Detailing decline at Aston Villa: Managerial madness, star sales, terrible transfers
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | March 30, 2016
What has brought Aston Villa to the brink of Premier League relegation? Well, broadly speaking, three things all connected by the poor judgement of those advising wantaway and often absentee owner Randy Lerner.
Star sales started early
His first four years at the West Midlands outfit were ones of investment and challenging for the Champions League under Martin O’Neill. That ambition was never realised, however, with Villa last level on points with the top four in April 2010, and so the purse-strings tightened.
Even amid the ascendancy and top six finishes, every Villans player had his price. Lerner authorised the sale of skipper Gareth Barry to Manchester City for £12m in the summer of 2009. Other big money departures would follow.
Barry was the first of eight high-profile names to leave with O’Neill, who resigned before the start of the 2010/11 campaign, telegraphing James Milner following suit to the Etihad.
And so the decline began. Villa are now seeking their sixth permanent managerial appointment since O’Neill, with the stability and relative success of his reign now a distant memory.
Successor Gerard Houllier’s health problems and the illness that ended the playing career of Villans captain Stiliyan Petrov were both unfortunate. That bad luck apart, all other issues that have led the club to Premier League oblivion have been entirely of their own making.
Giving Alex McLeish the reins after Houllier – when he had just got bitter Second City rivals Birmingham relegated – was a PR disaster for Lerner. More homegrown heroes were sold during the summer of 2011, with Villa cashing in on wide duo Ashley Young and Stewart Downing.
All the while they had been looking to recruit an effective engine room operator to replace Barry and partner Petrov, then later do likewise with the Bulgaria legend. Villa have been through midfielders like mice through Swiss cheese – only they haven’t liked the taste.
Jean Makoun, Karim El Ahmadi, Yacouba Sylla, Idrissa Gana Gueye and Jordan Veretout are all foreign acquisitions to have flopped in this area; while loan acquisitions Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jenas and Tom Cleverley have been equally uninspiring down recent years.
Fabian Delph, a successor to Petrov as skipper, and Ashley Westwood took time to make the step up to Premier League level after auspicious starts on their careers in the lower leagues. The former didn’t stick around as the Villans’ decline accelerated, despite Tim Sherwood steering them to an FA Cup final.
Loss of spine behind downward spiral
Paul Lambert, who followed the wholly unpopular McLeish, is charged with sleepwalking on duty in this regard, but Villa’s recruitment policy of sell anyone who performs and take a scattergun approach to bridging gaps created must shoulder a sizeable portion of blame.
With their spine of Ron Vlaar, released while injured; Delph, whose dramatic U-turn over Man City interest has led to him being vilified; and £32.5m striker Christian Benteke stripped away this past summer, the collapse at Villa Park is now almost complete. Was it inevitable? Perhaps.
Be it through attitude or injuries, the attack hasn’t been enhanced by the likes of Charles N’Zogbia, Libor Kozak, Brett Holman and Joe Cole. It’s a similar story in defence with a plethora of full backs, Philippe Senderos, Jores Okore, Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott.
Garde given nothing new to work with
Recruitment, on the whole then, has been poor, but at least it existed for Sherwood, Lambert, McLeish and Houllier. Remi Garde didn’t sign a single player during the sole transfer window of his tenure that ended by mutual consent at the end of March.
Broken promises, including the inability to get Ivory Coast striker Seydou Doumbia, who instead was loaned to relegation rivals Newcastle United, clearly left Garde feeling his commitment was simply left unmatched by his superiors. His departure by mutual consent was far from surprising.
Without further investment, something Lerner who has been trying to offloads the Villans for the best part of two years now without finding a buyer, nothing could be done other than to accept face.
Boardroom backing, knowledge lacking
Changes to the Villa board are taking place, but this is very much a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Relegation is certain, and will soon be confirmed mathematically.
Tom Fox, Lerner’s right-hand man, earlier left a project that as CEO he showed little to no nous of managing effectively. Former Villa manager Brian Little and ex-FA chairman David Bernstein’s arrivals in the West Midlands are welcome, yet come far too late.
Villa Park’s hierarchy had too few football people in it; and the rebuilding job after consistently selling stars, replacing them with players not up to the task and seeking a sixth new boss in less than as many years is massive.
A mass clear-out of Villans ranks may follow, although many of their under-performers are on long-term contracts. It remains to be seen whether relegation release clauses exist or are activated, with other clubs likely to take a very apathetic approach to buying from them unless there are bargains.
Within this awful mess are some small crumbs of comfort for beleaguered Villa supporters, however. Rudy Gestede is a proven Championship level striker, and if they can find a foil for him – someone to play off his knock-downs, because nobody from midfield appears able – that is a start.
Someone like Huddersfield Town hitman Nahki Wells would work well off Gestede. The Bermuda-born forward has followed up on huge potential he showed in the lower leagues with the Terriers’ West Yorkshire rivals Bradford City in this division this term.
Go two up top and best of British
Villa would be a step up for Wells, but he has shown a past proficiency playing alongside a big striker in Bantams cult hero James Hanson. Getting Wells together with Gestede is not much of a gamble compared to past punts from those responsible for recruitment at the West Midlands outfit.
Assuming the foreign, mainly French, midfielders make moves away from Villa Park this summer, then the way could finally be clear for academy product Gary Gardner to get his chance. He has performed well sitting deep during two spells on loan across the Midlands at Nottingham Forest in the Championship.
While they will face a fight to keep the services of star winger Scott Sinclair, other English disappointments like Westwood, Richards, Lescott, Jack Grealish and Gabriel Agbonlahor should remain to prove themselves.
At 9/1 with Coral to the claim the Championship crown next term, and 5/2 to be promoted back to the Premier League in 2016/17, there is still a long way to go before pride is restored to Aston Villa.