For the second straight year, Aston Villa head to Wembley to contest the play-off final. As it turns out, last year’s loss may have been the best thing that could’ve happened to the club — Tony Xia’s financial issues would have eventually reared their head, and Villa wouldn’t have the strong ownership they do now.
This year, though? I have that one Rent song stuck in my head, because there’s no day but Monday for Villa to secure promotion. It’s the best chance the club will have to set up for long-term success.
Villa already have a long-term manager
Twelve months ago, as Aston Villa made the trip to Wembley, Steve Bruce was in charge. No matter what you think of Bruce, or what you think of his tenure at B6, his title is “promotion specialist,” not “survival specialist” or “push-on-to-compete-for-the-European-spots specialist.” He was always a short-term appointment, meant to get the club back to the Premier League, where they’d inevitably part ways.
Dean Smith is different. If and when Villa win promotion under Smith, he’s going to stay, and the hope is that he’ll stay for a long time. His vision for the club looks years into the future, not months. His teams have a distinct style of play, and vitally, he’s interested in youth development, the key to moving the club forward.
Bournemouth have Eddie Howe. Burnley have Sean Dyche. Wolves have Nuno. These managers have had a significant contribution to the outsize success all of these clubs are experiencing. Smith can do the same for Villa if he gets them up.
We’re still in the honeymoon period with new ownership
I think Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens are in this for the long run, and I think they have the right people involved to make it work.
How many times, though, have we seen this story across football? New owners come in and promise grandeur. They think it’ll be easy to get [CLUB] into [LEAGUE]. Then after a year, it hasn’t happened. Two more go by, and still, the club hasn’t won its promotion. The owners start to lose interest, the club gets neglected, and all of the sudden, things are in a bad spot.
Even if you don’t think about it in that way — and to be clear, I don’t with Sawiris and Edens — the resources remain a consideration. If Villa win promotion Monday, they’ll enter the Premier League with fresh owners who haven’t sunk a fortune in just to get the club to the top flight. If Villa go up in a couple years, it’s probably after significant resource investment, which could lessen the owners’ desire to spend big once back in the top flight.
Financial Fair Play still looms large
If Villa lose Monday, they will have to pass the EFL’s Profit & Sustainability (a/k/a FFP) rules heading into next season. That may be a little tricky. While new ownership has come in, Villa’s FFP fate remains the same — the club faces a significant deficit, and if they aren’t able to pass FFP, they could face a transfer embargo and points deduction.
From lurking around, it does seem like Villa have their preferred solution in place — a sale of Villa Park to an NSWE holding company — but it’s also a loophole the EFL are likely to close this summer. Generally speaking, passing FFP only because you found a loophole isn’t a great spot to be in, and probably more importantly, selling the stadium for a short-term benefit, even if it is to a holding company owned by Sawiris and Edens, is sub-optimal.
The broader concern, though, is that FFP doesn’t simply go away through Villa finding a loophole. The club is still operating outside of its “means,” and there’s still a huge FFP hit from 2017/18 that remains on the books for the next calculation. There’s no guarantee that Villa could find a loophole to pass the FFP test in 2020, and if they don’t grab promotion next year, that could spell big and long-term trouble for the club.
The loanees in place are good fits
Last year, Villa went to Wembley with a squad full of loanees. We talked at length about how we wanted the club to go up, to give Villa the best chance of signing those guys permanently.
Fast forward 12 months, and it’s the same type of discussion — though perhaps a little more urgent. We all loved Robert Snodgrass, but he was never going to be a long-term option for the club in the Premier League. Villa would probably have signed him, got something out of him for a year or two, and then hawked him off to the Championship for good.
This year, Tyrone Mings and Anwar El Ghazi in particular are great long-term fits for the club, but both guys who may only stay if promotion is secured. It’s hard to see Mings playing Championship football for anyone next season, while El Ghazi has come along well in recent months to be a key player. If Chelsea are willing to sell Tammy Abraham — I doubt they are, given their transfer embargo — then this final becomes about a chance to grab him as well.
Villa have a squad that features loanees who not only fit the team, but fit and embrace the club. Missing out on the chance to keep them full-time would hurt.
Jack Grealish is here
I’ll admit, I’ve buried the lede a bit.
For everything we can talk about — the money, the manager, the rest of the team — there’s nothing more important than Villa’s captain. He was too good for this division 12 months ago, and now he’s really too good for this division.
Jack Grealish will not be playing for Aston Villa next season in the Championship. I mean, is it possible? Sure. But it also means Jack missing out on playing at the top level, and probably more importantly, it means he’s missing out on a chance to represent England at EURO 2020. It would also mean Villa would miss out on a lot of money that could help with that FFP thing we just mentioned.
If Villa win promotion, though, they head to the Premier League in the best possible spot — with their key player already in tow. In this world, there’s no need for Villa to blow big money on an unknown quantity to be the centerpiece of the team. You know Jack, you know how good he is, and his value to you is huge.
If Villa are ever going to kick on and challenge the top half of the Premier League again, well, having Jack still in the team seems like the best way to do it.