Old School Approach
“Going forward we will probably be looking for an English manager who has experience of this league (Premier League) and of the Championship,” David Bernstein said prior to Aston Villa’s match against Chelsea in early April of the disastrous 2015/2016 season.
Bernstein had been hired as part Steve Hollis’s ‘football board’ in early 2016 mainly to advise on what the club needed to achieve instant promotion back to the Premier League. Bernstein had referred liberally to his previous experience as Chairman of Manchester City, who had gained promotion to the Premier League with Kevin Keegan as manager in the 2001/2002 season.
In many ways, David Bernstein represents Aston Villa’s club policy in general in the past twelve months. Following an abortive attempt to modernise the club under Tom Fox’s leadership, the club have sought to look back – way back – for inspiration and comfort.
No-one can really accuse Aston Villa of jumping on the bandwagon of current fashion right now. Whilst many clubs are looking to hire young, progressive coaches in their 40’s and have transfer policies which source European markets looking for the next Riyad Mahrez, Aston Villa have gone against the grain by hiring a 56-year-old promotion expert who has been part of the managerial merry-go-round in England for the past twenty years.
Recent wistful references by Aston Villa CEO Keith Wyness to ‘men in flat caps’ also hinted at a longing for the good old days rather than a genuine desire for modernity. Wyness himself, of course, had not been CEO of a football club since he left Everton in 2008 and his return to front-line football in 2016 is also something of a comeback story.
Remi Garde was sacked as Aston Villa manager on 30 March 2016 and Steve Hollis’s football board were already by then well on their way to identifying and planning what the club needed to do to win the Championship in 2016/2017.
Several long-ranging interviews were given by football board members and the general consensus was that the club needed to buy players with Championship experience, good characters, leadership throughout the spine of the team and an talismanic striker (or two), who would become a fan favourite and score 20 goals a season. In addition, the football board advised that the next manager should be English with Championship and Premier League experience, ideally with previous promotions and a tough character who offered leadership from the side-lines.
Curiously missing from this list of requirements was a focus on quality, ability or a desire to hire the best possible coach the club could attract.
Following the sale of the club in June 2016, Keith Wyness has largely followed the transfer policy recommended by Hollis’s football board. Four Captains were recruited from other clubs – Tommy Elphick, Mile Jedinak, James Chester and Ross McCormack – to counter-balance the unprofessional and immature behaviour of previous Captains, Gabby Agbonlahor and Micah Richards. Had some of last season’s mooted £77m spend been used to pay up the contracts of underperforming senior players, rather than trying to create an environment which mitigates against their influence on the squad, then arguably the club would not have needed to waste money buying ‘good pro’s’.
There were minor deviations from Hollis’s recommendations however. Leaders throughout the spine did not include the goalkeeper position and Roberto Di Matteo recruited a left-field choice recommended by his goalkeeper coach in Pierluigi Gollini. This was in spite of the fact that several previous club scouting reports advised not to sign Gollini.
In respect of the type of manager Hollis’s board advised to hire, Roberto Di Matteo did not have a reputation for being a particularly inspiring coach, leader or man manager. Chelsea’s Champions League win owed as much to the senior players such as Drogba, Cech and Lampard than it did to Di Matteo himself. West Brom fans were also lukewarm about Di Matteo’s talents as a manager and it was noted that at Villa much of the training ground work was left to Steve Clarke.
Other clubs in the Championship have pursued alternative transfer policies such as Fulham who employed the ‘two boxes checked’ system. Quite simply this was a system where equal emphasis was given to statistics and human scouting. If a player failed one of the criteria then they were discarded from consideration. Aston Villa had tried to pursue a similar policy under Tom Fox which sadly could not repeat the success enjoyed by Southampton, Sevilla, Leicester, Everton, RB Leipzig and others.
Those clubs often rapid growth would suggest that it wasn’t the policy of ‘moneyball’ that was a failure itself but the implementation of the policy. Fox, Reilly and Villa’s dwindling staff under Randy Lerner, relied heavily on the football opinion of Tim Sherwood in respect of the scouting box checked side of recruitment in the summer of 2015.
Sherwood famously compared Adama Traore to a mixture between Ronaldo and Messi, and stated that he had followed the player for years. In addition, Sherwood hired Micah Richards as a centre back despite seemingly not watching much of the player play as a centre back at Fiorentina.
Fiorentina coach Vincenzo Montella had previously said that Richards was more suited to playing fullback but that his fitness issues meant he just wasn’t up to it. These warnings did not deter Sherwood from making Micah Richards team Captain, giving Richards his preferred position as a centre back and making him reportedly the highest paid player at the club.
Similar grand predictions were made by Sherwood about his other signings including Rudy Gestede.
“I wanted him for a long time and everybody here helped get him in,” said Sherwood. “I’ve done a lot of due diligence work finding out about his character.” Gestede has now been relegated three times from the Premier League after being relegated again this season with Boro.
Sherwood also claimed Gabby Agbonlahor might have his ‘best season ever’ and that he’d seen Ciaran Clark playing in midfield for Villa ‘a million times’. Sherwood was ultimately the wrong manager with bad judgement, but is the current transfer policy and project any better?
Spending For Promotion
Keith Wyness recently explained the club’s approach to the task.
“There was an intention last season to spend to get up,” said Wyness. “It didn’t happen but we could have spent a lot more.”
In most people’s eyes that risky strategy would constitute a ‘gamble’. It is not in the least bit surprising that mention of FFP has cropped up in recent weeks in light of last season’s approach.
Certainly there are parallels in the way Randy Lerner gambled with Martin O’Neill as manager in the pursuit of Champions League football. A policy which saw O’Neill appoint a lot of players in their mid-twenties to early thirties on big wages and long contracts to achieve a short-term aim.
Likewise a similar strategy has been followed in the 2016/17 season. Chester, McCormack, Adomah, De Laet, Jedinak, Elphick, Lansbury, Bjarnason, Taylor all fit into that category and it is unlikely that any of these players will increase in value or find better contracts elsewhere.
Steve Bruce claimed that players such as Henri Lansbury ‘needed’ £40k-a-week (according to the Birmingham Mail) because of the weight of the Aston Villa shirt, but, again, it feels rather unnecessary in terms of value for money.
Clubs with high wage bills like QPR and Sunderland, which have been wasted on average players have not performed as well on the pitch or made profits compared to ‘moneyball’ clubs like Sevilla, Monaco and Leicester.
Lerner Loss Trend
It is possible to run football clubs as a business, be successful on the pitch and make a profit now in the Premier League. Villa were one of the few clubs who kept making losses under Randy Lerner and the continuing losses on players seems to have continued under Keith Wyness with players such as Jordan Ayew.
Aston Villa’s new owner Dr. Tony Xia hinted that he was aware of the financial and sporting mistakes that had been made by the club in the 2016/17 season in recent weeks. He seemed to suggest that the club won’t continue paying over the odds on players and making large losses.
It is hard to fully believe that the club have turned the corner, as yet, however and the frequent references to stability seems to constitute an endorsement of plan A. This being Steve Bruce’s idea to buy a team capable of winning the Championship.
You would have hoped that around £77m would have been enough money to have done so already, but Bruce, through friends in the press, recently expressed his shock at being asked to sell before he could buy.
This summer will perhaps show how enthusiastic the club is to implement modernisation aimed towards long-term success or whether it remains convinced that the old ways are indeed the best.