Date: 23rd August 2012 at 12:14pm
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It would be fair to say that Villa’s transfer spending, prior to the LernerMartin O’Neil era was paltry. Deadly Doug’s tenure was a tincture in comparison; a penny pinching, copper counting affair that had many of us pulling teeth. In the last seven seasons (99/00 -05/6) of Doug’s lording, Villa spent a combined estimated £74 million in the transfer market, with player sales for the same period generated £40 Million of returns. All in, Villa put out for £34million over seven seasons.

Our biggest transfer outlays for those years included River Plate’s hitman Juan Pablo Angel at £9.5 million (a signing partly procured by protests in and around the ground,) badge kisser Alpay at £5.6 million, Baros at £6.5 million and satellite launcher Balaban at £5.8 million. Oh, and we took on a fella from Milan with a crock knee for £3 million (though Martin Laursen, once fit, wasn’t half bad.) Thrifty times indeed.

When entrepreneur Randy Lerner took sole control of the club in August 2006 all that appeared to have changed. From season 06/07 to season 11/12 the club have sanctioned around £168 million in the transfer market, recouping an estimated £104 million from player sales. Thus, in the six seasons since Lerner bought the club our transfer budget has doubled to over £60 Million and wages went through the roof with it. Randy Lerner has also, I believe, personally invested around 200 million in the club as he carried out the revitalising, restructuring and re-branding of Aston Villa. No small change then.

So what can we take from these contrasting figures and periods. Two things stand out and they’re undoubtedly linked. (1) Our best players all end up wanting to leave- Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry, Milner, Young, Downing, Cahill- all of them gone. In the Premier League era our best players go, with us failing to replace them or reinvesting the money in those who offer similar quality (2) We have also failed, I believe, to marry a good proportion of our transfer spending to player talent. The ratio of expenditure to performance is often poor or the expenditure is simply unsustainable

I do acknowledge that finding top players or players with realistic potential for limited outlay is a difficult task -one we have not histrionically fared well in. In between the odd marquee signings we have often spent good money and high wages on under-performers or players who never really made the grade or gave us what we thought we were buying. You think you’re signing the next Rio Ferdinand and in reality all you had was Curtis Davis all along. A costly venture at £9 million.

Of course no manager can see the future but can we reverses this trend? I think we can and we must. In the age of Pro-zone, strategic performance analysis and spreadsheet sports, we must be more cost effective as we go forward. Yes, two or three top signings can add a huge dimension to Villa. However, in the majority of cases we are going to need to find players in £3-£6 million bracket for affordable wages who will eventually have the same sporting impact as a £15 million acquisition on 80k a week; players who will be prepared to commit their futures to us on paper when the big guns come calling two to three years down the line. Easier said than done is it, though that is the scale of the task. So when Matt Lowton becomes one of the best right backs in the country what convinces him to stay?

To begin with our recruitment and development strategy has to match our renowned infrastructure and facilities. I believe we now have the management team capable of taking the players on -we just need to identify the right players at the right price and develop them together. In short: what happens off the pitch is now as vitally important as what happens on it. The days of imbalanced and hasty transfer dealings to solve short term problems have to go. Also, players must be hungry and motivated by the desire for sporting excellence and achievement. They must want to win and not just earn. They must become part of the working fabric of the club.

Luckily, I think we are off to a good start in all of this. Paul Lambert not only understands the problem but he and his team have solutions. We can see the evidence of this because he has purchased some very good footballers already, and all for the sort of prices that Deadly Doug would have enjoyed, no doubt aided by current market conditions. We have also hired Michael Henke as our head of European scouting with Lambert not being rushed on future buys.

I would argue that we are not the only club who have learned these lessons either. Fenway Sports are trying to turn Liverpool around. The prospect of turning a club with a European wide brand – a club who could potentially command large Champions League revenues, mass merchandising returns, guaranteed ticket sales as well as future TV rights deals both at home and abroad- into League winners and European contenders is a financial and sporting lure that Fenway Sports could not ignore. They returned the Boston Red Sox to glory so why not Liverpool FC. Why not indeed.

However, we could speculate that after spending near to £137 million in the last two seasons ( 10/11- 11/12) recouping around £106 million of that in player sales, Fenway Sports felt that better value could and should be had for their dollar. Despite the £50 million for Torres, the £17 million for Macherano and the rumoured £12 million for Meireles, helping to balance the books, reported figures of £35 million for Andy Carroll, £20 million for Downing, £16 million for Henderson and £7 million for Adam, plus all their wages, must have stopped the Fenway Heart. Especially when they started to understand what that was going to mean in sporting terms. It wasn’t going to add up to a Premier League title or even a challenge. Neither would it leave them with the prospect of a return to the Champions League. All it was going to mean was an 8th place finish.

Fenway, on considering how to address this, might have found themselves examining what was being done at Everton. The miraculous David Moyes spent somewhere in the region of £9.5 million in the same two seasons, recouping around £14 million in player sales -for two consecutive 7th place finishes! Currently, Carroll and Suarez -a combined £57 million of talent- look like they couldn’t hit the side of a battleship with a paint gun. I’m sure I’m not the only football fan in the country wondering what David Moyes could achieve with that kind of money. Indeed, in terms of expenditure Moyes’ managerial feats that have turned him into gold and have led to Premier League merit payments of around £ 10.5 million for the last two seasons.

In comparison, Aston Villa have spent far in excess of what has been spent at Everton yet the correlation between financial expenditure to sporting performance remains our fundamental problem. This works both ways though. Under Martin O’ Neil we earned three successive 6th place finishes. In this case, although the correlation between expenditure and sporting performance was good we could no longer justify that level of expenditure because it was not sustainable, particularly in terms of wages where many of the clubs problems lay. The model was wrong. However, it is ridiculous to blame the manager for this. He does not do the deals or hammer out the terms of the players contract. He is not an economist or a sporting finance expert: he is a football manager and a very good one at that. It is the clubs, the players and the agents that thrash out the deals. What it does highlight perhaps is that in trying to construct a workable model where sustainable expenditure matches performance, the relationship between the management staff and the board must be one of good communication, where this an agreed strategy and vision.

I’m sure Fenway Sports must have wondered where they could get some of whatever Moyes was doing. Up step Brendan Rodgers then. In the Swan’s first season in the Premier League Rodgers managed an 11th place finish with a team predicted to be the whipping boys of what is a very physical and unforgiving league. Swansea didn’t have the depth or strength across the park, we were told. They would collapse, we were told. Well for a transfer budget of £9 million, players like Routledge, Graham and Vorn joined the likes of Britton, Dyer, Taylor, Williams and Rangel in showing us all how football could be played. In fact, they played us off the park in January, Dyer picking us to pieces to the tune of Land of My Fathers.

None of those names would have had the Villa pulses racing at the start of last season though perhaps the signing of £10 million N’Zogbia did. What does this tell us? One thing- Swansea’s sustainable finance to performance model worked.

More importantly, Swansea have not appeared to have gone backwards. They wasted no time in appointing the great Michael Laudrup on Rodger’s departure for Anfield. Player additions have already come in to the squad as well, including the promising Michu for a measly £2million! Quality has been replaced by quality and the football philosophy continues, as witnessed last week.

In conclusion, Aston Villa must be as exacting in their pursuit of perfection off the field as we are on it. This big club of ours must finally find an equally big vision that does not involve breaking the bank -and a vision that works, marrying what happens on grass with what happens behind closed doors.