My letter is pretty much the size of the entire harry potter series combined but at least it gets all my messages across…
Dear Mr Faulkner and other members of the Aston Villa board,
My name is Michael Nicol. I moved to London 18 months ago from Australia to live and work. I have been an Aston Villa fan since my days back home, religiously getting up at 1am on a Sunday morning to watch the games and support the team from my sunnier shores. Anyhow, by now you have probably had so many letters complaining about Alex Mcleish you are wishing you hadn`t hired him! Apologies, what ensues is actually rather serious so I will lay off the comedy. I have revisited this letter a number of times in an effort to avoid emotional comments and to avoid the letter being dismissed as one written in anger. Although long, I assure you my letter is a good read with some excellent material, and I hope you and the board find the contents of my letter logical, constructive and ultimately worthy of serious deliberation.
Firstly, let me point out that I am fully aware of the need to reduce the wage bill to a sustainable level that allows the club to operate within its ‘footballing means`. By my rough estimates at the start of the season, following the close season arrivals and departures, the wage to revenue ratio stands at around 73%, with UEFA`s recommended level being approximately 70%. I have no problem with the fact that more players will need to depart, and we will need to rely on our youth system. I recall Randy saying some years ago that he wanted to run the place like a business and working in investments, this makes complete sense to me, and by no means am I suggesting we need to spend big to survive.
This conveniently brings me on to my next point, which is that if you are running a business, then essentially you are selling something to a customer. Aston Villa have an undeniably strong fan/customer base within the UK, and I`m sure the club is looking to extend that abroad as well. However, let me provide an analogy for how I see the current state of affairs at Villa. Villa sells its product to its customers. The product has two key facets, these being effectiveness (whether the club is winning football matches) and style (the manner in which the club presents itself to its customers during these matches). Customers are willing to tolerate an unattractive style, so long as the product itself is effective. A prime example of this was the Martin O`Neill era. Customers aren`t willing to accept a product that is stylish but isn`t effective. It is my opinion that we were progressing to a stylish product under Gerard Houllier and whether that would have become successful we will never know. Finally, customers absolutely will not tolerate an ineffective and unstylish product, which is what we are being presented with under the reign of Alex Mcleish. Not only has the club had to pay compensation for Alex Mcleish but it continues to back the decision in light of falling match day revenues, which will continue to fall if the product is not enhanced in both capacities. The Mcleish appointment really has alienated the fans, not because he managed Birmingham before us, but because he is a poor manager, who plays dire football and you`re doing your credibility absolutely no good by standing by the decision hoping for it to come good, which I can assure you, it won`t.
As you will know, General Krulak kindly visits fan forums from time to time, and I have taken this extract from one of his posts; “look at his record with other Clubs as a Manager and player. Check with Sir Alex and ask him about the man you will get an entirely different sense.” Whilst Mcleish has had a strong reference from someone who is undoubtedly one of the best managers in the game, there can be no substitute for doing your own research. This recommendation would have carried more credence had Alex Mcleish had a decent record to back it up with. I am going to touch on the following statistics because I honestly can`t be sure whether you and the rest of the board are actually aware of them, despite General Krulak`s assurances to fans that a lot of research goes in to appointing a manager. Please clarify whether you believe the following to be ‘strong record`. Mcleish fought two relegation battles with Motherwell, winning just 30% of his games during his three season tenure. He was relegated after taking over Hibernian. His 65% win ratio with Rangers is deceptive; when you`re one of two Stallions competing in a Shetland pony race (excuse the analogy) and you lose to the other Stallion seven times in a row and can`t beat the Shetlands in ten attempts at one point, then it becomes clear that this isn`t much of an achievement. Moreover, finishing outside the top two in a two horse race in the 2005-06 season.. Red flag! That was the first time the club had finished outside the top two in 18 years! Moving on to Birmingham and his win ratio was just 37% and boasted two relegations, the first I am still going to count as coming in with almost seven months and a transfer window to turn a team`s fortunes around is enough in my opinion – just look at what Villas-Boas did with Academica, or what Coyle did with Bolton. Finally, with arguably a far superior side in Aston Villa compared to Birmingham, he has managed (and I do hope you`re aware of this) just four wins from eighteen league games (for a win ratio so far of just 22%), having played all eight teams who are currently below us in the table as well as a couple who are now above us, but were below at the point we played them. Red flag? I am therefore directly refuting the comments made by General Krulak in defence of Mcleish`s appointment where he said, “He certainly has proved he can manage in the big league, and just imagine what he could do if he was with an owner who supported him.” Well, no, he hasn`t proven he can do so, and as for the backing by Randy, I will get to that later. You may well point to the fact that we are still twelfth in the table at the time of this writing, but we should be in a far stronger position given who we have played and with who we`ve yet to play, and our position could well become precariously close to the relegation zone by mid-January if we continue to employ Mcleish and his tactics. You will probably also suggest that he ‘needs time`. I don`t see the point in giving him time, when he has consistently shown throughout his managerial career that this is as good as it gets. I`ve even had Birmingham fans thank me for Villa taking him off their hands!
Surely at this point red flags are going off and you`re thinking, ‘Hang on, nothing has changed and he`s actually performing even worse than he was at Birmingham with a better squad.. maybe this guy isn`t actually that good after all`. On to the financial side of things and his appointment has hit us hard there as well. It supposedly cost us around £1.5million in compensation for Mcleish and his team, not to mention his wages, which if I had to hazard a guess, would be in a similar region. On top of that, due to his dire tactics and utterly boring style of play (who wants to watch their team concede 60% of possession every week?), average attendances are well down on last year, even when Gerard Houllier was in charge. Although only half yearly figures, they don`t look good. The 2011/12 average attendance stands at 34,540 or just 80.7% of capacity, compared to last year`s average of 37,179 (86.9%). Going back further to the O`Neill era, 2009/10 was 38,573 (90.2%) and one more year, 2008/09 was 39,990 (93.9%). It is also interesting to look at the lowest attendances, remembering that quite a few season ticket holders who have stayed away will still be counted in these figures. The lowest attendance this year (so far!) has been 30,744 compared to 32,627 last year, 32,917 the year before and 35,134 in 2008/09. For argument`s sake, let`s say the average ticket, merchandise and food spend comes to a conservative £30. On last year`s numbers, we`re set to lose about £2million this year in match day revenue, or roughly a little over £3million based on the 2008/09 figures. Whilst some of this attrition may indeed be attributable to the economic downturn, I`m going to posit that the majority of the fall is due to Mcleish. I believe this to be a fair position given the financial crisis in 2008/09 and the subsequent attendance figures on the back of that.
At this point I`d also like to remind you of a few more quotes from yourself and the General regarding the Mcleish appointment. In a forum reply to a fan the General stated that, “NO action is taken without HUGE input from many knowledgeable people What you are basically saying is, ‘Randy, let us pick the Manager we know more than you, those who are advising you, those who are in the game and know the individuals, those who make a living recommending managers and players, etc`.” Can you please explain to me how these ‘many knowledgeable people` managed to get it so hideously wrong and recommend the club appoint Mcleish given his track record is actually as dire as his tactics? If Mcleish is the best this lot can come up with then I`m going to have to agree that yes, the fans should be picking the manager! You personally stated that, ‘Unquestionably, Alex meets the criteria we set out at the beginning of our search which was based on proven Premier League experience, leadership, a hard-working ethic and, most importantly, a shared vision for Aston Villa.” I`m sorry, but those aren`t very good criteria. Any Villa fan let alone any manager is going to be able to fulfil criteria two, three and four. As for criteria number one, I hardly perceive a Premier League win ratio of 37% and two relegations as ‘proven Premier League experience`. Maybe I`m being a little harsh, whilst the wording of your first criteria would hold up in court, I would perhaps suggest changing it for future purposes to something more like ‘A successful Premier League track record`, as this would effectively rule out incompetent managers such as Mcleish. You and the board have to understand that the above comments from yourself and the General have left fans perplexed, disillusioned, and some are just downright angry. It appears incompetent, especially when you go back to the O`Neill days when we were signing half rate players on exorbitant wages and we`re now stuck trying to offload them. It appears that Randy puts blind faith in his advisors and hasn`t woken up to the fact that they`re getting it wrong time and time again, regardless of whether they have the best interests of the club at heart. Randy clearly needs to educate himself further about football, so he can understand that what Mcleish is doing is poor, and so that when people are telling him to shell out millions on this player and that player he has the ability to recognise which are the better investments.
Tactics will be my final battleground. After all, I do not care that Mcleish came from Birmingham (as mentioned earlier I moved to London from Australia 18 months ago and harbour no ill feelings towards ‘the neighbours`), all I care about is bringing back the good times to Aston Villa. Should Mourinho one day cross the city from Birmingham to Villa I guarantee you there won`t be any complaints! As I alluded to earlier, the brand of football Mcleish employs is not winning any points with fans in the ‘style` department, but most importantly, it is winning even less points in the effectiveness department. Both roads lead to decreasing revenues and at a time where we need to live within our means, this cycle is going to make it more and more difficult to compete, especially as hundreds and possibly thousands of season ticket holders won`t be renewing. Anyhow, moving on to the tactics (which Mcleish claims are not negative at all, but are in fact ‘dynamic`), and forgive me for being a little blunt here but you may have noticed our defence has been rather permeable of late, dare I say for the last 18 months. Couple that with the fact that there are only four teams who have scored fewer goals than us this season, it really does begin to throw up more red flags, or at least it should. What is worse is that Mcleish has one of the most prolific Premier League strikers at his disposal. In light of this, the best way to possibly defend would be to keep hold of the ball, yet for some reason Mcleish seems happy to concede 60-65% of possession each week, even against inferior sides. When we do get possession, this is followed by the unimaginative (sorry, ‘dynamic`), low percentage play of aiming for a target man some 60 yards up field.. more commonly referred to as ‘hoof ball`. This completely bypasses a rather important part of a football team known as the midfield. Take Swansea for example, hardly the most commanding back four, yet they only just conceded their third goal at home all season at the weekend – possession is the best form of defence!
It came to light a while back that Darren Bent has the least touches per game of any player in the Premier League. Mcleish (doing as he has done quite frequently recently) shifted the blame away from his garbage tactics and pointed towards our midfielders saying, “Benty does have great movement, it’s just a pity that sometimes we don’t have the quality to see the runs he makes”. I may be able to accept that should our midfield ever actually get on the ball for any meaningful period of time in the opposition half, but until then, I`m going to keep blaming his garbage tactics. A tick in the box for ‘leadership` there too for his shifting of the blame. Please, if you can, highlight to me how you believe this style of football is going to win us games in the long run, and how it isn`t going to alienate fans and keep them at home instead of at matches like so many already. Surely the best interests of the club dictate that it should continue to grow, strive for success and entertain its paying customers? If not, please outline what you and the board perceive to be the best interests of the club. Also feel free to point towards any of the world`s consistently top teams who employ this ‘hoof ball` tactic or have done so in the past? Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arsenal to name a few? No, they all understand that possession is not only an attacking force, but a defensive tool and I implore you to select a new manager who is capable of not only understanding that, but implementing that.
In my original letter I had decided against the recommendation of a manager as it seems somewhat arrogant, but I feel I and other fans have the right to propose managerial appointments because at the end of the day, we also want what is best for our club. From everything I have witnessed recently that has left myself, along with many others completely disillusioned, I feel, based on the logic provided that my opinion is as good as any the club is receiving at the moment by its ‘knowledgeable` advisors. Brendan Rodgers immediately comes to mind, having been an understudy to one of the greatest managers in the world in Jose Mourinho, I believe he could implement similar philosophies at Aston Villa, and with the strike power that we possess I believe that he would be a very good choice of manager. Whether he would leave Swansea or not is another matter but either way we need to start playing to our strengths. Darren ‘The Mailman` Bent is our strength, statistically one of the best finishers and most prolific scorers in the Premier League (scoring with one in every four shots over the past five seasons.. compared to Rooney for example who is one in eight), he is being starved of service, not because our midfield don`t have the quality, but because the tactics don`t suit the way he likes to get in behind defences. Not even watching the entire game when he was injured and decided to go shopping just goes to show how disinterested one of the best assets this club has had for a long time is in the way we play football. When you have three of the fastest players in the league in Bent, Agbonlahor and N`Zogbia then it makes absolutely no sense to play a long ball game and starve them of possession and the opportunity to be fed balls in behind the defence. It also makes no sense to pick old, soon to be out of contract players who don`t score and don`t create chances either (believe me, I`ve done the research), especially at the expense of younger players who need first team experience to develop. I`m sure you know who I am referring to but this is not the time or place for that argument. There was also a statistic not long ago that Mark Gower of Swansea created the most goal scoring chances of any player in Europe per 90 minutes of football – 4.39 to be exact. I wouldn`t say this is necessarily because he is the greatest creative player in Europe, but I would suggest that it has a lot to do with the tactics Brendan Rodgers employs and the fact that they are conducive to creating goal scoring opportunities i.e. having possession of the football for starters!
I`m sure Randy still harbours ambitions of reaching the Champions League, however, if we are to be in this period of ‘transition` for some time then the fans at least want something decent to watch. A free flowing style of attacking football would at least get the crowds back and increase the revenue this way, not to mention restore some faith in Randy and the board. Alternatives would be to start selling ‘Mcleish Out!` banners in the club shop as I`m sure they`d fly off the shelves (sorry, I know I said I`d lay off the comedy but that one was too good not to mention). I don`t envisage this to be possible under Alex Mcleish, for neither his track record, nor anything he has done during his time so far at Aston Villa have suggested otherwise. His successes at Rangers can hardly be considered concrete evidence of his abilities as that would be like putting Manchester United in the Championship with a monkey in charge and then claiming the monkey is a great manager as evidenced by United`s success. When you discount that from his managerial CV he is left with a host of failures and a letter of recommendation from a friend and someone he played for. In other words, not much.
On that note I will bring my letter to a conclusion, although I could go on for many more pages, believe me. I will leave you with one more statistic which is that of recent polls. Over 95% of fans agree that Alex Mcleish is not the right fit for Aston Villa and he should be relieved of his duties. Although a value investor and contrarian by nature I may be tempted to side with this 5% from time to time if there`s solid evidence to support doing so (as I was for the majority of Gerard Houllier`s reign), but this one is just a no-brainer – part ways with Alex Mcleish or watch everything you and the rest of the board have sincerely worked hard for over the past few years be washed down to the Championship.
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Epic Letter To Board Of Aston Villa