Plans, projects and performance

Dave Woodhall on the state of play at Villa Park.

We’ve been here before. The talk over the past couple of days of bringing in a new manager has a familiar feel to it. Nine bosses leaving in twelve years is the sort of record we used to laugh at other clubs about and it’s the biggest single reason why that time has been such a failure. Now Steven Gerrard is odds-on to be the tenth as another season of mediocrity seems to be unfolding. It shouldn’t be this way.

In those ten years we’ve spent hundreds of millions, we more or less sell out Villa Park every match and getting away tickets is even harder than getting served at half-time yet all we’ve got to show for it is one League Cup final (2015 never happened).

What’s particularly annoying to me is that our expectations are being dumbed down. Randy Lerner might have been wildly over-ambitious when he spoke about five years to be competing in the Champions League and Tony Xia’s aim of being bigger than Real Madrid was as laughable as his dress sense; now Christian Purslow is talking about budgeting for eighth this season as though it’s some sort of achievement, and to be honest even that one’s going to take some doing based on what we’ve seen so far.

This isn’t some statistically-orientated article arguing about what we should and shouldn’t expect based on income, net spend and cashflow projections. It’s the opinions of someone who’s been watching Villa long enough and seen so many new dawns fade that I wonder whether we shouldn’t run out to Joy Division rather than Ozzy. I’m fed up of hearing about plans and projects, and more than anything I’m heartily sick of seeing other, lesser, clubs overtaking us. I support the most under-achieving club in the world and I don’t want to say that for much lomger.

It’s not all been our fault; for a start we were downright unlucky when the Champions League got going. We finished runners-up twice when only the champions got in, top four when two clubs were in it and sixth a few times when four qualified. In a different era we’d have been in the Champions League three seasons out of seven, the Europa League most of the fifteen years after that and even the Villa could hardly fail to build on such foundations.

But that was then, this is now and we’re falling into the trap of thinking that this is as good as it gets. It really isn’t. We may have missed out on the riches of the Premier League for three seasons, but by now we should more than have made up for that. And in that time Wolves have come up and got into Europe, Leeds have finished higher in their first season than we have in three while West Ham and Newcastle have gone shooting past us. Two seasons ago we went to the Emirates like we owned the place, then won at Spurs with a style that had their supporters frothing at the mouth at how easy it had been. Now we’re hoping to get results from Fulham and Brentford to take us out of relegation trouble.

So if we’re looking at people to blame, the manager has to take his share, as do Christian Purslow and the rest of the backroom staff, who if anything look unable to get us out of this rut. In fact, the past year and a bit is worryingly reminiscent of the days following Martin O’Neill’s departure. It now seems that we were unprepared for Jack Grealish’s sale in the same way that O’Neill walking out caught us on the hop.

In the latter case, Villa were knocked onto the back foot and the people in charge never looked like they were in control of events again. Grealish didn’t have the sort of influence behind the scenes that O’Neill enjoyed, but he enjoyed a similar ‘bigger than the club’ status. He played a massive part in our performance and in the club’s commercial activities. It could be argued that the post-Grealish Villa reflects worse on senior management than what happened after O’Neill, because his sale was always likely yet we seem to have been totally unprepared for the eventuality.

The football has declined and the money has been wasted.When Dean Smith was sacked Purslow spoke about the need for continued improvement. We haven’t seen much of that since. I said at the start of the season that talking theoretically about the future had to stop and we had to begin delivering. There hasn’t been much of that so far in 2022-23.

Then there are the owners. They’ve put a lot of money in, and for that we should be grateful, although the buck has to stop with them. It’s their club and if they want the praise for what they’ve done then they should also take criticism for what they haven’t. We’re now into the fifth season since that glorious day in summer 2018 when we realised that we’d won the New Owner Lottery. I really thought that by now, if we were trying to attract a new manager we’d be offering him something a bit more tangible than a project.