It seems like only yesterday that Aston Villa were upsetting Liverpool to clinch a spot in the FA Cup Final. But that win at Wembley would prove to be the last significant win of the Villans’ 29-year run in the first division of English football.
On April 16, 2016 – a day that may live in infamy for the club, for many years to come perhaps – Aston Villa were relegated after a 1-0 loss to Manchester United. It was a game in which the Villans actually played quite well for most of it, but not well enough to earn any points.
The 2015-16 Aston Villa season was not the case of the players simply not living up to their talent or not being talented enough – although those factors certainly played a huge role on the pitch.
Aston Villa fell apart like a stack of Jenga bricks because the problems are systemic. At every phase of the club from the man who writes to the checks to the people who cashed, nobody had any idea what they were doing or how to do it in a manner befitting a top club in association football, let alone the most competitive football league in the world.
Regardless of how seemingly easy it has been for relegated clubs to make it back to the Premier League, Aston Villa have little-to-no chance of coming back if they don’t get their house in order and start behaving more like an actual sports team. And the reason they haven’t been behaving like an actual sports team is because the man at the top does not know how to.
The owner, American businessman Randy Lerner, stands out from the crowd of coaches, players and decision-makers as one of the biggest reasons Aston Villa are in this mess.
As the owner of Aston Villa, Lerner has spent the last decade throwing cash at whatever middle-tier talent he could get his hands on – but never enough to actually compete with a semi-decent club – in the hopes that the talent alone would be enough to make an impact.
In a manner befitting only Greek mythology, Lerner has somehow developed an Anti-Midas Touch where every valuable thing he touches loses its luster. Much like a child in a nursery with a rubber mallet and some plastic toys, he goes around smashing square pegs into round holes, over and over and over again. Once he’s done all that’s left is a few people with more money, no progress – and often complete regression – and scores of disappointed fans.
His choices for manager over the last five years were always promising energetic coaches with varying degrees of success at average clubs, as were his football executives. And when things got tough Lerner always just threw his managers away without having given them the resources to implement the system that worked best for them – hoping that the amalgamation of expensive players and young coaches would be enough to scrape by any easy challenge, make a tough fight with an average club and get the seldom miracle win over a top club.
Make no mistake, Aston Villa could just have easily have been relegated this time last year as well. The mere fact that Aston Villa avoided the drop in the 2014-15 season was the sheer force of will of manager Tim Sherwood and the players combined with a mercifully easy schedule in the final 11 games (and about 10 goals from Christian Benteke in the second half of the season).
Even in the NFL, the most lucrative, competitive, well-balanced and successful non-soccer league in the world, Lerner found a way to fail miserably. The Cleveland Browns, the historic NFL franchise he inherited from his father Al Lerner in 2002, became the laughingstock of American sports under his ownership from 2002 until 2012.
During that decade Lerner hired/fired four different head coaches, three team presidents, and four general managers all while the team started 15 different starting quarterbacks – the most of any team by far. Meanwhile, the team finished dead last in their division eight out of ten times, never made the playoffs and had nine losing seasons.
Lerner still got a crisp $1 billion after he sold the team in 2012. But the team still has not recovered from his decade of team mismanagement and inability to bring any semblance of stability to the franchise.
These are not the things that successful sports people – let alone successful football businessmen – do to be successful. And until Randy Lerner undergoes a dramatic change in how he runs his team, Aston Villa will be a cellar-dweller of just about any league they’re in for years to come. And if he isn’t willing to change, the Premier League may very well have seen the last of Villa Park.