Aston Villa Are on a Collision Course with Disaster in the 2014-15 Season

Matt CloughFeatured ColumnistJuly 29, 2014

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - APRIL 19:  A view outside the stadium before the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Southampton at Villa Park on April 19, 2014 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The dark clouds have been massing over Villa Park for some time now, and the 2014-15 season could well prove to be the year where the heavens finally open.

Owner Randy Lerner has provided a blueprint for running a club sensibly and sustainably, but even with his stewardship, Aston Villa could be about to embark on a truly disastrous campaign.

It had all begun so promisingly for the union of Villa and Lerner. The American arrived with the pedigree of having kept the Cleveland Browns NFL team ticking along in the league, after his father resurrected the franchise in 1999.

While the Browns had rarely threatened to truly upset the odds and achieve the ultimate glory in the NFL, Lerner's quiet, sustainable approach was something that appealed to the Villa board and fans alike when he took over in 2006.

BIRMINGHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 14:  Villa chairman Randy Lerner (r) takes his seat during the Barclays Premiership match between Aston villa and Tottenham Hotspur at Villa Park on October 14, 2006 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty
Stu Forster/Getty Images

It only got better in the honeymoon period of the relationship. Lerner was actually accused of favouring Villa by the Browns fans, due to the respective levels of investment in the two teams, per The Daily Mail.

With a manager—Martin O'Neill—known for his vast expenditure in the transfer market as much as his tactical abilities, it was, for a time, a match made in heaven.

Players including Ashley Young, Nigel Reo-Coker, Curtis Davies and Carlos Cuellar were all signed for large sums in Lerner's first three seasons in charge, where the club racked up a net spend of £51.65 million, per SoccerBase.

While Lerner seemed happy to bankroll the club despite this impressive outlay, the warning signs were there.

O'Neill seemed to be paying over the top for players more often than not, and by the time he and the club parted ways in 2010, 75 percent of Villa’s turnover was accounted for by their annual £71 million wage bill, per The Guardian.

Curtis Davies, for example, was signed for a fee around £11 million, played just 37 league games in three seasons at the club and left for around £3.5 million.

O'Neill oversaw three successive sixth-place finishes at the club, but Villa arguably should have threatened the status quo of the Champions League qualification spots with the money they spent. O'Neill left the club five days before the start of the 2010 season after Lerner limited the funds available to him.

Since then, the club has been on a precipitous decline. Current manager Paul Lambert has arrested this slide somewhat, but the club has finished just five points clear of the relegation zone in the last two seasons.

The club has continued to spend relatively large amounts, with the continuous issue being the lack of return they see on their investments. Darren Bent was signed for £18 million but spent last season on loan at Fulham. It would be surprising to see Villa get anywhere near half their money back for the striker.

While the club appears to be relatively stable, Lerner's attempts to sell Villa could prove to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. His tenure as owner has shown him to be the pragmatic and responsible owner than many clubs can only dream of.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JANUARY 29:  Christian Benteke of Aston Villa celebrates scoring their fourth goal from the penalty spot with Andreas Weimann of Aston Villa during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion at Vil
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

However, with so much of his own money tied up in the club, and with a squad that—aside from Christian Benteke—lacks any major resale value, he may be forced into a corner.

He has been looking to sell for several months, and with a suitable buyer still not found, it could be that Lerner is willing to sell on a first-come, first-served basis.

Even with the fit-and-proper person tests for every potential owner in English football now in place, there is still plenty of room for owners less responsible than Lerner.

Cautionary tales such as Portsmouth serve as telling reminders for what can happen to a club when a familiar, reassuring hierarchical framework is replaced with instability, no matter how promising the new ownership can initially appear.

Added to that the fact that Lambert's job could well be in jeopardy should the new owner have Manchester City-esque ambitions, and the potential for disaster for Villa this season is looming ominously.