Aston Villa are in a bigger predicament than they care to think
The widening gap in sentiment between the crisis-hit club’s absent American owner and loyal fans is only growing larger as relegation looms
Such was the shock of winning for the first time in 20 games, one Aston Villa fan asked to be reminded what was the opposite emotion to shame.
The 1-0 win over Crystal Palace midweek was indeed a rare moment of pride for the grand old club in its most torrid of seasons, one which has them perched on the edge of the abyss.
With 17 games remaining, the three points hardly touch the sides of the bucketful needed for survival.
But Remi Garde’s players sparked a glimmer of hope with a spirited display that had Villa fans cheering (for the first time in a very long time) their first home win of the season – a stark contrast to the spleen they vented at players after the FA Cup third-round draw at lowly Wycombe last weekend.
Villa fans hope that mission impossible is at least now under way, though the root cause of the club’s distressing malaise remains: an absent owner who has grown tired of his English Premier League toy.
Ears were cocked all week towards New York where a “crisis summit” took place between Villa’s American owner Randy Lerner, chief executive Tom Fox and sporting director Hendrik Almstadt.
The Big Apple might carry more gravitas than Birmingham when it comes to hosting a State of the Club address, and few Villa fans would disagree Broadway is more pleasing on the eye than their city’s infamous Bull Ring.
But discussing ways to avoid relegation from the top flight of English football 5,600km away in New York says it all about Lerner’s disinterest in the club he bought in the wake of the TV rights boom gold rush a decade ago.
Lerner was one of the first Americans to be attracted by what he and the likes of Liverpool’s Fenway Group believed to be easy money in the EPL.
But after years of underperformance, due in part to a fundamental lack of understanding of an English football club’s soul, he now finds himself managing an expensive decline, and reluctantly so; he announced in 2014, and reiterated at the end of last season, that Villa was up for sale.
It’s no surprise that buyers are not forthcoming. Villa is costing Lerner about £25 million (HK$685 million) a season – and that outlay will spiral if they are, as it seems likely, relegated.
Many fans acknowledge he has poured vast amounts of money into Villa since he purchased the 141-year-old club a decade ago for £61.2 million.
The former Cleveland Browns owner had by 2010 spent £206 million, behind only Roman Abramovich at Chelsea and Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan at Manchester City.
Another £100 million has been spent since. But his investment was not out of loyalty to the club for he is paying dear; he is learning how EPL football can make a rich man poor.
He also lost the currency of respect among the Villa faithful because of his aloofness and absenteeism.
Lerner rarely engages with his public, remaining mute during the last five miserable years of decline.
When he finally broke his silence after the emergency meeting this week, it was via an ambiguous statement, announcing that a hitherto unknown Birmingham business man, Steve Hollis, as the new chairman.
Lerner admitted that his club had “not been on a stable footing”. He said Hollis has a track record “of getting into the thick of troubled organisations, working with embattled executives and getting results”.
Former KPMG regional chairman Hollis “is a committed football fan”, who grew up supporting Manchester City. That he has the business acumen to steady the ship is not in dispute.
Yet there was no mention of a get out of jail cheque for Garde, nor whether Lerner had taken the club off the market.
Football fans are easily pleased, but they are not easily fooled. They know results are won by goals scored by committed players who cost, and not by a star troubleshooter in the boardroom.
It’s clear to many that new chairman Hollis’ main remit is to clean house and get the club, be it an EPL or Championship one, to a point where it’s attractive to a buyer.
Regarding his own future role, Lerner said he would “remain engaged ... at a somewhat further distance”.
One Villa fan cracked on social media that Lerner couldn’t get any further away from the club even if he was living on the moon.
The geographical gulf between supporters and the owner is superseded by the massive division in sentiment.
“What we have is an owner who has discarded his football club like last year’s Christmas present ... But I suppose that’s the world of the mega rich for you,” lamented supporters’ spokesman Dave Woodhall.
Villa entertain high-fliers Leicester this weekend, a game they must at least draw if they are to stand any chance of survival, though most fans are resigned to Championship football next season.
Supporters might be mindful of holding their own emergency summit to discuss the increasing appetite for fan-owned clubs through supporters’ trusts in the lower leagues, which gives loyalists more power over their team’s future.
Villa fans would never have to ask what is the opposite of shame again.