How things have gone so badly wrong under the billionaire's patronage
With £200 million zipped safely in their Thundercats coin purse, most right thinking football fans would find an imaginative way to invest in the game. Some may build lavish new facilities for their club, while others may simply load a fistful of banknotes into a bazooka and fire it in the direction of Neymar’s tax-challenged representatives. Some scallywag may, conceivably, produce a scene-for-scene remake of Titanic, with Ruel Fox and Chris Bart-Williams in the lead roles.
What no football fan/human/inexplicably wealthy cheese plant would ever do is take that £200 million and hurl it into the raging flames of despair that is Aston Villa. Which is odd, because that is purportedly the very amount Randy Lerner wants in order to slap this catastrophic monkey off his back.
If it wasn’t for Donald Trump frothing incoherently into crowds of dimwits and mutants, Lerner would be the clear candidate for the planet’s most unlikely billionaire. Villa’s imminent relegation is perhaps the clearest case of careless ownership since Darth Vader forgot to close the gate on the Death Star’s thermal exhaust port.
But, rather than the crab-in-a-tumble-dryer mess that we see today, Lerner’s initial impact was pretty impressive. In the first three seasons of his ownership, a Villa side led by Martin O’Neill finished 6th place each time.
Admittedly to get to that point, O’Neill had spent money like he was Kanye West in a shop that exclusively sold shiny things to wankers. But, being a glittering bukkake of currency rather than an actual football competition, the Premier League heartily welcomed and rewarded such ambition.
Then, like someone who had woken up surrounded by Jägermeister sick and a hefty pile of receipts, Lerner got twitchy and pulled the financial plug. O’Neill, a man who treats different perspectives like they were made of faeces and paedophiles, packed it all in just days before the start of the 2010/11 season. The rest is (deeply pathetic) history.
Since then Villa have been led by Gérard Houllier, Alex McLeish (fresh from being too rubbish for Villa’s arch rivals Birmingham City), Paul Lambert, Tim Sherwood and the recently departed Rémi Garde.
Under those five managers, Villa won just 50 of their 215 league games. O’Neill won more on his own, despite spending 60 less games in charge.
But, despite the largely hapless nature of the managerial appointments (I doubt many ice cream van owners would let Tim Sherwood anywhere near the Mr Whippy machine for at least a year) it’s a job that a dream team of Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson, Batman and Jesus would have walked dejectedly away from after a few gloomy months.
Since O’Neill’s departure – or more relevantly since Lerner’s massive, crippling mood swing – Villa have never finished higher than 9th and have never again broken through the 50-point mark. Their last four seasons have brought them finishes of 16th, 15th, 15th and 17th – and even die-hard Villa fans like David Cameron (if he remembers he actually is a Villa fan) would have to admit they deserved relegation long before now.
Amongst the many items of spiky, hefty weaponry being used to smack this poor club is the big blue stick labelled ‘Leicester’. This time last year, Nigel Pearson’s side were bottom too, the difference being they had the spirit and unity to mount a stunning comeback. Villa’s only chance of survival would be for a malevolent alien race to wipe out the rest of humanity, using laser gun that is curiously unable to destroy lazy and rubbish things.
Of course it’s deeply unfair to compare any current Premier League team to Leicester, least of all one that would struggle to win against a team of pencil shavings. But, at the current rate Villa are amassing points, it would take them 132 games to reach the total Leicester are at already this season.
Sadly, the number of stats that underline how preposterously bad Villa are greatly outnumber their paltry tally of goals, points, wins and successful signings. And anyway, the numbers merely reflect the symptoms of a desperately ill club. The real issue is an owner who is only marginally less damaging to the club when he makes no decisions, as when he makes terrible ones.
From crumbling on the cusp of a top-four breakthrough, to a string of peculiar appointments, to a Moneyball approach that was so badly botched they might as well have asked a squirrel to pick transfer targets, Lerner is the type of owner who, in trying to give someone a leg-up, accidentally hurls them into the path of an onrushing speedboat.
The Championship looms, entirely deservedly, for Villa. But what began as quite amusing bungling, a lot of football fans now feel is just sad. Sadder even than the end of Bart-Williams Titanic. Never let go Ruel Fox. Never let go.