Garded Optimism

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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.

Kevin Framp

@BigKev67

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for your post Kev. Good stuff. Just going back to Ellis, although he recouped a lot of the money that he spent on transfers, it wasn’t so much his failure to spend as the timing of these signings – which were often after the moment to invest had passed. He would quibble over a few quid, and miss out on a key signing, at times when Villa really needed to push on. What’s more, compared to the clubs Villa were competing with at the time, Villa always spent comparatively less.

    But my main beef isn’t Doug’s transfer policy as such, it was his inability to grasp how football was changing. While Man Utd and other clubs saw the injection of Sky’s cash as an opportunity to build their global brands, Doug always thought small. In many ways he was just too old, and set in his ways, to have the vision that could have taken Villa to the next level. He was very much old school in everything he did. He never understood that modern businesses existed with a level of debt (nobody is suggesting that he bankrupt the club or anything) and was more of a roadblock than a facilitator.

    If Villa had a younger chairman with a bit more vision, and a feel for how modern sport was evolving, then things could have been so much better. In the first few years of the Premier League’s existence, Villa were a top 5 club. By the time Doug stood down, we were always struggling at the bottom. This is his legacy in my opinion. And it can’t all be put down to bad luck. Villa were in a great position at the time of the premier league / sky revolution, but they squandered it imho.

  2. James,
    There’s no doubt that Villa squandered the position that they were in at the start of the Premier League-fuelled expansion of football. No argument from me on that. And I do take your point about Doug being old-school and not thinking in terms of global brands. That was certainly never his MO.
    But I also think the point can be overplayed. If he failed to turn Villa into a global brand, he wasn’t alone. Blackburn won the title and had England’s centre forward – and withered and died. Newcastle were in a great position back then with Keegan and that fantastic team – and look at them now.
    The fact is that there are only 4 global brands in English football – United and Liverpool (who have been global brands for decades) and Chelsea and Manchester City (who have bought their way to the position). At a stretch you could say Arsenal, and make it 5.
    Villa will never compete with United and Liverpool in terms of history and tradition. Our history, as glorious as it is, is too long ago to be relevant. And the other 2 would still be under-achieving and in the shadow of bigger neighbours if it wasn’t for random billionaires suddenly making them relevant.
    Arsenal to me is the interesting one. Yes, they have the advantage of being in London, so they will usually be a more attractive destination for players than Villa – but their history is similar to ours, their crowds historically are similar to ours – and they were in an almost identical position in the mid-nineties. They made an inspired appointment in Wenger in 1996, and things have taken off for them since, both football-wise and commercially.
    Lerner clearly thinks their model is the one to follow because Fox, Almstadt and Garde have come from Arsenal…. Let’s hope the same thing happens for us! #UTV

    • I agree with much of what you say Kev, but Man Utd hadn’t won the league for decades when the Premier League started. Villa had also won the European cup far more recently. Villa have a fabulous history, and a bigger stadium etc than Blackburn, and Newcastle only enjoyed a very brief moment in the sun. Perhaps Newcastle have been similarly badly run? It’s a good debate.

  3. Great article Kev and sad to see how a big club like Villa has declined. I remember days when they competed and had some good players. Sadly football is a different game now, in particular the Premier League, and you might find dropping down to the champ may be a blessing in disguise.
    I suspect your theory on Garde may be right in terms of being able to work in that environment. Never really thought about it like this but prob not too different to the eng captain…given the resources to get on with it and make the most of it.

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