The expected ramifications commonly associated with the influx of money to a football club, invariably from abroad, have been shaped largely by the most successful cases. Manchester City, and Chelsea prior, are the standout examples in English football of financially-bred fruition and with Paris-Saint-Germain set to dominate French football for the foreseeable future with their Qatari funds, Real Madrid and Barcelona in a Liga of their own in terms of turnover, television benefits and of course, quality football, the correlation between financial and footballing prowess is now not only an evident trend, but an entirely dominant one.
Perhaps the only true commonality between all of these clubs of apparent stature is that they have become more than just football clubs, but brands as well. For some, including Madrid and Barcelona, Manchester United and certainly the German juggernaut, Bayern Munich, the global image and exportability has come over years of shrewd popularisation of the football played and undoubtedly, an element of good fortune. These traditional clubs, so to speak, are now being challenged by the nouveau riche, PSG probably the most potent of teams to find (or at least be on the brink of) success as a result of an inexhaustible money source.
Admittedly, there is something uncomfortable about the description of football clubs as “brands”, particularly given the perpetual lamenting of the sport’s ineluctable commercialisation. While it is deemed by many as an unsavoury progression in the modern game, in many respects “football is business rather than sport,” in the words of Zdneck Zeman just last year. The authorities appear to have had enough, too, of these monopolising brands and this summer will see the introduction of Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, seeking to penalise any club that cannot justify its expenditure on athletic talent with a turnover to offset it.
While the impact of the FFP introduction is yet to be seen, there are already indications that it will not have the desired effect for those sides that are barely capable of achieving self-sufficiency, let alone creating an image of eminence. The question has been raised as to whether FIFA will punish any of the top sides accordingly if they do indeed break their new rules. Champions League football is essential for Europe’s elite and the cornerstone of most clubs’ ambitions every season. The suggestion is that sanctions by FIFA for non-compliance with FFP would include automatic disqualification from the tournament, as has already happened to Malaga for next season after failure to pay bills. However, the likelihood of the authorities banning a Real Madrid, a Manchester City or a Paris-Saint-Germain from future competitions, in regard of their important branding and ability to promote and sell tickets, television rights and the competitions themselves, is unlikely.
Even more significant, though, is the fact that these huge clubs use their brand power to ensure that no matter how much they spend, turnover will always be greater, essentially rendering them immune to sanctions in any case. In reality, Financial Fair Play will serve only to punish those clubs lacking in self-sufficiency, when in fact these were the clubs it was supposed to help become more competitive.
Aston Villa: A Brand Forced Into Remission
It would be decidedly unnatural for a supporter of any top flight club to have banished or entirely avoided the consideration of a big-money takeover of their club. The peculiar thing for Aston Villa fans, who probably ponder the idea regularly given their current plight, is that it’s already happened – supposedly.
Brand generation, or perhaps regeneration, given Villa’s size and history, was underway at Villa Park following Randy Lerner’s arrival as the new owner of the club in 2006. The club crest, along with the team management, was adapted to fit the sense of a new start that arrived with the American. The simplest of brand initiatives though a logo may be, it was an indictment of the changes that the club was to undergo under this new management. Lerner, having paid in the region of £62.6 million for Villa, wanted to elevate them once again to a former greatness, with Champions League football the natural ambition.
The rest is history, as one might say in the knowledge that readers are fully aware of Martin O’Neill’s deceptive and ultimately detrimental advancements with a young, English-based, counter-attacking outfit that finished sixth place in the Premier League for three consecutive seasons. The price of Lerner’s financial trust in the Northern Irishman led to wild over-spending on players who were for the most part entirely incapable of giving Aston Villa long-term service, let alone long-term success. Champions League football was missed out on, albeit narrowly, and Lerner had either run out of money, or run out of interest – a question that has still not been adequately answered even today.
The new brand failed after its three-year launch. Three managers later and Villa are in the worst Premier League position they have been since the new format’s inception in 1991. Relegation is on the cards for a team made up of youth and inexperience, with a smattering of older players who have shunned responsibility and a faint sprinkling of quality that will soon be out the door.
Defeat against Manchester City on Monday night was something of an inevitable representation of the Villans’ campaign, with a growth in confidence and a genuine opportunity destroyed by moments of lacking concentration or simply, a shortage of ability.
The truth is that Aston Villa are now playing in a period of irrelevance, both in terms of their own history and that of the English top flight. They are not competing, as they were a few years ago, and they are barely surviving either. But is there any option given that on Saturday, the club revealed huge losses of around £17.7 million for the year ending May 31, 2012, which was in fact a huge reduction from the £53.9 million losses the year before. The club cited reasons such as a poor performance the year before, fewer live TV matches and lower crowd attendances. The obvious nature of these suggestions hardly adds enough comedy to make the reading bearable for Villa supporters but at least it gives cold, hard financial reasoning to the desperate weakness of Paul Lambert’s squad and the unacceptable standard of the performances this campaign. Or does it?
Surely that isn’t good enough – not for a club like Aston Villa. One of the traditional clubs in English football, with an enviable support base, they are now undoubtedly one of the examples of an unsuccessful takeover story and something must change in the near future.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow – the realisation that money is everything in football – but one that must be digested quickly at Villa Park. The few good players will leave, there will be no draw for others to join, and the club will fall hard. This will happen, but it can be rectified, with a new direction.
There is little question that Randy Lerner cares greatly about the club but his Aston Villa brand has failed because of poor mismanagement so early on. Football is a business as fickle as the fans who frequent its stadiums and it is time for Lerner to remove the emotion from it, and sell the club.
The issue of who exactly would want to buy it is a fundamental one, of course, but perhaps not as pertinent as the question as to how the Villa support would feel about the club being taken over once again, with potentially unpredictable results, and the possibility of a total makeover of this great, old club.