Upwardly mobile

Richard Keeling talks about last season, the next one and a few things in between.

Alan Shearer remarked during a recent Match of the Day that it is difficult to be upwardly mobile in the Premier League. I felt there was an undertone, meant for clubs like Villa and Brighton, of: “Enjoy your moment in the sun, you’ll soon be back where you belong”.

The status quo has also been upset by Newcastle and it will be interesting to see which of these clubs, if any, stick around in the European qualification places over the coming seasons. The 2022 annual review of football finance produced by Deloitte states: “The ‘big six’ account for 78% of Premier League clubs’ aggregate commercial revenue, highlighting the economic supremacy of those clubs as the rest strive to close the gap.” I think that statement provides an indication of why it is so difficult to be upwardly mobile.

Looking at the report in more detail, Manchester City’s revenue for 2020-21 was £216 million, Liverpool’s was £173 million, Manchester United’s was £171 million, Spurs’ revenue was £155 million, Chelsea’s was £103 million and Arsenal’s was £101 million. The average was £70 million and out of the twenty clubs Villa were in eleventh place with revenue of £44 million. Financial clout seems to be of huge importance in the Premier League, so we should perhaps beware of setting our expectations too high too soon.

Villa began this last extraordinary season heading downwards and then rapidly became upwardly mobile after Unai Emery took over. I am sure we were all expecting an improvement on the performances during Steven Gerrard’s tenure, but ending up in seventh was an amazing achievement, especially as Emery transformed the team’s fortunes with virtually an unchanged squad.
Unai Emery is of course Villa’s first Spanish manager. He is one of four who worked in the Premier League last season, the others being Pep Guardiola, Mikel Arteta, and Julen Lopetegui. The first two managed the league’s winner and runner-up, while Lopetegui took over at Wolves when they were bottom of the table and led them to safety.

I have believed for most of the last thirty years that Villa were far too slow to adjust to the cosmopolitan outlook which the Premier League required. Suspicion of foreigners was traditionally part of British football, but that insularity was being challenged by the mid to late 1990s. Villa were slow to react, though and our managerial horizons were limited to Britain and Ireland until Gerard Houlier arrived in September 2010. Even then, eighteen years after the Premier League started, one felt that his appointment was a reaction to the sudden departure of Martin O’Neill rather than to any great desire to look overseas. Villa seemed very slow to grasp that the Premier League is an opportunity to recruit top people in Europe and the world for the TV spectacular.

Houllier stayed with us for only nine months because of his health issues and since then the only overseas managers we have employed have been Remi Garde and Roberto di Matteo, who each lasted four months. By contrast, since the late twentieth century, Chelsea have employed almost entirely overseas managers and I wish our trophy cupboard matched theirs. Arsenal have employed no British manager since Arsene Wenger arrived in October 1996 and, while they have had ups and downs recently, the fact that they were disappointed at finishing runners-up this season says a lot.

Sir Alex Ferguson was the big exception. A world-class British manager who arrived at Manchester United at just the right time and, once he had established himself, was supported with the funds he needed to build one top side after another. Fergie’s Manchester United teams won the Premier League thirteen times, but the only other British manager to have won it was Kenny Dalglish with Blackburn Rovers back in the early days of 1994-95.

The FA Cup since 1997 has been won by Fergie in 1999 and 2004, Harry Redknapp in 2008 with Portsmouth and Brendan Rodgers with Leicester in 2021. The other winning managers have all been from overseas. British managers have had slightly more success in the League Cup but the last one to lift the trophy was Kenny Dalglish in 2011-12 with Liverpool.

So, you can call me unpatriotic if you like, but I think I am just being realistic when I reckon the appointment of a top European manager at Villa Park is long overdue. A Villa supporting friend puts it that we have got a proper manager at last. A huge amount depends on the owners of course. The main reason that we have had so few ‘proper’ managers is because we have been short of ‘proper’ owners. Proper owners can perhaps be defined as people who not only have the strategic vision necessary to develop the club but also have access to the vast amounts of money required to be able to realise that vision. Whether Sawiris and Edens have the resources and the desire to compete with state owned sovereign wealth funds from middle eastern countries remains to be seen.

The Premier League is in my view crying out for effective regulation in the interests of football, to make upward mobility more of a possibility for a well-run club. It is nonsense that clubs can be bought by nation states with endless resources for purposes of prestige and with zero regard for the football competition. On that subject, have you noticed how the recent accusations that Manchester City have broken 100 financial fair play rules have faded from the news pages? By some strange coincidence these accusations came to the fore just as the government announced that football is to be regulated. If anything is done about the alleged breaches of the regulations, the sheikhs will undoubtedly employ an enormous team of top legal experts to argue that black is white. Don’t expect any significant action to be taken in the interests of football rather than money.

I wonder how Unai Emery and his backroom staff managed to improve Gerrard’s squad of players so quickly and effectively. Every struggling club hopes that a change of manager will generate the so-called new manager effect, but it doesn’t always happen and even when it does the results are often short lived. We will soon find out next season whether we are going to carry on where we left off. For once I am optimistic, as I believe Emery has enough experience to be able to keep the momentum going.

I have been a Villa supporter for long enough always to expect the unexpected though. Villa finished second in 1989/90 and we were all looking forward expectantly, then England came calling for Graham Taylor. Let us hope that Spain won’t come calling for Unai any time soon – nor that anybody else will, though he is bound to be in demand if he continues to make a mark with Villa.

The current wave of optimism seems to me well-founded, as we have at last got that elusive combination of competent owners and an experienced and successful manager. There is every reason to believe that Villa can indeed buck the trend and prove to be upwardly mobile – but I think we would be unwise to expect too much too soon.