Another Premier League weekend, another nail in the coffin of Aston Villa’s apathetic survival bid – this time coming in the form of a four-goal defeat to fallen champions Chelsea. But the club’s inevitable relegation to the Championship should be the least of the fans’ concerns right now; it’s what will come next season, when embarking upon England’s ever-unpredictable second tier, that should have fans fearing the worst.
It may seem paradoxical, considering English football prides itself on being a genuine meritocracy from top to bottom, but Premier League clubs often find it harder in the Championship than those promoted fresh from League One – especially ‘big clubs’ with a long history of involvement in the top fight.
Indeed, the double-relegation bug – which I’m defining as plummeting down two divisions in the space of two to four seasons – has bitten a number of ‘big clubs’ in recent years, not least including Charlton Athletic, Sheffield United, Leeds United, Southampton, Norwich City and Wigan Athletic. The Championship’s current bottom five is telling enough, including the Addicks, Bolton Wanderers and Fulham, who dropped out of the top flight in 2007, 2012 and 2014 respectively.
Disturbingly, Aston Villa fit the profile so perfectly that they seem almost destined to become a future case study in the same manner as Leeds or Charlton.
The current squad has demonstrated time and again that it simply lack the guts to pull off Premier League survival, but the players won’t find life any easier in the Championship – a division defined by its attritional football, draining 46-game schedule and considerably less spectacular dwellings. If you can’t handle a rainy Wednesday night in Stoke, a cold winter evening in Huddersfield will be a real culture shock.
A player overhaul this summer is essential, for both footballing and financial reasons, but having acquired so many new players on long-term contracts last summer, some of which were needlessly lucrative, it will require significant upheaval and eat up the lion’s chunk of Villa’s incoming £24million parachute payment.
Kieran Richardson and Charles N’Zogbia are the only players with expiring deals; summer signing Adama Traore, meanwhile, a Barcelona product who arrived from the Nou Camp on a five-year contract and is almost the perfect antithesis of your generic Championship player, is reportedly taking home £45k per week. That will jump to £80k per week if he makes a handful more league appearances for the Birmingham outfit – a sum simply unaffordable for a Championship side, even one as large as Aston Villa.
Even if a few more players have relegation release clauses and even if Villa manage to get most off the wage bill, they will lose talent at a considerably lesser price than it was originally acquired for – out of the current crop, I can only see Jordan Ayew, Alan Hutton and Idrissa Gueye taking anyone’s interest this summer – and in some cases will have to pay off long-term contracts simply to cut future losses.
Then comes the equally trouble and expensive task of rebuilding a team simply from scratch with whatever money is left over. That is often where the problems truly begin for ‘big clubs’; when their squad becomes a mix of confidence-sapped high-earners from the Premier League, youngsters from the academy and Championship journeymen who are often purchased for their second-tier experience at inflated fees. Suddenly, the team is devoid of any familiarity, personality, leadership or identity, fighting it out in the toughest second-tier in world football.
Of course, such a scenario is by no means as inevitable as Aston Villa’s relegation this season. The club have made an effort to improve decision-making at board room level, appointing two genuine football men who have an intrinsic understanding of the English game in David Bernstein, a prior Chairman of the FA, and Brian Little, a former Villa player and manager who offers expertise and a real connection to the disillusioned fan base.
Likewise, if Aston Villa recruit and cull properly, they have the chance of forging a decent Championship side. Jack Grealish is a talent who could develop at a phenomenal rate if played regularly, Rudy Gestede is a proven striker at Championship level, Jores Okore has the natural physicality to be a success in the second tier and Ashley Westwood made his name in the Football League.
But the overriding concern is that, no matter what Bernstein and Little pull out of their sleeves this summer, the angst towards owner Randy Lerner has created such a toxic atmosphere that it will be years before Villa Park is a fertile ground for success once again.
You can’t blame the protesting fans; they’ve seen their club gradually decline from producing European Cup winners to the most pathetic side of the Premier League era, whilst becoming the failed pet project of an American entrepreneur who simply stopped investing after a few promising seasons under Martin O’Neill failed to provide the envisaged success.
Nonetheless, it feels like Villa are trapped in a civil war that won’t be resolved until Lerner sells. The contradiction now, however, is that the 54-year-old won’t be able to settle up for a sum he deems acceptable until the Birmingham club are back in the Premier League. A vicious cycle that will only become more detrimental to Villa’s efforts on the pitch the longer it goes on for.
Perhaps it’s poor form to predict such a damning fate for a club already shrouded in doom. It’s probably the last thing fans want to hear right now and some will dub this article as simply fear mongering.
But one matter is indisputably certain whether you agree with this article or not; the decisions Aston Villa make this summer, most particularly in regards to appointing a new manager, will be amongst the most important in the club’s 141-year history. This could be the rock-bottom end of Villa’s downward spiral; or a further submergence into increasingly lower depths.