17 August ~ With a new Premier League season underway, the events at Villa Park over recent weeks seem to capture the mood of the times perfectly. Think back a short time and Villa's position seemed enviable. Few people were immune to the sense of optimism at the conclusion of a long running story of regime change. The new American owner, Randy Lerner, was obviously a different man from his compatriots the Glazers and the unfunny comedy duo Hicks and Gillett.

Here was an owner with a common touch alongside sophisticated, humane tastes. He showed a willingness to make investments into the club, the team and the surrounding area. It was clear from the outset that Lerner, although wealthy by most standards, did not have the bottomless pockets of Abramovich or the soon to emerge Abu Dhabi group. Equally clearly, although his finance for the club was in the form of interest bearing loans, he was not loading the club with his own debts.

His alliance with an intelligent, pragmatic manager seemed to provide a realistic prospect of Villa breaking into the top four. Towards the end of last season Lerner restated his aims for the club: "The ambition and appetite to compete for the top-four spot and qualify for the Champions League is as alive as it's ever been." But his statement following Martin O'Neill's resignation set a different tone as he hoped Villa would be "as competitive as possible given our size and resources".

The new found Villa realism chimes with the growing mood of other clubs in the Premier League. Increasingly, the approach of newly promoted clubs is to look beyond the current season and to hope for the best – staying in the top league – but to plan for the worst, relegation. Just as much, clubs like Stoke talk in terms of making progress rather than winning things, with sustainability the new meaning of success for many clubs. As Villa look at their immediate competitors many exhibit a similar pragmatism.

Lerner's stance will make his discussions with Ashley Young all the more difficult. Given the owner's aim to bring wages costs more into line with income, the deciding factor is likely to be the player's willingness to compromise. Lerner commented that he and O'Neill "no longer shared a common view as to how to move forward" and that might also be the case if Young eventually moves on. The LMA's Richard Bevan has speculated that the differences between O'Neill and Lerner have not been helped by the physical separation of manager and American-based owner.

Playing out alongside the changes in management and the reining in of ambition is the potential transfer of James Milner. Again, all the elements of the current Premier League are present. Manchester City, with supporting wealth that should be measured in the light years it would take to count rather than plain old fashioned millions, are pursuing Milner. The obscene inequalities involved are old news. The sub-plot of Stephen Ireland is more interesting. It's easy to see his demands for a £2 million severance payment as characterising a generation of players who have lost all touch with the economic reality experienced by the ordinary population. Arsène Wenger has reframed Ireland's situation as an inevitable consequence of the Premier League's new squad rules. In Wenger's view, when clubs squeeze players out of squads, they will increasingly face compensation claims for loss of income.

Inevitably, the managerial vacancy has attracted the usual list of names and that is another part of the story that is so familiar. The names involved are irrelevant. What so typifies the situation is the speculation, making life difficult for Villa and its owners, as they watch "the will he wont he" story unfold. Once the appointment is made, the next phase will unfold as transfer conjecture begins. For the press, it will not matter what actually happens. Austerity Villa makes just as good a headline as Villa splash the cash. Like many a modern novel, the fans will not only read the news but will be made to feel part of creating it as they add to the speculation through participation in message boards and phone-ins.

I'm not a Villa supporter and so I can watch this tale of our times unfold, but I guess I'd be much less detached watching from the Holte End. Brian Simpson

Comments (2)
Comment by bearlion 2010-08-17 11:35:25

A surprisingly balanced assessment of the situation at Villa. For an unbalanced assessment see this tripe from Sky's Sunday Supplement.

The Cult of O'Neill taken to the extreme by his media chums. Holt is downright rude about the club's owners. Hayward's stuff about being a selling club is nonsense - the players we've been trying to sell are the ones O'Neill bought, put on massive wages and then refused to play. Villa are no more a selling club for Barry and (possibly) Milner than Spurs for Carrick and Berbatov to Man U and Man U themselves for Ronaldo to Madrid.

And as for Villa overachieving under him that's crap too. Villa are 5th in the all-time PL table and 5th in the all-time top flight table. So all he's done is nearly put us back where we should be.

Lerner has been accused of not knowing how to run a football club. Well, he's not stupid and he's been here 4 years so he must have picked something up. Should we be begging Peter Storrie to take over? Peter Ridsdale? They "know" how to do it.

O'Neill was a breath of fresh air when he turned up and, in conjuction with Lerner, revived a moribund club after the O'Leary years and gave us some great moments. But he wasn't sacked, he walked out 5 days before the season started, potentially leaving us in the shit. Maybe it wasn't a case of O'Neill taking Villa as far as he could – maybe Villa had taken O'Neill as far as they could.

Comment by thunderball 2010-08-17 13:50:50

Strange times indeed for the Premier League. Man Utd received a record world transfer fee for Ronaldo and have barely touched it even though they miss miss their EPL, CL & FA Cup targets; Chelsea tinker despite the departures of Carvalho, Ballack and J Cole; Liverpool have definitely nailed down the hatches with free transfers only; Levy's wallet is uncharacteristically closed despite of the CL windfall; Arsenal stopped spending after Arshavin and Vermaelen's arrival over 12 months ago. Villa are hardly in a minority, in fact its only Man City and Real Madrid who are spending in World football?

Last week was a dramatic week for Villa fans, however I have been pleasantly surprised by the majority of Villa fan's reaction to O'Neills departure and the awakening to the reality. And whilst we would all have liked to see the spending continue, the posting of £45m loss last season, together with a wage/turnover at 85% most can see that the spending is unsustainable, especially after the sobering Portsmouth affair, and Hull going so close at the seasons close.

This is partly why 'Sunday Supplement' was so wide of the mark, most fans were behind MON, but all fans will endorse Lerner's stewardship since his arrival. MON didn't just leave Lerner in the lurch he also left the fans and "his squad" in the same predicament. I was an advocate of MON's, and I was able to forgive Cuellar at right back in light of the year on year progress, but even I could see (and this understand Lerner's issue) with signing players on high wages only to consign them the bench or worse, whilst paying lip-service to learning from the previous years near miss and end of season collapse due to fatigue. Sadly the journo's romantic association with MON and the late Cloughie clouds the real issue - Villa don't have the infrastructure to support spending at this level and the wages that go with it: Arsenal's match day receipts are nearly as much as Villa's entire turnover, thats before you add Arsenal's Sky money, CL money and sponsorship.

I am not particularly concerned with Villa's ability to hang onto Milner and Young, or any other bright stars, after all Man City can still only field 11 players, so in a couple of years time they will all be wise to the fact that the grass isn't always greener, despite the wallet being fatter as Craig Bellamy will attest. I am just reading that Milner has gone, and I wish him luck as he will need it. I just hope 'Big Bad Manchester City' don't chew him up and spit him out with other worthy talent, and that Mancini's successor in 3 months time doesn't discard Milner's talent as readily as Bellamy's was.

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