since his divorce much of his time is spent in the States, where he watches most of the games on live television feeds – although he has previously insisted that his absence on match days should not be interpreted as evidence that he has lost interest and intends to sell. He knows and respects Villa's history and his affection for the club stretches beyond the rampant lion, taken from the club crest, that is tattooed on his right ankle. The bottom line, though, is that for all Lerner's good intentions, he has made some bad decisions at Villa and paid a heavy price for them.

It was a mistake to allow Steve Stride, the club's operations director and a highly respected football administrator who had worked for Villa for 35 years, to leave less than 12 months after the takeover was completed. Arguably Lerner's biggest error of judgment, though, has been to overlook the contribution that a sporting or technical director could have made throughout his reign, especially as the American had no experience of running an English football club.

Lerner had hoped that his investment would ultimately lead to qualification for the Champions League and the club came close. Some big signings worked out – the club received £25m more for Stewart Downing, Ashley Young and James Milner than they had paid – but other expensive acquisitions, including Curtis Davies, Marlon Harewood, Steve Sidwell, Nicky Shorey and Habib Beye, did not.

At the end of the 2009-10 season, Villa finished runners-up to Manchester United in the Carling Cup and were in the hunt for fourth place until the final two games, only to miss out to Tottenham. Factors other than football may have been involved but at that point the holding company's wage bill stood at £80m, which accounted for 88% of its turnover.

Despite three consecutive sixth-place finishes in the league, Martin O'Neill walked out five days before the start of the 2010-11 season, and subsequently claimed constructive dismissal. Villa agreed a seven-figure settlement with O'Neill after a tribunal, which is one of many paymentsmade in relation to managers in the past few years. In June 2011 Villa settled with Houllier and his assistant, Gary McAllister, after the Frenchman fell ill and left his post nine months after he was appointed. Later that summer Villa paid Birmingham City compensation for McLeish. The following May, McLeish was sacked less than 12 months into his three-year contract. Villa reached a settlement with the Scot and his assistant, Peter Grant. Last month Villa agreed to pay Norwich compensation for Lambert. The total cost of those departures and arrivals is believed to be in excess of £15m.

That mess has been made worse by the fact that the absence of a sporting director means the squad is overhauled each time a new appointment is made because player recruitment strategy is dictated by the manager at the time. Villa, as a consequence, have got themselves into a situation where players are signed for significant fees and given lucrative contracts, only for the same players to be quickly discarded or dropped – Jean Makoun, Alan Hutton, Shay Given, Stephen Warnock and Darren Bent, signed for a club-record £24m by Houllier, spring to mind – when the manager changes. It is an expensive way to run a football club.

For an example of how the sporting director role can work well for a Premier League club, Villa need look no further than Saturday's opponents, who, despite having had three managers in as many years, have made few changes to a playing squad that is balanced and was assembled at a fraction of the cost. Albion made a £9m profit in their last set of accounts, which cover the 2010-11 season. Villa's holding company lost a record £54m that season and the club finished only a point above Albion. Last year Albion came 10th, six places above Villa. In the summer Villa spent more than £20m and Albion's transfer budget was the lowest in the Premier League. Albion are currently seventh and Villa are 18th.

Lambert was supposed to be the manager to get things back on track. After the unfathomable decision to appoint McLeish, who had just suffered relegation from the Premier League for a second time with Birmingham, Lambert felt like a sensible choice.

He had enjoyed considerable success at Norwich, where he won back-to-back promotions before finishing 12th in the Premier League last season, and his reputation as a young, ambitious and dynamic manager made him a popular choice with supporters, who could not wait to see the back of McLeish.

Although Villa needed to bring down the wage bill, which accounted for 90% of RAL's turnover in 2010-11, Lambert made it clear that it was his choice to promote youth and sign players from lower leagues and overseas in favour of Premier League experience. It seemed like a gamble at the time, although Lambert insisted otherwise when it was pointed out to him at the end of August, on deadline day, that Villa could end up where some of the signings had come from, namely in the Football League. "I had exactly the same question last year and the Norwich lads surpassed everything," Lambert said.

Different club, different circumstances. Norwich were buoyant, full of confidence after sailing through League One and the Championship. Villa, in contrast, had spent large periods of the previous two seasons struggling. Some of the senior players had underperformed and there were doubts as to whether some of the academy graduates were good enough, which made it even more of a risk to sign seven players who had only 45 minutes of Premier League football between them. To compound things, Lambert marginalised several of the bigger names, leaving Villa painfully short of experience.

The results have been hugely disappointing and, although Lambert's position is not under immediate threat, it is hard to be positive about Villa's chances of pulling clear with the current squad. Lambert clearly wants to play a more expansive, free-flowing style of football than McLeish, who unquestionably had to be sacked, but consider these Opta statistics: under McLeish, Villa, on average, scored more goals, conceded fewer goals, picked up more points, registered more shots, made more crosses and won more tackles. McLeish's season, lest it be forgotten, went down as one of the bleakest on record at Villa.

The worry for Villa is that the clubs below them, Queens Park Rangers and Reading, who seemed to be cut adrift a few weeks ago, are getting their acts together, picking up points and strengthening in the transfer window.

With the new TV deal kicking in next season, guaranteeing every Premier League club a minimum of £60m, it would be a particularly bad year for Villa to go down, although whether that influences Lerner's approach to the transfer window remains to be seen. All we can say for now is that the talk of Champions League football in the Holte pub seems a hell of a long time ago.


Edited by mjmooney
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