Dave Woodhall reflects on an eventful week at Villa Park.
I thought it would be a quiet couple of months with the usual triumvirate of announcements to liven the tedium – pre-season tour, new kit, next season’s fixtures. There’d be a bit of talk about the manager’s future and a couple of days speculation before any transfer took place but nothing really extraordinary.
Then, out of the blue on Tuesday afternoon arrived the biggest story to come out of Villa Park for decades. Keith Wyness suspended, a winding-up petition in the offing, administration a possibility. We’ve long said that the sort of catastrophe and farce that have become regular visitors to Aston only used to happen to other clubs. It’s taken a few years but now we can add financial disaster to the list.
Because it came out of the blue, and because we’ve never know anything remotely like this, it’s hard to get a sense of proportion about what we’re witnessing but it’s fair to say that this is Villa’s biggest problem since 1968, and maybe even greater than the the one we faced then. At that time we were faced with a future in the lower divisions, another Preston or Blackburn as they were then, with a proud history and a present of scrabbling around the bottom divisions. Now, we’re looking at the entire future of the club.
In reality, that doomsday scenario is unlikely. Chances are that anything easily convertible into ready cash (ie players) will be sold and the Villa will carry on, shorn of our best assets and with immediate prospects suitably downgraded. Whether that’s with Tony Xia still in control is a moot point – it’s difficult to see anyone putting up enough money for a minority stake in the club, and whether a man who’s presided over such an appaling episode should be given a second chance is debatable.
Doug Ellis and Randy Lerner will tell you that they got their fair of abuse, and Xia should be no different. The unsustainable spending that brought about the current situation was either sanctioned by Xia or by people he appointed. There are several reasons why Villa are where we are, not least the ludicrously top-heavy nature of English football, but the biggest, and most simple, reason is that during the two years Tony Xia has been in charge we’ve spent money we haven’t got.
He took the gamble, it failed, and no matter what excuses are being fed to the press by both parties the buck has to stop with him and Keith Wyness, the man Xia chose to run the club in his absence.
In a wider context it is, of course, absolutely ludicrous how losing one game at the end of an arduous season can put the future of one of the great clubs in jeopardy. We’ve seen plenty get into trouble by overspending, but they’ve usually had some brief success to remember before it all ended in tears. Villa haven’t even had that. We’ve had a two year project that’s ended in failure and rarely looked as though it would be any different.
Under Tony Xia, Villa have spent heavily in an attempt to rectify the mistakes of the past, yet he’s made the biggest one of the lot, as assurances that we’d be able to cope in any eventuality have been shown as at best misguided and at worst downright lies. With the exception of Wyness, who I doubt will ever be seen at Villa Park again, the people running the business side of the club have proved to be faceless, unaccountable and ultimately incompetent. The least they should pay with is their jobs, and that’ll be small consolation for what their recklessness has threatened to destroy.
We’re not just talking about an ordinary business here. A football club isn’t a balance sheet, raw materials and goods for sale. It’s 140-plus years of hopes, dreams, memories, emotions. It’s peoples’ lives. Xia, Wyness, Steve Round, Luke Organ, Tracey Gu and Rongtian He, plus anyone else I might have left out, should be held accountable for the mess they’ve created.
I’d like to see them all apologise in person, face to face, to every one of us who’ve spent so much time worrying about the future of one of the biggest things we have. And yes, I do know that Steve Bruce has to take his share of the blame, but I get the feeling that he, at least, accepts the fact. Then once the rest of them have finished their act of contrition they should be haunted by their predecessors, the men whose shoes they tried to fill and aren’t fit to clean, for the rest of their days.
There were also a couple of coincidences last week. The first was of course when the top clubs in the Premier League finally managed to secure a deal that blows a hole in the idea of sharing overseas TV money equally, at the same time that the club who gave league football to the world they were in danger of going out of business due to their failure to get back into that exalted company.
The other, on a much smaller level, came when I was clearing out some papers and found a copy of the book Caesars, Saviours and Suckers by Bob Holmes. This tells the story of foreign owners in British football, and it’s a sobering reminder that while we’re currently seeing how easy it is for a club to get into trouble, it’s a lot harder for them to get out. Clubs with financial problems act as a magnet for shysters, charlatans and asset strippers, and Villa Park still has a lot of asset to strip.
But looking for a silver lining in this big and stormy black cloud, it’s been notable how much interest there’s been in the Villa’s predicament from supporters of other clubs. If it had been anyone else I’d have looked on with a bit of either wry amusement or sympathy depending on who it was involved, although I wouldn’t have been too bothered. But there seems to be a lot of people who’ve taken a surprisingly large amount of notice in the Villa this week. Clearly, we’re a bigger story than we sometimes think we might be.
There’s been a lot of talk for a long while that football’s finances are so hideously skewed it was going to take a bigger club failing than anyone might have thought to show exactly how deep the problem is. I wish it hadn’t been ours.