McLeish overseeing latest chapter in Aston Villa’s costly return to mediocrity
Aston Villa finished 16th in the Premier League in the season preceding Randy Lerner’s takeover in 2006. Six years later and £148m lighter, they currently occupy 15th place as the 2011/12 season draws to a close. In short, it may have been fun while it lasted but the club’s return to mediocrity has cost it a fortune.
Under Martin O’Neill, there were three successive 6th placed finishes along the way, an FA Cup semi-final, a Carling Cup Final, plus high calibre signings including James Milner, Ashley Young and Stuart Downing. Each of them have since left however, while O’Neill departed before cost-cutting measures were enforced, and the club’s high-profile arrivals became even higher-profile departures.
The leftfield appointment of Gerard Houllier followed and resulted in a respectable 9th place finish last season, after a mid-season flirtation with relegation saw Darren Bent drafted in at great expense. A botched attempt at introducing a more aesthetically pleasing style of play and a series of clashes with players ended with Houllier’s health-related departure.
O’Neill’s aversion to importing players resulted in an array of mediocre home grown recruits on inflated wages, which the club have struggled to offload ever since and, in the process, made Houllier’s noble intentions futile. The financial legacy of this period is a loss of just over £1m a week, according to Villa’s financials for last season, a figure softened by the proceeds of the Milner sale. With the outlook bleak, Lerner compounded the situation by hiring the manager of Villa’s fiercest rivals, despite universal opposition towards the appointment.
Fresh from two relegations in four seasons at Birmingham, Alex McLeish has overseen a turgid campaign, with dour football, demonstrations and dwindling attendances. When current captain Gabriel Agbonlahor reveals: "It’s one of those seasons you want to get out of the way and get through it" to The Sun with two months of the season still remaining, you know the campaign is a write off.
In defence of McLeish, Villa have endured a succession of influential long term injuries and the diagnosis of Stiliyan Petrov’s acute leukaemia, so soon after Houllier’s health problems, will have also rocked the whole club, as all other concerns pale in comparison. It is safe to say that this is not how Aston Villa had hoped to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their European Cup victory over Bayern Munich.
Villa may be in the midst of a period where a spell in the Championship is a more pressing concern than an assault on the Champions League places, but there are already signs of recovery. Their lauded academy continues to produce players worthy of first team selection, with the likes of Eric Lichaj, Andreas Weimann, Chris Herd and Gary Gardner following the lead of Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan and Ciaran Clark, graduates that are now established in the senior squad. The Under-19 team also performed admirably in the NextGen Series, reaching the quarter-finals of the inaugural competition.
With a wage bill comparable to Tottenham’s, plus losses inferior to only those of Manchester City and Chelsea, Lerner’s current frugal approach would appear wise, particularly with financial fair play approaching. Whether or not McLeish will be entrusted with the responsibility of Aston Villa’s immediate future remains to be seen. Unpopular and doomed to fail from the very beginning, a fresh approach from the touchline may also be forthcoming.
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