Aston Villa chairman Randy Lerner is close to selling the club for a price close to £150m. The Telegraph reports that the American has been in talks with three interested parties but that a sole “mystery bidder” has now been granted exclusivity to complete the due diligence process. The other interested groups were rumored to be of Chinese and American origin with one led by Paul Smith, former business director for Chelsea FC.
The Lerner REVOLUTION
The sale would mark the end of a nine year roller-coaster ride for the West Midlands club that saw the team swing from top four ambition to relegation desperation. Following his 2006 takeover Lerner made substantial improvements across the club: investing in players for the first and youth teams, modernizing academy infrastructure, and renovating match-day facilities. The club challenged for Champions League qualification in the following seasons until the wheels appeared to come off in the 2010/11 season, most notably punctuated by the acrimonious departure of Martin O’Neill early in the season. Results declined steadily as investment dropped off, with this season’s 17th place finish marking the lowest position of the club in almost 20 years, only to be surpassed the 18th place finish of the 1994/95 season.
From 2006 – 2011 Lerner invested nearly 200m into the club before limits on his own resources forced him to curtail spending. In the four years since, the net spend on players has dropped off considerably, with estimates at a much more modest £10m annually. The club’s biggest purchases in the post O’Neill period were Charles N’Zogbia and Christian Benteke, both brought in for £10m or less.
CHALLENGES OF THE MIDLANDS
The new investors have several key issues to address, in particular the need for immediate investment to stabilize league position and revamping the club’s approach to youth development. The Villans have been the fourth lowest spenders among clubs in the league for the past five seasons, having invested less than £29m on a net basis and only being underspent by Everton, Newcastle and Tottenham (Spurs also only included because of the tremendous outlier that was the Gareth Bale transfer).
Where there has been under-investment in the first team, there has been under-performance from the club’s academy system. Few of the crop brought in under Lerner have claimed regular spots in the senior team and it’s unclear whether those who have are of the quality needed to push Villa forward.
Most important is addressing Lerner’s lack of a long term growth strategy, arguably the biggest failure of his tenure, relying primarily on squad investment only to be out muscled by existing competitors and outflanked by the emergence of Manchester City. Is there room for Aston Villa in the Top Four? Is it feasible with Financial Fair Play in effect? Is mid-table stability the only realistic goal for the foreseeable future?
Despite recent troubles Aston Villa remain a club with a deep history, large supporter base and substantial resources to draw upon. The hangover of the past five years has been a crushing presence and lifting the burden of that history can only be a positive for the club.
Any new management that comes in will be able to work with a team that has shed its older, costly players and retained a core of talent surrounded by good prospects. The club is also still the presumptive king of the West Midlands, with control over the second most populous city in the UK to draw upon for local support and commercial opportunities. Meanwhile, the Villa name is still rated as one of the Top 25 brands of world soccer, the actual figure and ranking might need to be taken with a grain of salt but clearly there is something of value for ambitious owners to work with.
Bringing in an owner with a long time horizon and the ability to reinvigorate key areas of the club may finally realize the promise of Aston Villa in the modern era.