Aston Villa’s decline is sad but no surprise

Rob Kinnard

Six seasons ago, Aston Villa qualified for the Europa League for the second year running after back-to-back sixth placed finishes in the Premier League. Seven managers and a relegation later, and the Villains are scrapping it out in the lower echelons of the Championship. A remarkable demise of one of England’s biggest clubs, but where has it all gone wrong for the one-time European Cup winners?

Ask anyone in the Holte End, and you’ll get an almost universal answer: Randy Lerner.

Of course, it takes more than a frugal owner looking to sell up to set a club on such a destructive downward spiral, but it certainly didn’t help. During the (comparatively) glorious years under Martin O’Neill, when Villa were consistently challenging for Europe, Lerner spent over £100million in three seasons between 2007 and 2010, more than both Chelsea and Arsenal. That’s where the problems began.  Lerner’s attempts to recoup some of the cash by selling Villa’s best players, first Gareth Barry to Manchester City for £12million, drove Martin O’Neill, who had delivered their finest campaign since 1996/7 under Brian Little, to the exit door.

Things have gone downhill since O’Neill’s departure

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Since then, Villa’s questionable transfer policy has become more and more erratic. With the exception of Christian Benteke, not one player at Villa has reached 10 Premier League goals in a season since O’Neill left, despite spending £156million. Failure to replace key players has also contributed massively to Villa’s downfall, particularly Christian Benteke, whose goals essentially saved Villa from relegation in 2012/3, 2013/4 and 2014/5. The sale of Benteke for £32.5million financed the arrivals of Jordan Ayew, Rudy Gestede, Scott Sinclair and Adama Traore for a combined £25million, yet these players yielded just 13 Premier League goals between them.

It is not just an incoherent transfer policy, however. Villa’s managerial appointments have been just as illogical. Gerard Houllier’s steady tenure was cut short due to the Frenchman’s health. The void was filled by the inexplicable appointment of then-Birmingham manager, Alex McLeish, who lasted just a season, whose pragmatic style and awful home record infuriated the fans. His ties to the Blues didn’t help either. Fellow Scot Paul Lambert was next to try his hand, but after two mediocre seasons lost his job in February 2015, to be replaced by fiery Tim Sherwood, who was fired after an horrific run of form in October 2015, as well as publicly criticising the club’s transfer policy (he had a point, in fairness.)

And then came perhaps the strangest of the lot. Villa announced the appointment of Frenchman Remi Garde, who had been out of the game for over a year, and who had only managed Lyon in the past. No Premier League experience, no experience in relegation scraps. It was a gamble at best, and certainly did not pay off, as Garde ended the season with the worst win percentage of any Villa manager in the club’s history. He jumped ship before relegation was confirmed, but nothing could save Villa from the drop.

Money was an issue, the management a shambles. But the biggest factor is the board. Lerner’s announcement to sell the club in April 2014 brought fans some hope of a new dawn at Villa, with the club struggling more and more for survival with each season. Two years on, Villa were relegated, and Mervyn King and David Bernstein, brought in to plan for life in the Championship, quit the club after just a month, citing “fundamental issues” at Villa Park. No new buyer, and seemingly no plan. Fan protests grew louder by the week, and in June 2016, Lerner eventually sold the club to Chinese businessman Dr. Tony Xia, having overseen the club’s worst ever period in the Premier League.

This, however, has been far from the fresh start Villa fans were hoping for.

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Many were hugely optimistic after the takeover but, despite spending £77million on players, and appointing Champions League winner Roberto Di Matteo, Villa are languishing in 17th in the Championship table, just six points above the drop zone. Having replaced Di Matteo with Steve Bruce, results have improved somewhat for Villa, but having not won in 10 matches in all competitions, things continue to look bleak for Villa.

A long-running tragedy at Villa Park that will only get worse before it gets better.

Christian Benteke may no longer be on the sinking ship of Aston Villa, but the striker is still earning a pretty penny as Crystal Palace’s highest wage earner.

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