Heading into last season’s Championship play-off final, we thought Aston Villa’s immediate promotion-winning window might be closing — the club’s spending in the 2016/17 season, Tony Xia’s first as Villa’s owner, was catching up to them, with cuts needed this season to fulfill Profitability & Sustainability (a/k/a Financial Fair Play) obligations if promotion wasn’t won.
Villa did miss out on promotion and, at least until we found out there were much bigger problems than FFP at Villa Park, we focused on the pending fallout. The Claret and Blues would need to do business over the summer to decrease expenses, or increase income, by somewhere in the ballpark of in the ballpark of £40 million or £50 million. Some of this would come naturally, as several high-earning players left Villa this summer, but we expected that Steve Bruce would have to sell some of his best players. Jack Grealish was the most likely out the door, but a package of guys like Albert Adomah, James Chester, Conor Hourihane and Jonathan Kodjia perhaps could have achieved compliance instead.
Of course, as we learned, Xia had no money to run the club and sold to new ownership, who … have spent the first few months of their tenure acting like FFP doesn’t exist. They turned down significant bids from Spurs for Grealish that would’ve helped solved the concern, then brought a handful of players in before the close of the window. If reports that Villa really are paying Yannick Bolasie £70,000 per week are true, it’s clear that the “spend our way to the Premier League” mantra is alive and well at Villa Park.
It seems pretty likely that Villa have ballooned that FFP gap back north of £40 million with their late-summer dealings, which is a development I can’t imagine the English Football League being particularly pleased with. The league look likely to come down hard on Villa’s cross-town rivals, Birmingham City, as the Blues may be subject to a 12- or 15-point penalty this season due to FFP breaches last year. They also faced a transfer embargo at one point this summer, another option available to the EFL to punish those who commit FFP transgressions.
It’s impossible to say what fate will await Villa next season if they’re in the EFL. While it’s wholly possible that Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens have already had a constructive chat with the league and feel confident the club will avoid significant penalty, and it’s also conceptually possible that the league could hand down punishment this year when they review Villa’s accounts in March, the most likely outcome from the outside looking in seems to be some level of punishment for the Claret and Blues in the 2019/20 season.
Where last season only seemed like the close of a window, this season might literally be one. If Villa are hit with a points deduction by the EFL next season, it makes promotion incredibly unlikely — even a 12-point hit would mean Villa would probably need to play automatic promotion-calibre football to even make the play-off (then win that lottery). You’d likely see Grealish leave, but could also see guys like Chester want to try their trade at a club that can feasibly win promotion.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though: our old friend, the Premier League, can lend us a helping hand. The PL hasn’t been particularly interested in enforcing punishment handed down by the EFL when it comes to FFP, and if the EFL doesn’t punish Villa this season, promotion could provide a lifeline to skirt punishment.
Wrapped up in all of this, though, is a feeling that Villa aren’t a particularly good football team right now. After starting the year with three wins on the bounce across all competitions, they’ve only won one of their last eight, a run that includes embarrassing losses to Burton Albion (a bottom-half League One side) and Sheffield United (lost 4-1). Perhaps more so than at any point in the club’s history, though, Villa cannot afford to be anything other than a good football team right now. Because of the punishment that could be coming down the pike, promotion this season is absolutely crucial to the club’s long-term future.
I think, and hope, that Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens recognize this. I’ve seen a lot of pessimism about how quickly the new guys would pull the trigger on sacking Steve Bruce, but as the season continues to move on and Villa remain a pedestrian side despite an easy early fixture list, the more likely I think it is that the new guys pounce and make a move. Could the move backfire? Absolutely. But Steve Bruce talks about being “there or thereabouts” a lot, I feel, and quite frankly, “thereabouts” isn’t good enough. “Thereabouts” is another failed campaign, and worse, a failed 2019–20 campaign as well. “Thereabouts” means losing the best player the club’s academy has produced in decades, and it might mean losing your captain, too. “Thereabouts” means setting Aston Villa back in a way it might take several years to recover from.
There’s no time for “thereabouts.” This week, with three matches left before the international break, Steve Bruce start to starts making progress toward getting the club “there”. If he can’t, he needs to be shown the door.