There has been a debate in the forums about the potential renaming/sponsorship of Villa Park in order to help address the reported hole in our finances. Of course, no one knows for sure the extent of the deficit, but the figure commonly banded about is around £40m, which we will need to sort out pronto if we are not to fall foul of the EFL’s Financial Fair Play rules.
Leaving aside for a moment the issues surrounding the day-to-day running of the club, and Dr Xia’s seeming inability to get his money out of China and into Villa’s current account, we need to ensure we plug the hole and the quickest and easiest way of doing that would be to sell our most valuable assets. Jack Grealish is among those, and figures north of £30m have been mentioned in connection to his potential sale.
Obviously, selling our best players just to pay the bills is an almost unthinkable situation, but sadly, through the gross mismanagement which has plagued the club over the past decade – including the new owner – it is a situation which is fast becoming a reality. An old(ish) chestnut which has reared its head in conjunction with a fire sale of players is the potential to sell the naming rights for our grand old stadium – for some, the ‘Crown Jewel’ of Aston Villa Football Club.
Would this be such a draconian measure? Would it really be the heresy that many of us just can’t countenance? I have always been firmly of the opinion that selling the name is a no-go area; it would be selling the very soul of the club to the highest bidder for a bit of short-term profit while dragging us down to the level of less storied, less romantic, less historic clubs. And I don’t think too many would disagree.
But the ugly reality of our situation – and indeed these times in football generally – is that money talks and ‘progress’ has a price. Had we not been so disgracefully and incompetently managed over the past few years, then the suggestion of renaming our iconic stadium would never have seen the light of day. But we need money and we need it fast. Failure to return to the ‘Promised Land’ has put paid to any financial bonanza in the near future, and along with the obscene TV money on offer has gone lucrative marketing opportunities to swell our coffers.
Manchester City sold the naming rights to the City of Manchester stadium – and club sponsorship in general – to Etihad Airways for a reported £100m over 10 seasons. While there is no way we could expect to secure such a bumper package as a Championship club, it would not be unrealistic to look for a deal worth, say, £10m over five seasons with payment upfront. Add that to a £30m sale of Grealish and suddenly, the immediate problems would disappear.
Of course, that’s not to say they wouldn’t quickly return – does anyone trust the current owner to deliver on his promises of European (even world) domination in the foreseeable future? More likely is that we will find ourselves in this position in another five years, and the cycle will need to be repeated. But needs must, and we need to be pragmatic and practical.
Football sold its soul to the devil in 1992, and it’s not much of a stretch to say the situation in which we – and many, many other clubs – find ourselves is a direct result of chasing the Sky dollar. I can think of nothing worse – or more degrading – than having to sell off the famous name of ‘Villa Park’ to some faceless Chinese corporation of which nobody has ever heard.
But the sad and depressing reality is that we no longer have any choice. We need the money. And in any case, where do we draw the line? Indeed, is there any point in drawing a line? The Holte End was demolished almost 25 years ago, but at least the replacement was sensitively designed and constructed. Since then, Archibald Leitch’s grand old Trinity Road stand has been torn down and a metal-faced monstrosity erected in its place. Surely no one really likes the North Stand and its 1970s brutalism? Who is really happy that the Doug Ellis Stand is so-called and would be against selling naming rights on that particular area of the ground?
What if Dr Xia decided to relocate the stadium entirely, as the board of Everton are looking to do with Goodison Park, for example? That would be far more unpalatable for me than slapping a temporary name badge onto our existing Mecca.
I’m as old school as they come and despise the way that money has taken the game away from the grassroots fan. Paying less-than-average players a weekly salary which far exceed the annual earnings of many of those who pay through the nose to watch is disgusting, but we all still do it. We do it for the love of the game, and more importantly, the love of the club engrained in our very being.
But times change. We need to keep moving and we need to accept the new realities. If the answer is a short-term arrangement to help bail us out, then what is the alternative? If we fall foul of FFP merely on a point of outdated romantic principle, misery will be heaped upon misery. We will forever call the stadium ‘Villa Park’ whatever happens. Newcastle fans never stopped calling it ‘St. James’ Park’ when their vile owner rebranded the stadium as the ‘Sports Direct Arena at St. James’ Park’. The ridiculous idea was abandoned as quickly as it came in and I’m sure the same would happen in our case. But the crucial difference is that we are desperate for the money – Newcastle were not and it was merely a vanity project for Mike Ashley and his downmarket sports shops.
But if it didn’t and Villa Park was the ‘Recon Arena’ or the ‘Lotus Bowl’, it would merely reinforce the fact that football has moved on and been swallowed up by marketing and money. That’s where we find ourselves in the modern game, so let’s at least take advantage, rather than remain left in the wake.