The Bigger Picture - Part One
A Villa fan this week asked me to look at the “bigger picture” in relation to this week's on goings at Villa Park. His assertion was that, by appearing to administer a slap in the face to fans via a series of quotes in the media, that David O'Leary had talked Aston Villa down yet again and had set himself up for a fall. The bigger picture, he said, showed O'Leary should keep his opinions to himself and the club's fans would still be behind him. I think it's a shame that O'Leary should lose the support of any fan simply for speaking what I believe to be the truth.
So, I thought I'd look at an even bigger picture and see if I could work out what would drive the manager to be so downbeat of late. The bigger picture makes for interesting viewing. Lets start with events immediately following the resignation of Graham Taylor; later revealed by Taylor to be caused by Aston Villa being run for one man only, and no longer like a football club.
David O'Leary assumed the hot seat at Villa Park with the team having just avoided relegation on the final day of the season. His brief, discussed over tea and chicken sandwiches, was to reduce the wage bill while at the same time preserving the club's premiership status. The idea behind this was that the club had vastly overspent in previous years in terms of transfers and wages, and that needed to be realigned before any further spending would be sanctioned. However, once this task was achieved and the accounts were healthier, spending would be approved and funds made available.
Reduced the wage bill immensely. Alpay, Hadji, Kachloul, Boulding, Leonhardsen, Kinsella, Enckleman, Allback and Staunton were all removed from the wage bill. Dublin and Johnsen were not offered new contracts and left the club at the end of that season. McCann and Sorensen were brought in to the squad.
December sees Mark Ansell depart the boardroom, and Ellis resigns as chief executive pending the appointment of a new CEO. The search eventually bears fruit and Bruce Langham, a highly respected former CEO of Fulham FC, is announced as the next Ellis yes man. In January, Nolberto Solano joins and has a difficult first few months settling in. Fans begin to grumble that Solano is past it and using Villa as a final pay day. Having missed out on relegation on the last day of the season previous, they missed out on European football on the last day of this season. The squad, which had been slashed, was lucky not to suffer any major injuries in the course of that season and survived playing Dion Dublin at centre back for a great many games. Also that season, a semi final appearance in the League Cup. In my opinion, a resounding success of a season. Overachieving, definitely. But still a success. Let's build for season 2 of the 5 year plan.
However, Ellis walks into the dressing room after the Man Utd. game on the last day of that season and lambastes the players and manager for not qualifying for Europe, chastising them for the amount of money the club had lost out on through their failure. Ellis now uses this excuse for not sanctioning the spending he had previously promised O'Leary.
On a threadbare budget for season 2, O'Leary brings in Martin Laursen to plug the hole at centre back, sells Crouch for 2 million and brings in Berson for 1.5 million. The remaining 500k goes towards a season long loan deal for Carlton Cole.
O'Leary's luck runs out. Juan Pablo Angel, the previous season's top goal scorer, is injured in preseason training and misses the first 2 months of the season. Martin Laursen is injured very early in the season and does not play again until the following August. Having overachieved previously, fate catches up with the players and injuries are much more commonplace than before. Carlton Cole proves to be useless, despite bags of potential. Mathieu Berson looks to be a good player but, for reasons known only within the Villa dressing room, doesn't play much. Rumours of homesickness abound. Berson makes a rare start in the FA Cup 3rd round, when Villa lose away to Sheffield Utd.
O'Leary bemoans the lack of squad depth and pleads publicly for the board to allow him to spend in the January window to put some meat on the bones of a squad. At the beginning of the transfer window, Ellis goes on holiday to Australia. With one week left in January, Ellis returns from holiday and eventually the club makes what is generally accepted to be a panic signing on deadline day. Eric Djemba Djemba joins for an initial 1.5 million.
The only shining light is Solano, who drags the team kicking and screaming into many games and finishes the season as Player of the Year and top goal scorer. The thin squad is showing its weaknesses now and O'Leary is making noises that the team needs improving in the summer.
April 1st. O'Leary tells the press that, despite initially thinking it was an April Fool's Joke, it is true that Bruce Langham has promised him substantial funds to spend on players in the summer. Langham appears not to be the Ellis yes-man he was initially assumed he to be. Shortly after, Langham resigns his post as Chief Executive citing a difference of opinion with Chairman Doug Ellis. Perhaps being a yes man would have provided him with a healthier CV. Doug Ellis reassumes the dual position of Chairman and Chief Executive, despite stock exchange Corporate Governance Best Practice guidelines to the contrary. Doug is also Financial Director. And Director of Football. However, Ellis insists that the changes at Boardroom level will not have any bearing on the summer plans for transfer spending.
Part two - to follow..
By Gary Gleeson
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