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Aston Villa: 31 days to save a season

By Dan Wheeler

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29: Villa manager Paul Lambert looks on in the rain during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic at Villa Park on December 29, 2012 in Birmingham, England
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29: Villa manager Paul Lambert looks on in the rain during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic at Villa Park on December 29, 2012 in Birmingham, England

When Birmingham City won the League Cup in March 2011, Aston Villa fans consoled themselves with the likely scenario that their great rivals’ league campaign that same season would end in relegation. It did. And phew went the Holte End. But wind forward nearly three years and the irony of the situation Villa find themselves in is striking.

While only Bradford City stand in the way of a second League Cup final in four years, only a turnaround the size of Dean Windass’s shorts looks like saving Villa from joining their Birmingham neighbours in the Championship next season (providing they survive their own difficulties on and off the pitch. It really is not a great time for football in the Second City).

Currently Villa are in a sorry mess.

With their backside right on the edge of the relegation zone slicer, confidence has been shattered into a trillion seemingly unfixable pieces by an appallingly damaging set of results. Their most recent  - a three-nil home defeat by Wigan - was their third in a row.

They have now conceded 15 times in that run and failed to score. Just now, it appears there isn’t enough superglue in the world for manager Paul Lambert, who must be double checking the shade of the Villa Park grass to see if indeed it is still as green as it appeared from Carrow Road.

Having spent the bulk of my reporting career working in the West Midlands I have seen a lot of Villa over the last decade or so and one word still seems to best encapsulate the club’s path through much of that time: nearly. Nearly having a great team; nearly winning a cup; nearly cracking the top four. Now, almost unbelievably, they appear nearly on their way to being relegated.

On the one hand their plight deserves to be viewed through a filter of mitigation. They have been caned by injuries to key players but the problem of quantity of quality has been an issue at the club for years. That they haven’t found themselves in today’s position before has been down to luck as much as anything else.

But there is a potential way out though and, as always, it is down to money. And, in the pivotal 31 days January brings, quite a bit of it has to be spent. The situation is that desperate.

Put simply Villa are crying out for a benevolent owner with, say, a billion dollars burning a hole in the pocket of his Ralf Laurens.

As luck would have it, that is exactly what they have but the only issue burning about Randy Lerner is whether he is going to put his hand in his pocket at all.

Now as famously parsimonious as he is reclusive, the club’s American owner has put an end to his early days of tipping endless cash into his Villa project.

Not unreasonably Lerner, who has sunk hundreds of millions into Villa since he took over from Doug Ellis in 2006, has baulked at the perpetual cycle of one more quality player on one more massive salary and told his last couple of managers that they must sell to buy. The trouble is the Villa squad is hardly a cave to excite Alan, let alone Aladdin.

Lerner is entitled, of course, to act as he sees fit with his money. However he is not beyond reproach himself for the current mire Villa are in.

The number of highly-paid, mostly unused, substitutes that characterized large chunks of the Martin O’Neill era should never have been sanctioned in the quantity they were.

His two managerial appointments since O’Neill walked out five days before the start of the season in 2010 turned into naive and expensive mistakes and, particularly in the case of Alex McLeish, did nothing positive for Lerner’s profile with supporters.

The question now is can Lerner and the fans still find a way to salvation through all the imperfections? is there anything that will change Lerner’s current philosophy and rekindle  the gambler in him?

As we know it is not as if Lerner has not been generous in the past. In fact when Villa last found themselves in a similar position (if not quite as unpromising as the current one) in January 2011, he splashed £18m on Darren Bent.

At the time it was considered a desperate move. Maybe it was. But it worked. Bent got goals and Villa stayed up, quite comfortably as it turned out.

Ironically Bent is no longer viewed as the Chosen One. In fact at times this season (although he is currently injured) he has not been chosen at all by Paul Lambert.

But selling Bent to bring in funds makes no sense either. Not only would the club fail to rake back anything near their original outlay, he remains the club’s best and most reliable poacher, even if the ball boys and girls tend to touch the ball more often than he does during the course of a match. It has got beyond systems. Bent, when fit, has to be accommodated. Just look at his record.

The truth is Villa do not have anyone at the peak of their game to command the sort of fee that would allow Lerner to keep the strings on his purse taught. If he wants Villa to have the best chance of staying in the top flight he simply has to put some money in again. These days you have to spent millions just to stand still. Villa are slipping.

At least the club now have Lerner’s full attention following the sale of his NFL side the Cleveland Browns and that should help de-mist any fogginess around the extend of Lerner’s ambition.

Rumours have been rife for the last few years that Lerner’s keen to sell the club. If that’s on his agenda then remaining in the elite is paramount to getting a good price. He will know this of course. 

And talking of money, there’s the added incentive of the new TV deal that will make the world’s richest league a whole lot richer. From next season each club will receive around 60 million pounds per year. Who wants to miss out on that?

Ultimately it will all come down to how much Lerner cares about keeping Villa a part of the Premier League circus. Many Villa fans do not think he cares enough. It has been a repeated accusation. Lerner’s decision to never speak to TV or radio and his patchy record at attending matches has understandably added to the feeling of alienation in the stands.

As it has always been, no-one really knows what Randy Lerner is thinking. Is he planning a fresh cash injection or is he happy to let the club contract into a self-sufficient enterprise and operate at whatever level it takes for that to happen?

Villa fans are hoping Randy Lerner is brave enough to take one more gamble. And over the next 31 days they are about to find out.