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Author Topic: The weight of history  (Read 369 times)

Online dave.woodhall

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The weight of history
« on: May 09, 2020, 12:25:25 AM »
From no. 180 - February 2013.

Those of us who are students of history (A level Grade C I think Ė Iíll have to ask my mum to look at the back of her cupboards to find the certificates) know that great events usually have their origins in happenings from many years before, sometimes which donít seem important at the time. Word War Two, for example, didnít start because of what took place in September 1939; its roots could be traced back well into the nineteenth century. In the same way, I think that the problems Villa have been encountering go back further than the day Martin OíNeill walked out. I think an equally significant date in our subsequent decline was 27th September 2008.

To understand what was so important about this, cast your mind back to the summer of 2006, and the arrival of Randy Lerner together with a plethora of American-based businessmen and ideas. After giving the rest of the Premier League a fourteen year start in how to run a club properly, the idea was that Villa would get a taste of proper American marketing. Joining Randy on the board were such heavyweights as banker Michael Martin and Robert Kain, CEO of the top sports marketing company IMG.
They had brash, bold plans to move the club forward and it was hard not to get carried away on a tidal wave of enthusiasm. There was talk of expanding the ground to hold 51,000 and a new state of the art North Stand. Right away their attempts were obvious Ė advertising hoardings and the sides of buses throughout Birmingham were plastered, supporters were properly targeted.

The signs were certainly promising. There was a deal with Nike that meant our shirts were on sale around the world, which was incredible for a club who until then had barely bothered to get them stocked thirty miles away. Ticket prices were either frozen or reduced, the local community was made to feel part of the club instead of unwanted. At the first opportunity came that pioneering sponsorship deal with Acorns. The Holte Hotel was renovated at a cost of £4 million, the ground received the sort of cosmetic touches that Doug would never countenance but made the place look so much better and Bodymoor Heath was modernised. Everyone felt part of the brave, exciting new world and the sky appeared to be the limit. Certainly, supporters responded. The average gate for 2005-06, the last season of the Ellis regime, was 34,111. The following year it was 36,214, despite Villa struggling for much of the time. By 2007-08 a sixth place finish saw an average of 40,397, the highest since the boom years of the immediate post-war period.
All of this is fact. From now on itís supposition. I might be wide of the mark but itís what I think happened.

The new owners had been looking for a football club for some time. They chose Villa for several reasons, not least the comparative lack of debt but also because of our location in the heart of the country, the centre of the motorway hub with a massive catchment area and no rivals as far as the eye could see. Itís my belief that they thought they could market us throughout the Midlands and further afield, turn people who quite liked football into active fans and most of all tap into the massive latent support that the Villa enjoy.

Most of all, I think they believed they could get supporters of other teams to watch us, because at that point we were in the Premier League, the rest werenít and all that matters is the Premier League. You could point out until you were blue in the face that Villa Park has never been filled on a regular basis and they wouldnít believe you. Just because it hadnít been done before didnít mean that it couldnít be done at all. An admirable attitude, but if you believe it youíre headed for disappointment when it doesnít happen.

And there was their first mistake. Villa might not have had any immediate top-level rivals at the time, but we did have several longstanding ones in the lower reaches. Stand on New Street station and within half an hour you can be at four, arguably five, major grounds. Small Heath, Albion, Wolves and to a lesser extent Coventry might not get massive gates, but at that time they could usually rely on 20,000 or more watching them on a regular basis. Thatís 80,000 supporters, or put another way two-thirds of the local matchgoing population, who would never go to Villa Park because their feelings for us range from mild antipathy to blind hatred. Nowhere in Europe do you have a similar overcrowded situation. Youíve also, if you donít support us, got no real reason to go to Villa Park when you can watch a match most days of the week on TV. Simple mathematics come into play as well as well. In the USA thereís 32 Football teams amongst a population of 300 million. Weíve got 92 between 40 million. As theyíd say, do the math. 
By this time General Krulak, another director, was a familiar sight on the messageboards, interspersing homespun wisdom with rallying cries to keep the faith. Whether he did more harm than good is still a moot point, but heíd already made a few disparaging comments about the atmosphere at matches when we werenít getting the right result. Another culture clash Ė in American Football, with eight home games a year lasting upwards of four hours at a time, going to the match is a social occasion and you make the most of it. On the other hand we turn up, moan a bit, then go home. Thereís another one in the next week or so therefore most of the time matchday isnít all that big a deal.

On that day of destiny, 27th September 2008, we beat Sunderland 3-1 at home in front of a crowd of 38,706 Ė not bad considering that, traditionally, and for reasons that have never been explained, our gates are always lower early in the season. General Krulak commented on four thousand empty seats, adding, ďI donít know what else we can do.Ē And that, I would say, turned out to be highly significant. I may be wrong, but I think that this was the time when the board realised that their grandiose ideas werenít going to come to fruition. They were never going to turn the Midlands into a solid Villa match-going area and the rest of the world werenít particularly bothered about a nondescript football club just because they were in the Premier League.

It might be a coincidence, but all those wonderful initiatives began to wind down from this point. The Nike deal started to turn sour, culminating in the embarrassment of the new shirt not going on sale until barely before Christmas 2010.  At the same time key personnel stated leaving. Richard FitzGerald, who had been appointed CEO upon Randyís arrival, went and was followed shortly afterwards by Steve Cunnah, whose arrival and departure were both shrouded in mystery. Martin and Kain left the board without fanfare and the link with IMG was quietly dropped. The advertising budget was presumably cut, with Villaís billboard profile around the city lessening and the entire feeling of the club seemed to get flatter and less purposeful.

Despite results holding up and top money continuing to be spent on players, gates dropped from the high of 2008. In 2008-09, the average dropped below the significant 40,000 barrier despite the team remaining favourites for a Champions League place until the final weeks of the season. 2009-10 saw a further drop, to 38,573 - still high by our historic standard, but not good enough for ground redevelopment to take place and the idea was dropped.

And thatís what I think has happened over the past few years. The board believed that they could boost gates to the point where a 51,000 capacity would be viable, with the ground would be filled more often than not and gates for the other games in excess of 40,000. They believed that our merchandise would be snapped up by followers of the Premier League around the world. They financed a neck-or-nothing chase for the Champions League, based on what they thought would be the income from such an expansion and the resultant fruits of success. Then, when it didnít come and there were no signs of it arriving, they began to economise. Weíve had to live with the consequences ever since.


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