This season, of all seasons, it has been vital that clubs do not get relegated from the Premier League. At the start of next season, the league’s recordbreaking new TV deal begins and clubs’ revenues are set to rocket as a result. Most clubs have therefore put strategies in place, playing and otherwise, to ensure that they don’t fall through club football’s most brutal trapdoor.
Yet one club seems to have got its strategy completely wrong, having hurtled through that relegation trapdoor some considerable time ago. Aston Villa is not quite the worst ever Premier League team, but the club has performed abjectly following a season of managerial sackings, player problems, director resignations and ongoing issues linked to the club’s owner.
In this most important of seasons Aston Villa has imploded – and the club now faces a postmortem of epic proportions which is likely to be a long, complex and fractious affair. Already, the ramifications of relegation are confronting Villa – the club has announced that 500 jobs will be lost as the result of relegation.
The Aston Villa story though was supposed to have been so different, yet its ultimate outcome reveals a great deal about how not to run a football club in the 21st century.
A chequered history
In 2006, an American investor and businessman, Randy Lerner, acquired a controlling ownership stake in Villa.
As such investors do when they buy into football, Lerner made all the right noises about the Birmingham-based club. Yes, he was a long-time fan of Villa, he wanted to take the club forward, it was a sleeping giant, and so forth.
But North American sports investors generally do not buy into Premier League football clubs for the reason of love alone. Owners are often attracted by the spiralling value of TV contracts, global brand development opportunities and the unswerving loyalty of the club’s die-hard fans (some might call them customers).
The business of football
But making money in football is severely restricted by the potential costs that clubs can incur. Over the past two decades, players’ transfer fees and salaries have increased dramatically.
For clubs seeking high level and regular success, this means buying the best talent and paying a lot for it. Alternatively, a club can develop its own talent, but this too takes time and, indeed, money.
Villa seems to have been stuck in the middle of the two, keeping a tight hold on player acquisition costs without ever really getting to grips with succession planning and internal player development.
The club is now on its seventh manager since Lerner arrived, and this could become eighth if another is appointed during the coming months.
When Villa’s teams have failed, the manager has suffered the consequences. The club has often made promises to its managers, particularly with regard to signing players, on which it has then reneged.
What an organisation says and what an organisation does have to be consistent. If they are not, dissonance arises and managers become demotivated, players will be less loyal and fans become frustrated.
Villa’s relationship with its managers appears to be symptomatic of more general dissonance across the club, which is most aptly demonstrated by two of Villa’s players, one past and one present. Last summer, Fabian Delph announced first that he wanted to leave the club – and then that he wanted to stay. But he left anyway and joined Manchester City. More recently, Gabriel Agbonlahor has become the club’s pantomime villain: overweight, underperforming and beset by off-field problems.
Yet Agbonlahor is not the cause of Villa’s problems, he is merely a reflection of them. In a well-led, effectively managed, performance-oriented organisation, one would normally expect players to be committed to a club’s goals and be appropriately motivated to achieve them. Agbonlahor should epitomise Aston Villa: a local boy, he was born in Birmingham and is effectively a one-club professional.
Instead, he appears to have become wayward and has incurred the wrath of fans at a time when the club should have been managing him better.
The player’s behaviour starkly reflects how toxic the club’s culture has become. This toxicity though is not just evident on the field, even Villa’s boardroom is in uproar.
Following moves earlier this year to internally reorganise the club by recruiting the likes of former Bank of England governor Mervyn King onto its board, this too has backfired. King and another director recently quit following a disagreement with Lerner.
Lerner’s insistence on imposing decisions from the top while remaining resident in the US has perpetuated a dysfunctional culture of centralised control, hierarchical management and poor communication. This has slowed Villa down at a time when quick decisions were needed. When leadership was required, Lerner was frequently elsewhere.
This situation hasn’t been helped either by Lerner’s desire to offload the club by selling it to new buyers – asset disposal inevitably causes disruption, often resulting in an organisation losing focus and beginning to drift.
Like any investor, it seems as though Lerner probably wants the money back that he has spent on Villa. Unfortunately for him, unless there is an overseas investor out there, with deep pockets or a limited knowledge of football, this is unlikely to happen any time soon.