The party’s over for cash-strapped English championship club Aston Villa so what now?
The Villans face a bleak future with mounting debts and now the prospect of their best players leaving adding to the many problems they will have to face
It’s not been a great couple of weeks to be an Aston Villa fan. The Birmingham-based club lost the Championship play-off final to Fulham and missed out on a return to the English Premier League.
But that disappointment is nothing compared to the possibility that the club could cease playing football altogether and all because of an unpaid tax bill.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Villans were supposed to be toasting top flight football and passing rivals West Bromwich Albion along the way. And the glasses would all have been raised to Tony Xia, their billionaire Chinese owner.
Now, in the week where the future of the club has come into question and they have parted company with chief executive Keith Wyness, the fans are seeing supposed saviour Dr Tony in a new light.
The immediate worry after Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs threatened the club with a winding-up order on account of missing a regular tax bill has dissipated some, with the club saying they have agreed a deal with HMRC and, having paid £500,000 (HK$5.25 million) on Wednesday, would have settled almost half of the £4 million bill by the end of the week.
They also stated that the club is not dealing with liquidators. While most people regarded the possibility of the club going out of business as slim it was still big enough for someone to set up an FC Villa of Aston account on Twitter as the first step to creating a phoenix club.
Maybe this was inevitable. Villa gambled on winning the most expensive game in world football and lost. The play-off final is said to be worth £160 million to the winner. How likely is it that anyone would really be aware of Villa’s financial straits with that game won?
Even without the winner being handed a novelty oversized cheque on the day, promotion would surely have meant that money could be found to stay on top of the tax situation – and the possibility that the taxman would likely not have come calling knowing that there was cash coming the club’s way.
While the future of one of England’s oldest football clubs and the one time champions of Europe has made news back in Britain, it’s not been of note in the Chinese press. Xia and his Recon Group, the company that actually owns Aston Villa, are not that big of a deal back home.
That’s one reason why people are right to question whether China’s curbs on money leaving the country are to blame for Villa’s plight.
Xia should be still under the threshold even with his original outpouring to buy the club, subsequent investment in players and the monthly injections of cash into the club – payments which apparently became more irregular as early as last year.
No one can truly know – just as they know little about Xia or his thinking. Perhaps this is just buyer’s remorse. Now the promised land of the Premier League remains a promise undelivered, Xia is understandably balking at stumping up £4-5 million of his own cash every month to keep Villa going.
Xia was the poster boy of Chinese ownership and the subject of envious glances from fans of other clubs, Chinese owned or otherwise.
Not now. Whatever goodwill had been generated with his social media interaction has eroded. Villa fans are worried and every news story indicates that, even if the tax axe is no longer hanging over them, it is just the first problem of many.
Last season Villa’s wages were among the highest in the division but despite the positive correlation between wage spend and points gained, for the most part the club’s high wages were a hangover of their Premier League past rather than a result of trying to get out of the Championship.
John Terry would have been an exception but he has already left the club, as has record scorer Gabby Agbonlahor, a local lad and club legend.
Jack Grealish, another home-grown link to the fans, is expected to follow. More importantly, Grealish is one of the club’s better players, the type that you can hang a run at the Premier League on, and his going decreases the likelihood of promotion even more.
Grealish will need to leave. The club faces a massive hit from Financial Fair Play, somewhere in the £160 million mark according to reports, and the squeeze is exacerbated by their parachute payments, the money received by relegated clubs to offset losing Premier League-related earnings, decreasing next season.
Worse still, this is their last payment as they face their third season in the Championship and the financial implications of that are sure to be felt.
There is no escaping that Villa is becoming an even more expensive proposition for Xia and a real test of his stated ambition on arrival of turning them into one of the three best clubs in the world.
Ambition may be the problem. The club had been getting quite creative with recent deals, including a three-way kit partnership and becoming the first English Football League side to run an e-sports league.
Now ideas that looked innovative look like folly – time wasted that would have been better spent actually managing the club.
“Plans are now being put in place to move the club forward,” announced Villa in a statement. But how long will these plans be drawn up by the not-so-good doctor?