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Russell Berrisford

Russell Berrisford

Russell’s support of Derby County eventually led him to leave the country. He has lived in Canada since 2007 and currently writes about soccer for The Vancouver Sun.


The Decline and Fall of Aston Villa

Written by on May 9, 2012 | 12 Comments »
Posted in English Premier League

There are many aspects of Aston Villa that make them an iconic team in the history of the English game.

They were one of the founder members of the League back in 1888; their home ground of Villa Park is one of the great traditional stadiums that (before Wembley became the de facto venue for any game of import) was a regular host of FA Cup semi-finals; they have a European Cup trophy to their name and even their claret and blue colours can’t help but bring to mind a simpler, more noble, era.

How different from what we see today.

Barely scraping away from the relegation zone (with a somewhat fitting backs-to-the-wall home draw against ten man Tottenham) Villa fans must be wondering if another season in the Premier League is less a reprieve and more an extended stay in purgatory.

Manager Alex McLeish wasn’t the most popular appointment given his previous tenure at local rivals Birmingham City but he has somehow managed to allow that popularity to fade even further by consistently putting out a team that appears solely concerned with stifling the game and incapable of providing anything that resembles entertainment in any shape or form.

Yet McLeish has already indicated that he expects to be back next season leaving owner Randy Lerner with the unenviable task of choosing between sticking with an experienced, yet incredibly unpopular, manager or taking a chance on bringing in somebody new with no guarantee that things will turn around for the better.

Indeed Lerner is not the first American to discover that the secret to success in top flight soccer is not the prudent financial restraint that can be used to build a team in North America but rather the kind of “live for today and damn the consequences” style of splurging that is the hallmark of oil billionaires who hail from countries unfettered by the nuisances of human rights and workplace health and safety regulations.  

Whatever Lerner’s financial plans the supporters will be hoping that McLeish is dispatched with haste and that a new appointee (Roberto Martinez will no doubt be mentioned) can make use of the talented youth at his disposal and, with perhaps just a few judicious signings help the club to “do a Newcastle”, although one suspects that the phrase “do a Newcastle” will begin to feel like a lifelong curse to many an owner and coach in the coming seasons.

The more plausible scenario is that Villa will embark on the  kind of slow decline that has become the signature of so many of the once mighty teams of the English game who find that the revenue from attendance figures alone is no longer enough to allow to them to compete in the modern era.

Villa then are more likely to “do a Sheffield Wednesday” (another team with a storied stadium) than a Newcastle and, like Wednesday, may soon find themselves rooting for promotion rather than worrying over the possibility of relegation.

If that decline means that going to Villa Park eventually becomes more fun that it has been of late then that may be no bad thing, but the current incarnation of the club makes it hard to believe that only three other English teams have won more trophies than the men in Claret and Blue.

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12 responses to “The Decline and Fall of Aston Villa”

  1. Tadaia says:

    Good article Russell but I honestly think that Villa has hit the “bottom”. McLeish is probably a good coach. But while Villa no longer has the likes of Young and has suffered critical injuries, AM doesn’t seem to give the players at his disposal enough credit. Nothing wrong with being pragmatic but I would think it robs the likes of Ireland, N’zogbia, Petrov and Agbonlahor of their spirit.

    Lerner will find a way to recover and stay in the league, though he may have to ditch Eck to do it.

  2. John Bladen says:

    … or a Notts County…

    One can argue it is semantics, but I prefer to think of owners who employ relatively sane fiscal management as not having “fallen behind the group” so much as having stayed with the group.

    Yes, Villa (and others like them) have dropped from being legitimate top 4/6 contenders to relegation ‘hangers on’. But looking at the EPL table, they are far from the only club in that position. If we consider 40 pts to be the ‘safety bar’, no less than 8 teams could be within 2 games (6pts) of it by the finish of play this weekend (not counting the two clubs already relegated). Half the table, in other words.

    It’s always tempting for fans to blame owners/manager for not “spending with” the big clubs. To do so brings certain doom for the vast majority of contenders. There simply aren’t enough ‘oil & steel princes’ to support the level of spending the top clubs engage in.

    It’s sad when a once great club falls out of the PL (or comes close). But in some cases, that might be the best thing for their long term survival. Eventually sanity must return to the wage structure and cash in/out balances. It may take a decade or so, but it will happen.

  3. Buster says:

    The popularity of McLeish had little to do with him being a bluenose. It had everything to do with him a poor manager. Relegated twice in 3 years with an abysmal record as far as win percentages go. 20%. The media does not need to make excuses for him. He directs poor, defensive football with little attacking initiative.
    I would welcome Chris Hughton to Villa Park. A far more attack minded coach with veritable success. He’s a Birmingham manager.
    The ‘decline’ is merely one bad season with one bad manager. Normal top ten service will resume once the clown has been replaced.
    BTW, Villa have had a pretty high average table finish under Randy Lerner. 6 years for an owner isn’t that long.

  4. Russell Berrisford says:

    I agree with those who say that there is nothing wrong with not spending your way out of trouble, but if you are a club that is going to be fiscally prudent then the leeway for selecting the wrong coach (or signing the wrong players) is painfully thin and, at the moment, Villa seem to be on the wrong side of that line.

  5. J says:

    Lerner owns the Cleveland Browns, who haven’t made the NFL playoffs since 2002. He hasn’t been shy about letting coaches go, but there isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest that this is an owner that’s all about winning. The Browns have been mostly inactive in the higher end of the free agent market for the last ten years. Their brand of football would not be described as “electric”, either, so I wouldn’t assume that Lerner is motivated to go in that direction.

    At least Villa have some younger, interesting players. What about Stoke? It seems like they are in real trouble if they don’t spend soon.

  6. Ed Gomes says:

    Please let’s not blame wealthy owners for the supposed demise of futebol. There’s always been disparity between the haves and have nots.

    Since he hired Holmgren to run the Browns, maybe Lerner will hire the right president at Villa. Someone must of brought McLeish’s name to him.

    By the way Villa is 9th in total attendance with only filling Villa Park a shade under 80% capacity. I don’t know how much they’re getting from Genting Casinos, but they were also a + 20,600,800 pounds in the transfer market.
    They should be ok to contend for Europa and Cups. Fans should be angry.
    Nothing wrong with that.

  7. Roberto Senyera says:

    To: John (although not a ManU fan), Ed, Eoin, et al

    re: Recent ManU Implosion

    I’d like to share some humourous points taken from a recent article by Jim White of The Telegraph on the subject. Ready? Here goes:

    “Their manager’s motivational speech is now all that Manchester United and their followers have left this season. Expectation – “the standard currency around Old Trafford – left the building long before even those hoping to beat the traffic. And they were on their way in their droves with half an hour to go on Sunday, serenaded out by Swansea fans inquiring, “Is this a fire drill?”

    But then there wasn’t much to get excited about here. The news from Newcastle United had utterly smothered the atmosphere around Old Trafford before kick-off, as the fans arrived knowing that, as far as this season goes, the oversized female vocalist has not only completed her repertoire, she’s sung the encore and is in the bar with the leader of the orchestra enjoying a post-performance gin.

    There will be much discussion in Manchester’s workplaces over the next week about what exactly United lost here. It wasn’t just the title, nor the fortnightly opportunity for the public address announcer to welcome “the Barclays Premier League champions”. Local supremacy has gone too, as has the sniggering sense of superiority about all things City.

    But perhaps the most damaging thing that has been lost in this championship run-in has been that sense of invincibility that has hung for so long over this stadium. The characteristics United supporters can generally rely on in their team at the business end of a season – “a ruthlessness, single-mindedness, an ability to close the deal” – have been absent this past month. The title was not surrendered to City because Ferguson’s men only managed to score twice against Swansea. It wasn’t even surrendered in their failure to muster so much as a shot on target at the Etihad last Monday.

    It was lost by forgetting to win away at Wigan last month and, most damagingly of all, by failing to hold on to a two-goal lead against Everton a fortnight ago.

    “Eight points up and you messed it up,” sang the gleeful visiting Welsh choir. Except they didn’t use the word “messed”. And it is not often in Ferguson’s tenure that anyone has been able to accuse any side of his of messing up.

    Ferguson now faces a tricky summer, plotting how to restore his club’s superiority now he is obliged to work in the lengthening shadow cast by the mountain of money down the road. His mood will not have been bettered by the fact that Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, who is said to be near the top of the United’s shopping list, hardly gave a sparkling audition. His passing was largely off target; twice he put balls through for Nathan Dyer to chase that Usain Bolt would have struggled to reach.

    To catch City, though, he will require more than an on-loan Icelander. And that remains the case even were the most unlikely set of circumstances to prevail next Sunday.

    Though in truth, relying on Joey Barton, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Djbril Cissé to deliver your dreams brings new definition to the term hope.” — I very much concur with this statement.

    Bottom line folks: The fat lady has sung and has left the building.

  8. Astronomer says:

    You wrote:
    “Indeed Lerner is not the first American to discover that the secret to success in top flight soccer is not the prudent financial restraint that can be used to build a team in North America but rather the kind of “live for today and damn the consequences” style of splurging that is the hallmark of oil billionaires who hail from countries unfettered by the nuisances of human rights and workplace health and safety regulations.”

    That is a specious argument you are trying to make above.

    Why bring in the issue of other countries’ human rights record and workplace safety rules here? What do THOSE two factors (yes, THOSE two specific factors) have to do with the oil billionaires outspending their billionaire American counterparts?

    Are you trying to say that if countries, like Russia or Abu Dhabi, had Western-type human rights records or workplace safety rules, their oil billionaires would (somehow) lose the ability to outspend their American rivals?

    What is the rational basis for implying that causal connection above?

    If you are not implying that causal connection, then why even raise the issue of those countries’ human rights records or workplace safety rules?

    The bottom line is that in the North American leagues, like the NFL, NBA, and the NHL (but not the MLB), they have a fairly hard salary cap that prevents out-of-control spending on players’ wages — the EPL does not. That is one of the key differences between the leagues here and the EPL.

    You were going in that direction by talking about “financial restraint” — but instead of developing that line of reasoning, you decided to go in another direction by launching an invective against these other countries’ human rights records and workplace safety rules (an essentially non sequitur argument in this context).


  9. […] read a column yesterday on ” The Decline of Aston Villa ,” and honestly it made me want to puke. I linked to it if any of you are curious but I […]

  10. TJ says:

    So Villa are staying in the premier league next season, looking likely to get rid of McLeish, refresh the squad a bit and banish some of the negativity…and you’ve already got them in League 1! Interesting theory.

    Yeah, Villa could end up in League 1. If they make every wrong decision it is possible for them to make over the next few years and don’t rectify any of them.

  11. John Bladen says:


    turns out you/Mr. White were wrong about Barton not being able to deliver the title…

    Without his abject stupidity, City aren’t carrying the trophy tonight…

  12. John Bladen says:


    I don’t see that link as a non-sequitor.

    Just as the grand palaces/estates were built by Monarchs (or robber barons) of a past age, oligarchs who’s wealth is earned in countries unbound by worker/human rights regulations can more easily generate (and replenish) the wealth needed to spend so wildly.

    It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about a capitalist prince like Carnegie or JD Rockefeller, or a monarch (Louis XIV, or an Oil Sheik). It isn’t, in my view, the political argument it may have sounded like.

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