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