In the next of our Guest Spots, Kevin Framp has his say on the doom surrounding Aston Villa. Take it away Kev …
I’ve been a Villa fan since I was eight years old. I was too young to really appreciate the glory years of the early eighties, but am plenty old enough to have been scarred by the club’s descent into, firstly, mediocrity, and then (even more painful) irrelevance tinged with sympathy.
This season has obviously been very tough. But we’ve been here before – so much so that autopsies on Villa’s descent from big club to also-ran have been ubiquitous in recent times. James, the editor of Eat My Sports! even wrote one last week.
However, although I agree with the many Villa fans who see long-term reasons for the club’s decline, I don’t agree with every aspect of the common narrative. Firstly I think history will be kinder to Doug Ellis than James and other supporters suggest.
Deadly Doug certainly made his share of mistakes, by far the worst of which was causing Ron Saunders to walk out over contract terms in 1982. Ron could certainly have turned that 80-81 side into one that challenged year after year, rather than one which fizzled and died. Saunders had the ruthlessness and the eye for a player that Tony Barton never did.
But aside from that I think the old cliche about Ellis counting his beans in his office, like a miser or pantomime villain, is overdone. Ron Atkinson, for example, took us to second and won a cup because that was the pattern of his career – not because of any particular lack of backing from the chairman.
The bulk of Brian Little’s side was signed rather than home grown – and when Little tried to take them to the next level, Collymore and Curcic were big money buys. In these instances, Doug definitely gave the manager the funds he craved. It wasn’t his fault that things unravelled.
John Gregory was also backed pretty well. Dion Dublin, Juan Pablo Angel, Benito Carbone, Steve Stone and Paul Merson were all big investments. The transfer fees weren’t always huge, but their wages invariably were.
During this period, the only player that was sold for serious money was Dwight Yorke; therefore I think it’s a bit of a myth that Ellis sat on his money. All managers want more more money but I think Doug is an easy target and not one that’s always backed up by facts.
And who can blame Doug for not wanting to bankrupt the club? When you consider what happened to Leeds and Portsmouth – and indeed to Villa when Randy Lerner threw his money at the problem – I’d say the Ellis approach looks astute in hindsight.
By the time Randy Lerner took over, the landscape of English football had changed completely. After the arrival of Roman Abramovich and Shiek Mansour, we were all playing for fourth. Lerner invested heavily but things didn’t go his way: Martin O’Neill betrayed him and Houllier was just beginning to get somewhere when his health failed him again – although the least said about Alex Macleish the better. Paul Lambert, meanwhile, was given an incredibly difficult task.
However, although Randy Lerner’s heart is in the right place, his operational appointments are dreadful – and that leads to poor football appointments. And that, not coincidentally, is exactly the same story of his disastrous tenure as owner of the Cleveland Browns.
In Villa’s case Paul Faulkner came from the credit cards division to be CEO and then Tom Fox, an American, came from Arsenal’s commercial department to replace him. Neither of them have any football background and that showed in their choice of managers.
Having said that, I want to give Fox some credit for the appointment of Remi Garde. I’d also like to disagree with Villa fans over Tim Sherwood …
I don’t buy this characterisation of Sherwood as an empty vessel. The man captained a Premiership title team and was given the role by the very canny Kenny Dalglish. Neither of those things happen if you’re all hot air. What did for Sherwood, but may work for Garde, was Villa’s decision in the summer to appoint a Sporting Director, Hendrik Almstadt.
Almstadt is a disciple of the Moneyball philosophy – the use of metrics and analytics to identify under-valued players. He’s working closely with a Director of Recruitment, Paddy Reilly, in an attempt to emulate the Southampton model. This strategy is fine as far as it goes, but it meant that Sherwood didn’t get the players he wanted.
Sherwood, an inexperienced manager, must have watched with dismay as Almstadt spent £50M on “prospects” rather than the proven Premier League reinforcements in the summer. Sherwood apparently asked for experienced players but was ignored. Whatever you may think of Sherwood (and most Villa fans had turned on him and wanted him gone), it’s impossible to manage when you’re not given the players you want.
So while Sherwood had to go in the end, he did so with my best wishes. He kept us up, took us to the Cup Final and then, to my mind, had the rug pulled out from under him over the summer. The sense that he’d been rather sold down the river permeated his every move and media utterance this season.
And so, tortuously, to Garde. Finally, more by luck than judgement, I think Fox might have identified the right manager for our stated strategic aims and circumstances.
Firstly Garde is held in very high esteem by both Arsene Wenger and Gerard Houllier, two very good judges. Secondly he was tasked specifically with cutting the wage bill and blooding young talent in Lyon – something that he did very successfully while keeping them in the top six.
Finally, Garde actually has plenty of experience working with a Sporting Director/Director of Football. He buys into that model in a way that Sherwood never did. Garde has, apparently, received a promise that he will have the final say on players signed (within Lerner’s financial framework of course). This is good news. It’s the only way that model can work.
For the first time in Lerner’s stewardship, I believe Villa finally have a manager with the vision and nous to at least make the most of the resources and talent available. And after years of incompetence, I’ll certainly settle for that … for now at least.