Chris Nee5 Comments


Chris Nee5 Comments

As the wind whips along the eastern edge of Aston Park on a blustery Tuesday morning and whistles under the overhang of the Trinity Road Stand, it's easy to imagine Villa Park as an abandoned stadium. It could be the kind of building necro-groundhoppers visit and photograph, the cloudy grey backdrop offset by the moody green of weeds growing through the terrace steps and punctuated by the peeling paint of claret crush barriers.

The district of Aston isn't exactly a thriving city centre area but the surroundings of Aston Villa's home, like the stadium itself, come back to life for a few hours every other Saturday afternoon. The colour returns. The floodlights invigorate the skyline and tens of thousands of football supporters plod through their routines and rituals.

The number of supporters willing to endure the godforsaken void of a Villa match is finally beginning to decline. In amongst all the ills that have befallen football in the modern era, that fact barely warrants a mention. Clubs lower down the professional ranks are close to going out of business, others yet nearer the base of the pyramid need to check with the bank manager before switching on the lights.

Aston Villa, albeit temporarily, is a Premier League club. Their problems are unlikely to be fatal and the wounds of their impending relegation to the Football League Championship won't be mortal ones, but when big clubs approach relegation there tends to be a vocal group of supporters who talk about how the various culprits of the descent have "killed" the club.

At Villa, talk of the tomb is premature, and yet there is a reason the club has long since outstripped the disrepair of its environs and accelerated towards desperation and decay.

The ghoulish matchday plodders, there out of a sense of duty or because of enjoyment derived from outwith the football match itself, are in mourning not for the club but for the sense of hope that's supposed to be a part of every supporter's experience of the game. Even where the promise of success is out of reach, the facade of its existence is the very root of what it means to support.

Despite the unedifying soap opera of the Premier League's upper echelons no football club has a divine right to be successful and no supporter has licence to demand success from their team. Football's corporate revolution has changed the game but it's still a sport; there has to be a losing side. In the English game and in almost all the other major leagues around the world there must also be relegated teams.

Villa's five-year slide towards relegation is on the conscience of the club's owner, Randy Lerner, who took over from Doug Ellis and the minor shareholders in the summer of 2006. A decade of mismanagement began with a gradual improvement on the pitch under manager Martin O'Neill but the rot had already set in by the time of O'Neill's acrimonious departure in August 2010.

O'Neill's consecutive sixth-placed finishes had been built on a reported wage-to-turnover figure that reached 85%. The team's failure to translate opportunities into a place in the UEFA Champions League was not the result of the players in the first team being incapable of meeting such a challenge. Six years on, what's too often overlooked is the gang of expensive acquisitions that were never really used.

O'Neill's was a Villa that demanded high-octane, blood and thunder performances from an alarmingly small number of core players. The wasted money wasn't spent on Ashley Young or James Milner. It was spent on the players who barely had a chance to prove just how fundamentally they weren't worth a sliver of their cost.

The decisions and deficiencies that came to define the failure of Villa to break the glass ceiling under O'Neill are multifarious, but no debate will pass without mention of Moscow. In February 2009 he took a 1-1 scoreline into the second leg of a UEFA Cup tie against CSKA. In the aftermath of the 2-0 defeat at the Luzhniki Stadium, the Irishman had to defend his selection of a team that could barely be termed a second string.

O'Neill eventually laid on a dinner for Villa's travelling fans by way of recompense, but by then his team's efforts to finish in the Premier League's top four had collapsed. Villa infamously threw away a 2-0 lead against Stoke City the following Sunday and then embarked upon a four-game losing streak before dropping points in two consecutive home draws. They haven't looked forwards since.

As the players awaited the tardy arrival of Gérard Houllier as O'Neill's replacement, a few truths were beginning to reveal themselves at Villa Park. The squad was top-heavy and riddled with deadwood. The emergence of newly monied Manchester City had made the idea of cost-effectively qualifying for the Champions League a pipe dream. Worst of all, the wage bill had catastrophic potential.

By the time Houllier finally took charge after working his notice at the Fédération Française de Football it was clear that Villa were vulnerable. Houllier escaped the worst of the cost-cutting but his team flirted with relegation; it's telling that a number of Villa supporters now look back on Houllier's partial season in the dugout and wonder what might have been.

That Villa's wage bill needed to be brought under control has never really been the subject of any serious debate, but what followed Houllier's tenure stripped the club bare and left only a husk. The appointment of Alex McLeish after pursuing Roberto Martinez and Steve McClaren betrayed Lerner's lack of a plan, and, despite being backed enough to secure a signing who still has his spurs dug in at Bodymoor Heath, McLeish has since made it clear that his remit had as much to do with finance as football.

Paul Lambert lasted much longer as Villa's manager but did so against a tidal wave of incompetence and vicious budget cuts. Lambert departed Villa in February 2015 a greyer and gaunter man than he'd been in the summer of 2012. His inability to arrest Villa's slide renders him partially responsible but, like McLeish, Lambert's job wasn't to win football matches. It was to slash the wage bill while attempting to draw them.

Lerner's fevered backtracking in the name of sustainability has had the opposite effect because he was unaware of, or unwilling to recognise, a basic truth: no club can pedal backwards and expect to stand still. Even as the absurdity of Premier League money has exploded like never before, the unwitting Aston Villa Corinthians have attempted to battle on manfully in a rich man's game.

Lerner and his various associates had more than five years to put right what went wrong between 2008 and 2010 and they haven't come close to doing so. At some point before May they will experience relegation and the anger of the majority of supporters is not inspired by the fact of relegation itself, but by the belief that it's a consequence of years of neglect - buried within that unjustifiable neglect is the absence of hope and the tiny piece of the club that has died.

Villa's absentee American owner announced his intention to sell the club in May 2014. He churned through a succession of chief executives and, now, a chairman and sporting director to boot. From General Charles Krulak in the early days to new chairman Steve Hollis in 2016, Lerner's closest allies have varied in role and resourcefulness but they can all be accused of being embodiments of the Peter Principle.

Lerner himself has been guilty of allowing Aston Villa to rot. Given the resources, attendances and potential at the club, that's difficult to excuse. The former Cleveland Browns owner has overseen a downward spiral that's continued for several years.

The cruel final twist, the salt in the wound, is that Villa should have been in a position in the summer of 2015 to halt their decline and consolidate. Lambert's bargain basement shopping had turned up a gem, the Belgian striker Christian Benteke, who extended his initial contract and included in the second a £32.5m release clause. Liverpool paid up and Fabian Delph's sale to Manchester City bolstered Villa's summer spending power.

The transfer window was mismanaged and much was made in the months that followed about Villa's transfer committee, but the cataclysmic error, the last missed opportunity to right the ship, was the rushed appointment of Lambert's replacement. Villa's decision makers allowed Tim Sherwood to masquerade as a football manager deep into the 2015/16 season. In October he was sacked; they were already finished.

The inaction of this season is a mere symptom of Aston Villa's longer term abandonment by their self-appointed custodian. Sherwood's baffling longevity as manager was followed by results that left Villa stranded at the bottom of the league. No player was signed in the January transfer window, a development that might seem understandable given the futility of Villa's plight, but that was, in fact, another insult. The new manager, Rémi Garde, hadn't given up. A club that now had an owner, a chairman and a CEO was unable to feign competence for long enough to support him.

Garde's appointment was the single attempt made by Villa to turn around a season that's had relegation written all over it since its very earliest days. It was a roll of the dice, just like the one that dragged the team over the line in 2014/15. It was another final act of desperation and this time - despite the likelihood that Garde will be remembered as the right man hired too late - it didn't work.

Like a city in need of regeneration, Aston Villa Football Club is in a cycle of disrepair. It's been abandoned by its owner, a second-generation billionaire who's thrown under-qualified officials into a mission most miracle workers would have described as "a challenge" before walking away. Because of the depth of Villa's malaise the relegation of a Premier League ever-present is barely met by a collective shrug.

The club is now in a perpetual state of Tuesday morning in Aston. The shutters are down, the fast food wrappers flutter violently in malevolent gusts and the streets are deserted. Either side of the locked gates of the car park a lion sits proudly, one paw raised, with the beautiful Holte End mosaic in the background.

That mosaic, once a restorative gesture by a kindly benefactor, has become a monument to the man Lerner never became. It's a masterpiece of broken promises and it adorns a derelict football club whose fate has finally caught up.

Chris Nee is an IBWM content editor and is the host of the Aston Villa Review podcast. You can read more from him on his blog and follow him on Twitter: @ChrisMNee