The beginning of this week has been met with a sense of surreal satisfaction from yours truly. It was the first of Aston Villa’s 8 league defeats which didn’t require an icepack for my wall-punching knuckles. It was the first of Sam Allardyce’s 50 points of which I didn’t care how arrogant he was after claiming them. And it was the first home loss at Villa Park which wasn’t greeted with a chorus of boos from unruly “supporters”.
Because as Man City and Liverpool both dropped points at the feeble hands of Hull and West Ham, the outcome of the Villa Park game was virtually irrelevant. The boys had already secured two more points than last year, they had displaced two teams from last season’s top 5 and for the 3rd consecutive year, they copper fastened their right to be called a “big” Premier League club.
Sometimes in football though, the term “big” refers to the material wealth of the said club; it analyzes the success of that team. And in today’s society, if I tried to suggest that Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa is indeed a “big club” in comparison with the customary “big four” (including Liverpool, not Spurs), I’d be a national laughing stock for the reason that the recent success of the usual “big four” is incomparable – particularly by a humble Aston Villa outfit.
Similarly, the spending power of those 4 clubs vastly exceeds the capability of the Birmingham side who, despite surpassing the two Merseyside giants in the Premier League, still failed to break into the division’s elite top 4. Instead, Villa stayed 6th and were overtaken by a couple of Lords of the Manor who were afforded the privilege of driving the best cars money can buy. Tottenham, who admittedly splashed less cash than their Manchester rivals, broke into the Champions League with the exact amount of points which I predicted would clinch 4th place way back on the 10th March (but who’s counting eh?). However, I did suggest that Spurs would finish in 7th place – but that’s not important! What is important, unfortunately, is the small matter of Spurs’ transfer muscle. Consistently, Tottenham have been amongst the top 4 buyers in the Premier League (and still are, even with the inclusion of Man City’s fantasy football mockery), but have failed to convert gold into success. Martin Jol guided the Londoners to 5th place – but his highest ever points tally was just 65 (one above MON’s 64 for this year). On top of this, the sacking of the Dutch manager (which was ludicrous) brought about 2 successive midtable finishes before the constant injection of money began to bear any fruit. And since “Hazza’s” arrival on White Hart Lane in October 2008, the self-professed straight-talking people’s manager has had the luxury of spending over £70million on transfer signings (signings like club captain Robbie Keane to whom he could afford to ship north of the border for the year).
The great City revolution in Manchester has also demonstrated the power of money. Okay, City were unable to acquire some of the names on their audacious wish-list, but they have began to put themselves on the map and with an influx of quality players this season alone, costing around £125m, they have leapt from midtable obscurity to 3 points from Champions League Football.
Unfortunately, the message echoing from both Eastlands and The Lane seems to be, “Money talks…”
And where I would love to disagree with this disheartening, inhumane moral, how can I? O’Neill has had tremendous backing from our American owner and that is partly why we find ourselves looking down on the majority of the league each season. Although he didn’t inherit a goldmine like Mark Hughes, Harry Redknapp and Roberto Mancini did, MON was afforded the ability to record a net expenditure of almost £80m over his 4 years at the helm and he has put this to magnificent use. However, Villa’s record transfer signing still stands at a mere £12m, and with such an ineffectual sum being paid for our best players, can we really contend with the might of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City?
The answer is simple: Not without the money.
As we were rescued from the depths of relegation in 2006, we forced our way into top half reckoning and ate up the points between ourselves and fourth spot. This year, I started dreaming. I was hoping that because we had too much on 5th place Everton and with the decline of Liverpool, we could snatch the final Champions League spot in similar fashion to most of our on-field victories: smash & grab. But as surely as our league position was improving with every penny spent, Spurs and City’s rash investments were paying rich dividends – at our cost. And now, if we don’t act financially, we must then be prepared to accept that we are bound to a fate of mid-table apathy.
Take Liverpool FC as a frightening example. 6 seasons ago, they were champions of Europe. Last season, they finished 4 points from eventual champions Manchester United. This year, however, they finished 4 points behind the sky-blue of Manchester City – a drastic slide of hand which can be put down to a number of factors, but one underlying problem will bind all these together: Money. Okay, so I’ve argued that Benitez could have done better in the transfer market and I still agree; but what I do sympathise with is the fact that Spurs and City, Chelsea and United have had almost a blank cheque book to work with; whereas Liverpool have recorded a loss of £96.1m in the transfer market over 6 years. While I still believe that this fee could have been used better to solidify an already world-class club, the fact is that the other 4 teams have had the security of making mistakes: big mistakes. Benitez, on the other hand, has clearly made bad signings – but he has been punished much more severely than a Spurs, City, United or Chelsea manager would have been.
Therefore, the worst thing for a sixth placed Aston Villa to do now would be to stand still. We didn’t move much this year from our previous league form and got lucky with the fall from grace of the Merseyside competitors. If there is to be a repeat of our hesitancy to really attack the transfer market this coming summer, then we shall be delighted to achieve a 7th place finish come next May. There has been no sign of Tottenham or Manchester City easing up when it comes to flexing their financial muscle, and you can bet your bottom dollar that Liverpool (possibly under new owners) will improve on their 63 points tally of this 09/10 season.
So, as I am delighted with how well this year has gone, and I am very aware with where we have come from, I think it’s imperative that we understand that big bucks need to be invested in the first team if we are to push on from here. David Moyes, who is undoubtedly one of the greatest managers about has been at Everton for 8 years but you can’t help but think that he has taken them as far as he can. Unable to qualify for the Champions League group stages in 2005, Moyes’ squad missed the boat to bring back the glory days to Everton, yet they have still been performing superbly. Nevertheless, these excellent performances have all been in relative proportions and more importantly, have secured positions outside the top 4. Whilst Moyes will continue to make Everton a feared team; without financial backing, he has seen the likes of Spurs, City and Villa leave them trailing.
Mr Lerner (I love you by the way) now has two options:
1) Take a gamble and place your trust in O’Neill. Invest heavily in creating a squad worthy of Champions League football and believe that Aston Villa can be great again.
2) Rest on your laurels. Appreciate that we have created a top half Premier League team with financial security and the capability to cause an upset to the “big” clubs on our day. And lose O’Neill and all our momentum for good.