Christian Purslow has always been something of an enigma at Aston Villa. Love him? Hate him? Respect him? Averse to him? Opinions vary; god knows my own opinion has varied plenty over the last five years.
Now, he’s gone, and you find that it’s already a little easier to assess his place in the most recent chapter of Villa’s history in immediate hindsight.
He arrived in 2018 at a pivotal moment, at the start of the 2018-19 season after Villa had lost to Fulham in the play-off final and been saved from an unthinkable future (or lack thereof) by Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens taking over the reins from Dr. Tony Xia.
Whatever you think of Purslow, it would be churlish and erroneous to deny that his commercial and business nous helped build the club back up from 2018-22, from fallen giant to Premier League staple again.
He’s undoubtedly a strong, savvy CEO whose son-of-a-bitch tenacity has been to Villa’s benefit over the last five years.
He helped to overhaul our transfer business, dragging the club from the embarrassment of transfers being teased via emoji-laden Xia tweets to the valuable skill of conducting transfer business in high secrecy. These days, Villa do most of their market work out of sight, avoiding the glare of the spotlight of the media rumour mill, with deals being negotiated and concluded in near-total privacy. Gone are the days where our every transfer move was telegraphed to the public in advance. Generally speaking, we don’t get held to ransom by clubs anymore. We make solid, targeted, well-considered additions (the reactionary post-Grealish signing of Danny Ings and the Steven Gerrard mates-rates move for Philippe Coutinho aside).
Purslow will be missed by Villa in Premier League meetings. He stood up to the bullies in there, the Super Leaguers, those who had no respect for the pyramid or the national team. Purslow and Brighton’s Paul Barber have been two of the voices of reason and balance in the PL room.— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) June 12, 2023
Not only did he help steer the club back on track, but his focus on Villa’s future cannot be overlooked. Since 2018 (and yes, it can’t be ignored that plenty of groundwork had been laid before then, even dating back to the Randy Lerner days), Villa’s academy infrastructure has never been in better health. Bodymoor Heath is now an absolutely state-of-the-art institution, an inner-city Birmingham academy is on the way to help maximize the potential of the city and its surroundings and give back to the community, and a sensible and considered loan program is in place and reaping big reward with shining examples like Cameron Archer, Aaron Ramsey, and Tim Iroegbunam. The club will continue to benefit from it all.
That’s some of the good, and credit should be given where credit is due for the role he played.
But, naturally, there has been bad to counterbalance the scales.
Purslow’s footballing decisions could sometimes leave a lot to be desired. In the most glaring case, that’s an understatement.
We have to talk a little more about Gerrard. That whole chapter was too big a gamble and too heavily affected by personal relationships. Purslow staked his reputation on that move, and it has, whether directly or indirectly, led to his departure more than 18 months later. The Gerrard PR move not only backfired on the pitch but, in several ways, threatened all the work that had been done in the previous years. As Gerrard’s rein at Villa unravelled, so did Purslow’s influence.
Meanwhile, the irony is that in setting us up well for the present and the future, Purslow helped get the club to a point where they didn’t need him anymore. Our trajectory as a club hasn’t been this good for at least 15 years. Purslow has certainly played his part, but it’s notable that our step to becoming a top-eight side again for the first time since 2010 was taken without his involvement on the football side.
Appointing Unai Emery was the best thing this club have done in recent memory. The fact that NSWE did it themselves, cutting out Purslow as a middleman, put the writing on the wall for him. Now, Villa look ahead to a new hierarchical structure, one where head of recruitment Rob Mackenzie will work alongside the Spanish arrivals and Johan Lange, and the commercial side will be run by Chris Heck, the new president of business operations. There is no longer any real need for Purslow. Given all we know about him, you can perhaps understand why he was reluctant to stay on in the reduced role that was reportedly offered to him.
I always had mixed feelings about him, personally, appreciating his business acumen while finding him a little… unsettling? Having a CEO front and centre of press releases, in-house club videos, media appearances, and public transfer dealings (think of the purely PR-fuelled way he announced Coutinho’s permanent signing at last season’s awards dinner) has never sat too well with me, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.
Ultimately, you can tell Villa have been on a good path in recent times because Purslow hadn’t been seen or heard in ages — firstly because his PR spin wasn’t needed because things weren’t going badly anymore, and latterly because the club were moving on from him.
But, in evaluating his time at Villa and consigning it to the history books, it can’t be forgotten that he was given one key goal by NSWE in 2018: help the new owners take Villa back to Europe within five years. Despite a couple of missteps and through all the good and bad, he leaves having achieved that target bang on time, even though many of us never truly thought it possible.
I’m not particularly sad to see him go, and Villa’s current status does not require him — as a ruthless businessman himself, he will appreciate that time comes for everyone. But he will leave considering it a job well done. Like him or not, he should.