Ever since Anthony Taylor blew for the full-time whistle at Wembley nearly two weeks ago, the rumour mill in B6 has been in overdrive regarding the future of Aston Villa. Yesterday, however, has been the pick of a pretty sour bunch in terms of surprises. First, the club announced that Keith Wyness has been suspended as Chief Executive Officer and that Dr Tony would be taking over until further notice. This triggered a number of subsequent stories from the media and fans suggesting reasons for this decision. They ranged from an unpaid tax bill all the way to Wyness attempting to sell the club behind Xia’s back. If this wasn’t enough, today’s Times back page is reporting that minor owner of the New York Yankees, Peter B Freund, is preparing a bid to purchase the club. All this got me thinking of how far the club has, and hasn’t, come since Dr Tony came to town. To answer this question there are three main areas to examine that ultimately dictate how successful an owner and a club are; on the pitch, the atmosphere off it and the state of the club financially.
On The Pitch
There’s no better, or worse, place to start than by examining the state of the team that participated in Villa’s final game in the Premier League to date. For those who have managed to forget, it was a 4-0 defeat away at Arsenal. The side was captained by Joleon Lescott but he only lasted 65 minutes before being replaced by the equally adept Micah Richards. It would, however, be unfair to tar that whole team with the same brush. The three-man midfield of Idrissa Gueye, Ashley Westwood and Carlos Sanchez have all gone on to become regular first team players in the top divisions of England and Italy respectively. Not to be outdone, Scott Sinclair headed north of the border to Celtic and has won no less than 6 trophies in his 2 seasons. The team was managed at the Emirates by caretake boss Eric Black. The 4-0 defeat was his seven, and final, game in charge where none of which ended in a victory. As the curtain came down on Villa’s final Premier League season to date they had mustered just 17 points while shipping 76 goals.
There was, therefore, a rebuilding job in front of Dr Tony when he arrived and the man he went to Rome in his Ford Mondeo (or so the song claim) to get to captain the ship was Roberto Di Matteo. The Italian was certainly well financed in the summer of 2016 and he was not shy in spending it. £15 million on Jonathan Kodjia and £12 million on Ross McCormack grabbed the headlines but there were notable transfer fees spent on seven other players. The Dr soon became impatient with a lack of return on his investment and in October brought in Steve Bruce. To his credit, Xia backed Bruce in the January window including the signing of a third eight-figure striker in the form of Scott Hogan. Despite this heavy spending there was little to show for it come May 2017 as Villa slumped to a below average 13th placed finish.
This seemed to only spur the Dr on to ensure that the 2017/18 season would see the end of Villa’s ‘Championship Tour’. The heavy spending of the previous spending forced Villa to tighten their belts though and the club only spent £2.5 million in the whole season. There was also the small matter of signing the greatest defender of the Premier League era – Chris Samba, obviously. Having had 3 transfer windows and spending as much money as he did, it would be reasonable to expect that the club has progressed leaps and bounds on the pitch. In truth, this isn’t necessarily the case. First, we must look at the positives. The spine this season of Johnstone, Chester and Terry, Hourihane and Grealish, with Snodgrass and Adomah behind Grabban is arguably the strongest spine the club has had for a while. This has been translated into points. Villa gained a very respectable 83 points and were the Championship’s third highest goal scorers. Ultimately, however, the team did fail in their goal of promotion. The football, of which the first half at Wembley was an example in point, has been widely criticised by sections of Villa fans as ugly, boring hoof ball. The transfer policy of the club under Dr Tony has been buying players that can get us out of this league due to their experience and who can then be replaced by a higher calibre of player when the FFP restrictions loosened in the Premier League. The result of this is that many of the signings under Xia have been of 30+ year old established players who ‘know the league’. They have demanded high wages and offer next to no sell on value for the club. This is, however, not entirely the Dr’s fault. He did not come from a football background and was not particularly well versed in the second tier of English football. Both of his appointments were widely applauded when they were made and neither manager can point to a lack of funds as to why they failed. With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that the Dr has placed his faith and has been let down. The ultimate question I am left with as to whether we have improved on the pitch is that I am unsure who would win a match between the 2015/16 team and the 2017/18 team. I would fancy our current front three up against Richards and Lescott but the 2015/16 would likely control the midfield and with Ayew upfront, they have a goal in them. This ambiguity is disappointing as with all the money Dr Tony has pumped into the club, he would have hoped for us to be in the Premier League come May.
Atmosphere Around The Club
If you cast your mind back to the end of the 2015/16 season it was one of the lowest points of the club’s history off the pitch as well as on it. Randy Lerner clearly wanted to sell the club and didn’t seem to care that we were rotting. This forced many fans to protest against those in charge of the club. The slogan, ‘Proud History, What Future?’ displayed on pieces on paper held aloft during Villa’s 4-0 home defeat to Chelsea really did sum up the mood of the Villa faithful. To his credit, when Dr Tony finally purchased the club he managed to inject a real sense of hope back into the club. When he stepped foot onto the hallowed turf at Villa Park for the first time he was given rapturous applause by the fans and there seemed a real closeness between the ownership and fans.
One of the biggest reasons for this closeness has been that Xia has been very open and honest on social media from day one. His interaction with the fans was something that was craved during the uncertain Lerner times and now finally we had someone that spoke and listened to fans. Yes some of his tweets have gained unwanted attention, but I for one am glad that we have an owner that genuinely cares about the club and the fans.
This has sparked a real togetherness between the fans and the players as well. This season has been littered with special moments where it really seemed that the fans and players were united as one unstoppable force steaming towards promotion. For those of us that were there, the last few minutes of the Sheffield United away game on a freezing Tuesday night will live long in the memory.
Out of all 3 of the categories, this is one in which Dr Tony is a clear winner. The club feels like a proper club again with everyone involved pulling towards a common goal. A club, that 2 seasons ago, many never thought would feel like this again. Let’s hope that isn’t lost.
This seems as good a place as any to confess that I am not an economics expert. I have tried, and failed, to assess the figures regarding FFP and even today that of tax payments to HMRC. Those more intellectually capable than myself, however, including a fantastic article written on this website by Alex Carson have made it pretty clear that we are financially struggling to say the least.
The effects of FFP were first felt at the start of this season where the club only spent £2.5 million because, well, we only had £2.5 million to spend within our FFP allowance. It appears that the Dr’s gamble that we would go up this season meant that we splashed a lot of cash and didn’t necessarily have any to fall back on if the worst happened. This has meant that John Terry will not be returning and it is unlikely that our loanee’s including Johnstone and Snodgrass will either. This was the type of gamble you sometimes have to make in business, but football is a unique business and can be a cruel mistress. It is yet unknown who will turn out for Villa come the first weekend of August but it will take some extremely shrewd deals if we are going to go one step further than we did this year.
No financial analysis of Aston Villa would be complete without mentioning the news that we failed to pay our tax. There are many rumours doing the rounds as to why this happened and I am totally unqualified to give a definitive reason as to why. The most concerning reason being proposed, however, is that the club simply has insufficient cash flow to pay the bill. This is not just worrying for the short-term running of the club but could lead to much more serious long-term effects. I think, personally, that it is unlikely that Xia has no money and that he is simply feeling the hard effects of China’s strict policy regarding foreign investment. The net effect is, however, if you can’t spend your money then it’s not much use. This, coupled with the rumours that the club has cashed in on future revenue from the sales of Amavi and Sanchez make for worrying reading.
Taking all this into consideration, along with another tough season in the Chamiponship, is it likely that Dr Tony is ready to sell up and walk away? More practically, is anyone going to be willing to take the club on in the financial state it’s in and at the price the Dr will be looking to sell at? As fans, we won’t know until the deal is complete but that doesn’t make this a less precarious time to be a Villan.
Having assessed these 3 criteria it seems that the Dr has won one, lost one and drawn one. In footballing terms, he’s gained 4 points from a possible 9. If he was the manager, and at this rate he still very may well be come August, there would be many fans calling for his head. It promises to be a long summer break for Villa fans full of rumours and gossip. Enjoy it, embrace it and be ready to cheer the Villa on come August. UTV.