Nick Timothy is Director of the New Schools Network and a former Chief of Staff to Theresa May.
It had been inevitable since Christmas, probably even earlier than that. But that didn’t make it any easier to take the news, at about ten to five on Saturday afternoon, that my football team had been relegated from the Premier League. Aston Villa – established in 1874, founding members of the Football League and the Premier League, the fifth most decorated club in English football, seven times league champions and former European Cup winners – will find themselves in a division next season that is likely to include Burton Albion, a team that only turned fully professional seven years ago.
If you don’t care much for football, you might consider me melodramatic. But support for a football club is about so much more than following the results of a team that plays a sport you enjoy. It is something that is passed down from grandparents and parents to children. It is about taking pride in your home town or city, as anybody who has been to a cup final at Wembley – with half the stadium taken up by singing Brummies and the other half taken up by noisy Liverpudlians or Mancunians or Londoners – will tell you. With a grand old club like mine, it is about the beauty and history of our red-brick ground, Villa Park (and yes, it is an old-fashioned ground, not a stadium). For an exile living in London like me, it is about hearing the collective Brummie accent as the Holte End, our magnificent terrace-turned-stand, sings with pride, passion and humour. It is about the lump in the throat I still feel every time I sing “Holte Enders in the Sky”, and think of my late Nan and Granddad.
Not that most of the players who have represented the club this season seem to understand these things. Their lack of commitment on the pitch has been matched only by their arrogance off it. When relegation was confirmed on Saturday, Joleon Lescott, a senior player, described it as a “weight off the shoulders”. Earlier in the season, as Villa limped to an FA Cup draw with Wycombe Wanderers, the same player, along with goalkeeper Brad Guzan, reportedly told frustrated fans to “f*** off”. On another occasion, shortly after Villa lost 6-0 to Liverpool, the club’s worst home loss since 1935, Lescott tweeted a photograph of a £120,000 car, apparently as a message of defiance to critical supporters. After being pictured partying in Dubai, Villa’s team captain, Micah Richards, called a supporter who dared to complain a “clown”, while Villa’s club captain, Gabriel Agbonlahor, has been sent to a “fat camp” after putting on two stones in weight. Instead of showing contrition for their role in the club’s demise, mediocrities like Leandro Bacuna have talked to journalists about their desire to leave Villa for teams that play in the Champions League. As the football song goes, “Champion’s League? You’re having a laugh.”
So Premier League footballers can be arrogant, stupid and rich. And in the case of Villa’s players, they can be very bad at their jobs, too. This is, I admit, hardly headline-grabbing news. But the story of Villa’s decline and fall runs deeper, and it starts with its US billionaire owner, Randy Lerner, who bought the club in 2006 for £62.6 million, inheriting a reasonable team and healthy finances. His stated intention was to make Villa “compete at the highest level within the Premiership and in Europe”, and, in those early years, he spent £200 million and took the club to the cusp of the Champions League. But by 2010, having failing to break into Europe’s elite competition, Lerner became frustrated. The investment dried up, a dispute with the team manager, Martin O’Neill, led to O’Neill’s resignation, and a succession of managers came and went as Villa’s star players were sold and replaced with cheap alternatives. The result is a team barely good enough to survive English football’s second tier, the Championship, let alone meet Lerner’s promise that we would “compete at the highest level”.
The full extent of the club’s mismanagement under Lerner is only now coming to light. An internal club review – which was leaked in detail to the press – revealed that Villa’s head European scout, principally responsible for finding players in Germany, had emigrated to Australia. The scout responsible for finding players in Spain and Portugal had been busy studying for a degree at university. Villa’s recent manager, Remi Garde, was told by the club’s head of recruitment that transfer targets did not want to move to Villa, only for Garde to find out that they had never been approached. The club has been for sale since 2014, but each time a new prospective buyer shows an interest, they back off once their due diligence work is done. Now we all know how Villa is run, it is little wonder that the club has not been sold. In a rare public statement in January, even Lerner himself admitted that the “club has not been on a stable footing for at least five years.” Given that he was Villa’s chairman as well as its owner for that period, the blame can only lie squarely with him.
So what can this sorry story teach us about politics, as I promised it would in the headline? The first lesson is that, in all forms of life, accountability and good governance are paramount. When Lerner bought his initial stake in Villa, the club was a publicly-listed company. He soon bought enough shares to take full control of the club and Villa were de-listed. Until this year, when Villa’s mismanagement reached catastrophic levels, there was – according to the club’s own internal review – a lack of football expertise on the board and even among senior staff. Lerner, as chairman, was clearly never challenged by the lackeys he himself appointed to the board, and his incompetent chief executive, Tom Fox, was never held to account by the directors. The supporters – the people who were there before Randy Lerner and will be there long after he has gone – had no voice whatsoever.
Second, the rules that govern markets can be unfair. The finances of the Premier League – and of football in Europe in general – are rigged in favour of the clubs established at the top. The top four teams in England qualify for the Champions League, which brings them tens of millions of pounds of extra annual revenue. This money, and the prestige of playing in the Champions League, means these clubs attract the best players and therefore consistently continue to finish in the top four, which allows them to entrench their advantage. With the incredible exception of Leicester City – who look set to win the Premier League title this year, having avoided relegation only narrowly last year – it usually requires huge sums of money to break into this cartel. But since, thanks to their billionaire foreign owners, clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City have done just that, new financial “fair play” rules mean that no other clubs can do the same: an attempt to prevent wealthy playboys “buying” success is perpetuating the domination of the established sides even further. Add in the financial shock of relegation from the Premier League – Villa stand to lose £200 million from television revenue alone if they are not promoted again within three years – and the advantages gained by clubs like Manchester City and West Ham United, with their taxpayer-funded stadia and cheap rents, and you can see that football is no longer a contest of eleven versus eleven.
The third lesson of Villa’s demise is that there is a clash between market forces and important institutions that serve many local communities. The Premier League is a hyper-competitive market, with clubs owned by wealthy foreign investors, huge TV revenues and, for those teams playing in the Champions League, even greater income. Clubs compete with one another over a series of marginal factors, from marketing revenues, to gate receipts, to scouting networks, to players’ fitness and team tactics. Those that fail to keep up – as Villa have – risk oblivion, and the communities they serve suffer. The Premier League is an exciting market place, watched the world over, but since it was created, great English football institutions, including Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest have found themselves chewed up and spat out. My fear is that Villa are the next in line to suffer the same fate.
But no football club – and no institution in any other walk of life – has a God-given right to success or even to its continued existence. So the purpose of this column is not to make excuses for Villa’s relegation. Football is by definition a competitive sport and Villa haven’t been unlucky, we have been very, very bad. But it is a salutary reminder of the importance of institutions – and that there is more to life than markets.