What a sh*t storm. What a circus. What an embarrassment. As Aston Villa’s financial meltdown continues to bubble, with the departed Villa CEO Keith Wyness now in the process of suing the club for constructive dismissal, the best place for Villa staff and fans to be at the moment is on the beach, while what’s left of the Villa board attend to the mess.
The beach is exactly where a holidaying Steve Bruce has been in recent weeks, as the club spiralled into chaos back home. Despite ultimately being responsible for the club’s failure on the pitch, Bruce is currently polling favourably with Villa supporters in terms of them wanting him to stay next season, with just short of three-quarters of fans giving him the thumbs up in recent Birmingham Mail and MOMS polls. While that positive sentiment for the Villa boss can be attributed to the fact it would cost the club severance money they don’t have, it also boils down to the fact most fans fear any further change in these uncertain times. Of course, Bruce may himself still choose to move on, knowing it is unlikely he’ll have a better squad than he had at Villa last season to improve on his failed promotion attempt. In MOMS opinion, certainly keeping Bruce does seem like cul-de-sac short-termism in terms of getting Villa onto a road of recovery as a proper footballing team and club in the long run. Something they have to do, or they’ll risk being stranded outside the top-tier for a while. In the short-term though, given the club’s financial plight, maybe the height of Villa ambition currently is just treading water?
So what of this much discussed conference call last week between a bunch of inexperienced individuals at football board level. Joining Xia for the call were fellow board member Tracy Gu, chief commercial officer Luke Organ, director of football Steve Round and the chairman’s young assistant Rongtian He. Compare them to the gravitas and wealth of experience of the trouble shooters – David Bernstein, Mervyn King, Brian Little and Steve Hollis – who made up the board in Randy Lerner’s final hours, and you have to ask yourself, should we be concerned? Xia normally talks from China via conference calls with people gathered in the Villa Park boardroom with the chairman appearing on a big screen, so the significance of staff this time having to gather in London, remains to be seen. The most experienced in football terms is Steve Round, who so far, is yet to prove himself at Villa, if the truth be told. Certainly his ‘Villa Engine’ hasn’t been switched on yet. It’s certainly hard to have any hope or sympathy for the people who have put Villa in such a precarious position.
The recent reported sacking of former Villa CEO Keith Wyness should not be met by the instant knee-jerk reaction of labelling him as the root of all evil. Desperate men, sometimes reach for desperate measures in desperate times. Villa issued a statement on Wyness’ departure: Aston Villa Football Club can confirm that Keith Wyness has now left the Club. The Club notes the media speculation relating to Keith’s departure and prospective legal proceedings. The Club will be happy to defend legal proceedings if called on to do so and does not propose to comment further at this time. You could argue that Wyness gave Bruce everything he needed, to the extent he recklessly pushed the wage bill way past its safety limit. The brazen loan signings of Robert Snodgrass and John Terry were the epitome of gambling (forward financing) money Villa didn’t have. Name another Championship team that were paying £40,000-a-week and £50,000-a-week to two loan signings? Since owning Villa, Tony Xia has been like the Pied Piper of Villa Twitter, collecting sycophant followers along the way. As a result, such fans are desperate for any fall guy that isn’t their likeable chairman. With the problems of Xia getting money out of China this year, Wyness has in some respects been left up a creek without a paddle, with mounting overheads and a huge wage bill to pay. Since being in the Championship, Villa have acted like a Premier League club off the pitch, but not on it, and it’s caught up with them. The writing has been on the wall since earlier in the year.
While we’re not absconding Wyness from blame (far from it) based on the known facts so far, if there is one thing that Xia’s use of social media has proven is beyond the cute emoji’s, he hasn’t exactly been the coolest of heads in adversity. He labelled a journalist, who two years ago correctly foresaw the current financial fiasco, as a ‘jerknalist’. He called Ian Holloway a ‘f**ked pundit’ when all the QPR boss did was correctly predict where he thought Villa would finish in their first Championship season. The chairman also threw a Twitter fit at an earlier MOMS article for no good reason, an article that ultimately praised his financial backing of the club in the first year despite his obvious gamble. Xia does seem a tad too sensitive and reactionary over silly little things, and it’s no surprise in the past few months he’s been told to ‘Step away from the Twitter.” He’s also a victim of his own initial hyperbole. He came into the club throwing soundbites out there about wanting to make Villa the best supported club in the world, a top three team in the world, Champions’ League within five years, etc, etc. When MOMS met Xia face-to-face and asked him straight-up about what realistically needs to take place on and off the pitch to actually trigger the North Stand redevelopment to make the stadium 50,000. His reply, after a long pause, was “Maybe 60,000, maybe 80,000”. Hope has been the greatest commodity in football when marketing to football supporters and can be easily obtained in the short-term by just words, unfortunately, Xia’s words just offered up fantasy for a club that didn’t seem too focused on the here and now, namely getting out of the Championship. So, how does Xia’s temperament translate into the real world? Where the stakes are a bit higher, like not having any money available to immediately pay off a tax bill? While, ultimately the Villa chairman processed through the money from China to deal with HRMC for the time being, Villa’s current situation needs a cool and calculating head to deal with. It’s been reported that Xia and Wyness’s relationship came to a head over the chief executive allegedly seeking advice from insolvency experts over the prospect of administration. Also, there were rumours of him trying to fix a sale of the club. The short of it though is both have been part of what seems at face value to have been an opportunist and negligent gamble. Steve Bruce and Steve Round have also been fully complicit. All, for example, would have signed off on the deals of Terry and Snodgrass. The double swoop that is probably symbolic of the Villa regime’s ‘promotion or bust’ gamble. Embed from Getty Images
In many ways, those two loan signings demonstrate how Xia’s Villa board, headed by Wyness, were operating. Their focus seemed to be ‘names on paper’ rather than building a team on the pitch. Just because a film has two or three big star names in it, doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good film. If the scripts bad, the film will suck too. Ditto Villa’s tactics. Although costly, if they could be afforded, Terry and Snodgrass would be deemed decent loans that should have made Villa a team to fear in the division, but Villa’s team rarely played with such an attitude. Instead, they were often too cautious and conservative, even against lesser opponents. The departing Villa board had earmarked Nigel Pearson as the Villa boss to tackle the Championship, regardless of what you think about that choice, Villa would have had more of a blue collar and disciplined team ethic. Instead Xia and Wyness went for Roberto Di Matteo, a manager who had never completed a second season at any club as a manager. A manager with no track record of ever building a team. Di Matteo took over existing teams, and the one that impressed on his CV in Chinese eyes was Chelsea, when he took them over and won the Champions League (in Tony Barton style). A similar approach was applied to permanent player purchases. The Villa board thought that if you spent £10m+ on Ross McCormack, who started the season aged 30, it would guarantee you 15+ goals, based on his record at his previous clubs. That logic might work in the Football Manager computer simulation, but in the real world he has to fit into a system and a team. Was McCormack playing as a secondary striker with the inherently selfish Jonathan Kodjia, ever going to work?
— Joe (@JD__AV) December 29, 2016
At the time, McCormack with his age, lack of sell-on value and zero track record in the Premier League, would have been questionable at half the price Villa paid, but as MOMS said at the time, it’s not our money.
Foresight of Failure
Reflecting on Recon’s ownership thus far, it’s far away from being a case of ‘hindsight is a wonderful thing’; it’s been foresight from day one and is all documented on the MOMS site. In terms of transparency, the Chinese owners are still something of a mystery, as is the current financial situation. Do they have money? Has the plug been pulled by the Chinese authorities who are not too keen about millions being taken out of the country and being burned overseas? Can Xia be accused of naivety in who he worked with? Both Wyness and Chris Samuelson (who helped broker the deal) had question marks over their heads.
Looking ahead, Villa’s suggested need reported in the press of finding £40m from player sales and shredding a third of the wage bill seems easier said than done. The only players that are both desirable and perhaps can get at least the same wage elsewhere are Jack Grealish, James Chester and maybe Jonathan Kodjia (if sold overseas). Also, Birkir Bjarnason, if he has a good World Cup, may move on, after being frustrated by Bruce’s selections last season. After Alan Hutton re-signed, four of the first XI that started the play-off final will be off the books by the end of this month, so if they (along with the likes of Agbonlahor, Onomah and Samba) are included in the third of the wage bill that needs shaving off, then Villa should be ok. If the club are looking to shave off an additional third on top of the end of contract players and loans, then there could be trouble. MOMS has already analysed the squad in terms of contract ends and sell-on potential – see article – and it doesn’t look great.
This notion that has been building on social media that Villa’s U23’s will save the club, shouldn’t be relied on. Villa have a second tier U23 side (13 of the 24 Premier League U23 teams finished above them last season, so it’s not a vintage year) and don’t forget, historically not many Villa youth players make the jump up to be decent first teamers. Still, there are a couple of players at least that can certainly be first team squad players to help Villa cut the wage bill. As we stand today, Villa still have a squad of players, that if they played more positively as a team, could challenge for promotion. As unrealistic as it sounds, imagine if Ross McCormack and Micah Richards actually stepped up enough to be at least active squad members again. Due to their wages, that might be more likely than actually shifting them on. More seriously though, Villa would probably need to keep Jack Grealish and hope that the likes of James Bree, Scot Hogan and Henri Lansbury show more at Villa than they have so far. It’s hard to speculate how strong Villa will be next season, until the reality of the finances is sorted. Although, it seems from early press reports and the Hutton signing, that Bruce has at least something to work with. It doesn’t look like Xia is going anywhere in the short-term, but he has a lot to do to steady the good ship Villa and win back supporters’ trust. It’s not going to be easy, because at this moment in time, arguably a new owner bringing wholesale change with a completely new board and manager, would be as good as any action, moving forward. UTV
Essential listening on the Villa situation