Stormclouds on the horizon

Life at Villa Park rumbles on, with Dave Woodhall wondering what events might bring, and when.

I once read that the summer of 1939 was a real scorcher, with the people of Britain spending months enjoying the endless sunny days oblivious to what was about to kick off across the Channel, or maybe sunning themselves all the more because they knew the world was about to be thrown into turmoil once everyone had got back off their holidays.

There’s a bit of that feeling at Villa Park at the moment. The current heatwave is nice while it lasts and the World Cup is certainly proving a distraction, but you know that the serious business is about to start up again any minute now, and chances are it’s not going to be pretty.

The players are back in training and Steve Bruce’s job seems secure going into the start of the league programme, which is probably for the best in the circumstances, whatever that might say about the circumstances. Byt while these would normally be the biggest talking points of the month they now seem a sideshow to the really important story, namely speculation over the financial state of the club and uncertainty over its future.

After weeks of silence-fuelled speculation, Tony Xia made a statement in which he said that the Villa aren’t for sale, that he’s turned down offers, and would consider anyone who wanted to put in what he called “minority investment”. He also gave assurances that the financial situation is under control and continued to admit that FFP is an ongoing problem – not that it seems to be concerning many other clubs.

I appreciate that the owner has at least said something. but I’d like him to have gone a bit further. Namely, who he thinks would be daft enough to stump up a significant eight figure sum in return for no effective say in the running of a mis-managed, under-performing, debt-ridden Championship club.

On a more mundane note, I’d be interested to learn who’s responsible for the club’s transfer policy, and what steps are being taken to add to what is a worryingly thin line-up at senior management level. Xia has said that he’s now acting CEO and that there was “significant football experience” within the playing and administration staff. I’d like to know how he’s come to that conclusion because I’ve looked high and low and I can’t find any significant experience of anything apart from mystery.

We still don’t know the extent of Xia’s business experience, or the source of his day to day funding of the Villa. The rest of the senior management team now consists of chief operating officer Luke Organ, with a sporting background in marketing (just like Tom Fox), a finance director who’s been in the background for eight years, an unknown lawyer and Rongtien He, whose primary qualification for a senior role seems to be that he’s the same nationality as the owner.

Please excuse the cynicism, but I don’t see a great deal there to inspire confidence in assembling a squad to get us out of the Championship. Modern football administration is a profession in itself, and we’ve seen only too vividly the perils of relying on staff who don’t know the inner workings of the industry and its main players.

Doug Ellis had many faults but there wasn’t anyone in the domestic game who wouldn’t take a call from him or Steve Stride, while even Randy Lerner eventually grasped the importance of bringing in a few big hitters, albeit by which time the situation was so far gone as to be irretrievable and they, perhaps wisely, didn’t stay long.

We have four weeks until the league programme starts. I appreciate that there’s not a lot of business being done at the moment but there aren’t many signs of players arriving. The fees already paid for Sam Johnstone and Lewis Grabban weren’t exactly bargains although they certainly offer better value than some of our signings of the past two years. That, sadly, is the reality of the situation – for many reasons, we can’t afford to spend the sort of money on established first-teamers that we’ve been used to splashing out on bench warmers and squad players.

As Gareth Southgate marches inexorably on towards the World Cup final, it’s hard not to look back at the last time the nation was so euphoric over the exploits of the national side, coincidentally a time when Villa’s last successful side had just won the first of what seemed destined to be many trophies and Southgate was one of its star players. Since then we’ve had the boom and bust under-achievement of the latter Ellis years, the New Dawn Fades of Randy Lerner (if ever a band perfectly soundtracks the era it must be Joy Division) and whatever fate awaits us under Tony Xia. Nobody expected much from Russia 2018, but if England can surpass all expectations, so can the Villa.

Next Saturday sees what’s become a traditional curtain-raiser to the pre-season programme, in the shape of two friendlies against local non-league opposition. Half the squad will be travelling to Telford while the other half will be at Kidderminster. Harriers have had a few financial crises over the years and during one of them a group of Villa supporters contributed to a fundraiser aimed at keeping the club ticking over until new owners could be found. Maybe they could return the favour.