After relegation to the championship in 2016, and play off final heartbreak in 2018, Villa fans could have been forgiven for thinking the club was going nowhere fast. That fateful day when Fulham ran out 1-0 winners at Wembley, i sat in the stands thinking "Was that our chance gone?". The grief was compounded soon after, when news broke about a £4.5m tax bill the club had missed. Administration was the word on people's lips, and it was an extremely uneasy time for Villa fans. Tony Xia, chairman at the time, thankfully struck a 500k deal with HMRC, and promised to pay the remainder at a later date.
Now, this is where the fun began. In July 2018, Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens bought a majority 55% stake in the club, giving them control of Aston Villa (buying out Xia's remaining stake just 1 year later). Excitement was rife at the prospect of having such wealthy owners, with a clear plan set out by them in their first interview, and our debt issues seen to.
In this article, i don't want to get too drawn in to doing a timeline of their ownership so far, i want to talk about the key aspects of their plan, and how they're slowly creating an exquisite infrastructure around the club.
Let's start with the debt side of things. Nassef and Wes have paid off the debts that we had hanging over our heads when they took over, and furthermore, have continued to plough money into the club to keep it debt free. Even during Covid where the club recorded huge losses (as expected), the two financial powerhouses committed to keeping Villa in the black. Such unwavering backing from NSWE is, of course, fantastic to see, and an indicator of their dedication to the club.
Now time to move on to the blindingly obvious and consistent investments they've made; the first team recruitment. Since promotion to the Premier League, Villa have been some of the biggest spenders in the country, and even Europe. Obviously the net spend in the summer just gone was massively aided by the departure of the £100m Jack Grealish, but it appears that at least Buendia and Bailey were long term targets anyway, and were to be added no matter what. The owners look to reinvest funds into the club when they become available, with the desire to reach European football and, eventually, possibly elite levels.
One of the most exciting rebuilds of the club since NSWE rocked up is the academy. This club has had some successful academy graduates over the years, but not real batches of players coming through in recent times. But now it's the clubs objective to seek out the best rising talents across not just this country, but around the world too (will touch on this again later), and bring them to Bodymoor. With the likes of Barry, Chrisene, Feeney, Bogarde, Iroegbunam, Burchall to name a few, we are scouting future sars, signing them up, and building a stacked academy of real prodigies, and giving them a clear pathway to the first team if they prove their worth.
On the subject of the academy still, it has already had it's successes too. After a magnificent run in the FA youth cup last season, Villa were eventual winners of the tournament with many of the lads turning heads of club scouts from around the country on the way. We have seen many of our youth players embark on loan moves this season, with particular success stories for the likes of the electric Kaine Kesler Hayden, and the creative spark Finn Azaz. In just the past week we've also seen Cameron Archer loaned to Preston and score on his debut, plus putting in a fine performance against Bristol. Let's not forget about Carney Chukwuemeka also, probably the pinnacle of that team, who has broke into the first team this season and has unlimited potential. Oh, and while we're on academy graduates, i have to give a special shoutout to Jacob Ramsey. The boy from Great Barr has really kicked on this season.
Something that has been in the pipeline for a while but has recently been confirmed as being very much in the process of happening, is the much pined after stadium expansion. In an interview with Villa TV back in November, CEO Christian Purslow updated us on the situation, with him stating he was hoping to apply for planning consent before the turn of the year. With a sold out 29,000 season ticket allocation, and 20,000 fans on the waiting list for season tickets, Purslow pointed out that it is the perfect backdrop for a capacity increase. In addition, Christian also outlined the plans to improve the hospitality side of the expansion, and to transform the commercial side of Villa Park, touting a "substantially improved retail operation". These 3 pinpointed areas for improvement would be huge for the club, benefitting from increased revenue, and needless to say, extra support on matchdays.
In that interview the subject of the women's team was also brought up, with this season showing tangible improvements since Carla Ward came to us in a managerial capacity. Talented additions have been made to the squad to aid the homegrown talent that the team already had. Those signings included former PFA player of the year nominee Alisha Lehmann, experienced midfielder Remi Allen, the very versatile Sarah Mayling (returning to the club), extremely talented and youthful keeper Hannah Hampton, proficient centre back Meaghan Sargeant, and pacey forward Chantelle Boye-Hlorkah. Purslow was delighted with the start to the season the Villa ladies had made, and how Carla Ward had taken to the role seamlessly. Another shining light recently for the womens team is the acquisition of super star Jill Scott on loan from Manchester City. The England international will add real, experienced quality to the side, and I'm sure help them increase their points tally significantly.
Moving on, recent headlines from across the pond, and from local outlets too, have informed us of Sawiris' and Edens' current intentions of forming a new MLS team; the 'Las Vegas Villains'. Villains is not a typo, it is how the club will both hold it's own identity whilst still being synonymous to Aston Villa. This itself is a monumental step forward to promoting the clubs brand around the world, with the MLS constantly growing and evolving. The huge investment into owning a club in Las Vegas will see Villa reap huge rewards, with Vegas having such a large sports and entertainment market. With the clear link to us, fans from Vegas would be inclined to watch Villa weekly, and maybe even take trips to Villa Park.
Away from the branding aspect of the MLS club, it would also have it's benefits to player development. It provides a simple path to loaning players out and giving them valuable experience, as Vassilev found at Inter Miami. On top of the loan aspect too, you have the academy side of the club. If the Las Vegas Villains can tap into a populous catchment area, uncovering talents that would otherwise be unattainable to our youth setup would be hugely advantageous to us. This is where i go back to what i was talking about earlier when touching on seeking the best rising talents around the world. It's something Purslow mentioned in his interview, when discussing how the club is now moving into the more globalisation side of the project. The idea being to invest in different regions and territories around the world to put us at the heart of a worldwide player talent development and recruitment model. If that doesn't get you excited for the future of this club, i don't know what will.
To give a bit of balance to this article, i will shine some light on one recent development that large sections of the fan base have showed some unrest over. The introduction of fan tokens, named $AVL, is widely seen as pure monetisation of fan engagement. It will give owners of these tokens a sort of VIP access to a series of votes, and various amounts of club content. This is something that some of the biggest clubs around the world offer too, and whether we like it or not, is something that will be promoted a lot by the club in the future i would imagine.
The long term plan for Aston Villa is clear as day to us supporters, and we are all on the edge of our seats, prepared for the next big signing, or the next big development. In the 3 and a half years that Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens have been in control, we've seen the stabilisation and resurgence of this absolutely gigantic football club. Back amongst the elite in the premier league, reaching a domestic final again, achieving success at youth level, and growing a global brand to make us a recognisable entity wherever you go. They will show ruthlessness to get us where we need to be, made clear by the sacking of Dean Smith and the arrival of Steven Gerrard, who has taken to the job as head coach at Aston Villa like a duck to water. The winning mentality and coaching ability that he has brought in, accompanied by his excellent media presence, compliments the plans of the owners and Purslow quite brilliantly.
The journey we have been on so far, and will embark on for the foreseeable future, has been a rollercoaster. I cannot wait to see what we achieve in the years to come, but as of right now, I'm appreciating every step we take. Cheers Nassef and Wes, we owe you one.