Mid-season musings

Richard Keeling runs the rule over what’s going on.

Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins never really seemed to me to form an effective partnership. Both players were brought to the club by Dean Smith, with Ings being one of the Aggregate Trio, the three players the club thought they needed in order to replace Jack Grealish (the others being Leon Bailey and Emi Buendia). Ings often started on the bench, even though he is an experienced goal scorer. I got the impression that, aged thirty, he was keen to move on and who can blame him? I also noted that we bought him for £25 million and sold him for £15 million, which sounds like the sort of business we have excelled at over the years. Doug Ellis might have worked out how much money each goal cost him and it was a lot. I am glad it’s not my money.

He hasn’t been replaced at the time of writing and, for the Southampton match, our strikers were Watkins and Bailey. Shortly before Ings left, the club announced the signing of a 19 year old Colombian striker from American side Chicago Fire, Jhon Duran. Emery emphasized that he is not a replacement for Ings and is unlikely to be given too much responsibility too soon. He has apparently cost the club £18 million, so hopefully he will bring a little more than just potential. It is salutary to remember that it is less than four years since another promising young striker, the Brazilian Wesley, arrived at Villa Park, and if that move had been successful, we might not be looking for another striker now. Let us hope that Jhon will have a better time of it. I can tell you one thing for sure about him though; his parents seem dyslexic…

Tyrone Mings sometimes gets some stick, but I think he has been one of Villa’s best signings for a long time. Dean Smith signed him on loan at the end of January 2019 and he agreed a permanent deal the following July. He has played about 150 games for Villa, scoring seven goals and has generally been one of the first names on the team sheet. Over recent years he and Ezri Konsa have formed a solid and generally reliable central defensive pairing. Gareth Southgate saw Tyrone as an international standard player with good leadership qualities and he has made seventeen appearances for England, scoring two goals.

This season things haven’t gone quite so smoothly, with Southgate overlooking him and Gerrard replacing him as club captain with John McGinn (a Steve Bruce signing). Mings will be thirty in a couple of months and he will soon be entering the final year of his contract. He has got plenty of football left in him and it would be good to see him get a good contract renewal offer, as he has played a big part in helping Villa get out of the Championship and establish ourselves in the Premier League. Whether he stay or leaves will presumably depend on whether Unai sees him as good enough for the upper reaches of the table. I hope he stays.

I was surprised to read recently that Rishi Sunak has agreed to the creation of a football regulator. After thirty years of Premier League self-regulation – ie minimal regulation – it seems to me like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. The idea of regulation is complete anathema to the billionaires, tycoons and autocrats that have now become woven into the fabric of the Premier League, of course, even probably to our own saintly pair of Nassef and Wes.

Governments generally like to steer clear of anything controversial unless they see some benefit, so they presumably see electoral advantage in legislating for football regulation. The decision follows a fan led review of football governance, the main recommendation of which was the establishment of a strong, independent regulator with statutory backing to deliver financial sustainability throughout the national game. Secondly it recommended that the owners and directors test be strengthened, including an ‘integrity test’ to improve corporate governance and protect clubs and their fans from unscrupulous owners. The third recommendation was for Government to commit to giving fans a voice in the running of their clubs. A White Paper is due to be published in the summer.

There has of course been plenty of lobbying behind the scenes. If you aren’t aware of Fair Game UK, it is worth taking a look at their website. With the help of a firm of consultants, they have created the Sustainability Index, which looks at using revenue streams in football to incentivise clubs by distributing funds according to how well they score on criteria closely aligned to the outcomes of the fan-led review.

What seems originally to have jolted the powers-that-be into action is the possibility of our top clubs joining a European Super League. On the other side of the Channel, though, there is concern that, if a European Super League is not created, a single national league, probably the Premier League, is likely to become all powerful.

Former Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli has been widely reported as stating: “European football needs a new system. Otherwise it risks a decrease in favour of a single dominant league which within a few years will attract all the talent of European football, completely marginalising the other leagues.” The European Court of Justice seems likely to rule that a European Super League does not break EU competition law, in which case there will be pressure for it to become a reality. A European Super League has been discussed for many years and it is likely that the creators of the Premier League saw it as the logical outcome of a system which was designed to enrich a handful of successful clubs and marginalise the rest.

The Government is therefore backing grassroots sentiment in the UK, which is focused on improving the governance of the domestic game and is seemingly opposed to a European Super League. On the other hand, the billionaire class here and overseas is apparently in favour of a Super League. To add to the mix, the Conservative party is largely bankrolled by the billionaire class.

How the Government’s White Paper to improve the sustainability and governance of British football will play out is likely to be almost as interesting as the football results. One thing that is certain is that the Premier League will lobby very hard to kill off any proposals for regulating the game.
Spare a thought for some of our ex-managers. Steve Bruce handed over to Eddie Howe at Newcastle in November 2021 with the club struggling. Howe brought in a few players but retained most of Bruce’s squad and he has propelled the team to the upper reaches of the league. A similar outcome awaited Bruce when he moved to West Brom. Earlier this season his team was close to the relegation places in the Championship and, when he was replaced by Carlos Corberan, the Baggies promptly started climbing the league table. It suggests to me that Bruce is perhaps better at scouting good players than at turning them into a successful team. It must be very disheartening for a manager, though, to have it rubbed in publicly that other managers can do what you can’t.

I will always be grateful to Bruce for stopping the rot when we looked to be on our way to League One. We appointed him in October 2016 and stopping the rot was probably easier said than done at that time.

Dean Smith is another ex Villa manager out of work but, despite all the great things he did for Villa over three years from October 2018, I feel slightly unsympathetic because in my view he jumped into the Norwich job prematurely. His spell at Villa raised his profile a great deal and he comes across well in the media. Norwich have been something of a yo-yo club for a while now and going there was a risk, though he and Craig Shakespeare must be very disappointed not to have done better. Now he may find it difficult to rehabilitate himself and he is likely to be perceived as a Championship manager. So, it seems to me that he is back to where he was before he joined the Villa. I don’t suppose he is looking for our sympathy though.

I find it difficult to have sympathy for Steven Gerrard, but it must be very tough to digest failure when you have had a stellar playing career. His dismissal will have hit him very hard, and it will take him a while to regroup and decide whether to rejoin the sack race. He says he would like another management position and no doubt, as a step towards his rehabilitation, we can expect to see his mates in the media give him plenty of exposure. It is very unpleasant for anybody to be made redundant and especially so when you are in a high-profile position. Of course, if you go in for the sack race, there is one thing that you must expect……