Club Profile: Aston Villa
This will hopefully be the start of a series of brief articles looking at various British clubs, their history and their current position and standing. Nothing too innovative or exciting. Just a way of looking at the “bigger picture”, to use an overused cliché – from a broader perspective, to see where they have come from and where they could go in the future.
Is Aston Villa the smallest of the big clubs or the biggest of the small? It’s a difficult question. Largely pointless, but difficult.
They’re the English club that won the European Cup that you can never remember. We all remember United winning it and Forest winning it with Clough and Liverpool winning it loads. We all remember that many other large important clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea and Torquay haven’t won it. But everyone forgets that at the end of that great run of English success in the 1970s and early 1980s, Villa were officially the best club in Europe. No one remembers poor old Peter Withe and his contribution to the English game.
It is also often overlooked how much of a history of success they have, something that rivals the biggest clubs in the country. They were the Football League’s most successful club from 1899 to 1953, and there are only four clubs with more titles than them. They are also second only to Liverpool for League Cup wins with five, while seven FA Cup wins puts them behind only Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham. Overall, they are fourth in the English honours table, with 20 pieces of silverware – that’s more than Spurs, Chelsea, Manchester City, Everton, Newcastle, Blackburn, you name it. Not to mention the fact that only Everton have spent more seasons in the top flight than them.
They also have one of the biggest grounds in English football. It used to be one of the most beautiful too until the gorgeous brick façade of the Trinity Road Stand was torn down in 2000. Ideally located next to the M6’s Spaghetti Junction, it puts the club in a great position of strength – there’s always going to be potential there to attract fans and grow the club into one of the biggest in the country. But that’s not to say it’s a white elephant stadium at the moment – there’s no doubt that they are the biggest club in the West Midlands.
But at the same time, you cannot put them in the same bracket as the Manchester and London clubs, not only on recent form and wealth, but also the distinct lack of success at Villa Park in recent years. The 1981 success which put them into the European Cup prior to them winning it is their most recent title success. Their best performance in the Premier League years was in the very first season when they finished 2nd to Manchester United. The top 4 has evaded them since 1996, which was also the year of their last trophy success. Not since the heady days of Dublin, Merson and Joachim in 1998-99, with John Gregory at the helm, have they looked like genuine title contenders, and even then they slipped away rather dramatically in the second half of the season. 2002-03 and 2005-06 saw skirmishes with relegation danger. The “renaissance” under O’Neill was still limited – they remained, and still remain, some distance from the leading contenders.
O’Neill’s departure seems to have been a turning point, with the team having regressed under Houllier and even more so under McLeish, to the point of them facing a similar slide towards relegation as the Scot’s previous club last season. The sale of key players can’t have helped, but it’s not as if the revenues of the sales of Downing, Young, Milner and Barry – £60m+ in total, over less than three years, from just four players – have been fully reinvested in the playing squad.
Look at the League Cup final side of 2010, and compare that to the current squad – it’s clear to see that the key players that have left have not been replaced, and the squad has not been strengthened. How is Randy Lerner expecting them to progress as a club and challenge for European spots by selling the big names and only coming up with the money to replace them with Darren Bent and Charles N’Zogbia, or hiring a manager who had just relegated their local rivals? For me, it’s a competition between him and Abramovich for the title of the daftest owner in the Premier League.
Villa are stagnating, taking their status for granted and in danger of slipping into the Championship as Newcastle and West Ham have done previously. Even if they survive this year, Lerner needs to seriously invest in the playing squad (and, ideally, a new manager) to avoid even more of a struggle next year. A club of their history and stature does not deserve this, but in the Premier League, history counts for nothing.
But beyond mere survival in the top flight, they have the potential to do so much more. There’s arguably more untapped potential with Villa than with a club like Manchester City. They are the biggest club in one of the most heavily-populated regions of the country. They have history. They have a massive list of honours to their name, including the most important trophy in club football. They have a large stadium situated next to one of the main transport arteries of England. Why is this club not one of the giants of the English game right now? With the right management, they certainly could be.