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Aug 5, 2014

Villa slide a symbol of Midlands slump

The ESPN FC crew previews the Villans' season as they hope to avoid flirting with relegation for a fifth consecutive year.

"I owe it to Villa to move on, and look for fresh, invigorated leadership, if in my heart I feel I can no longer do the job."

The most arresting words in Randy Lerner's statement in May, confirming his intention to sell Aston Villa, were notable for their detail. The use of the verb "look" has reason to alarm Villa fans. After several seasons of drifting towards the foot of the Premier League, the thought of waiting for definite direction is not an appetising one.

Lerner himself might disagree that the club (and, by definition, his own leadership) has lacked a plan. The American has worked hard to cut costs for a number of years, after Villa suffered losses of 54 million pounds in 2010-11 and nearly 18 million pounds in the following campaign. In between those two seasons, the big-money sales of Ashley Young to Manchester United and Stewart Downing to Liverpool (the latter for a barely believable 20 million pounds) made the balance sheet look a lot more palatable than it might have done.

These are the sorts of figures that lead a club to the sort of transfer window in which three major signings are Joe Cole, Philippe Senderos and Kieran Richardson -- three players not without their merits, but hardly heights of ambition, and all free. While Lerner looks to secure a buyer, it is clear he does not wish to spend more than is strictly necessary to stay afloat. The question -- especially when one considers that Senderos and Richardson had active contracts rescinded by their clubs -- is will it be enough to do so?

- Hughes: Aston Villa season preview

It is a far cry from the hopes of the Martin O'Neill era. Then, Villa were Villa as they should be, and as you get the feeling they still could be when the noise rises in the Holte End. In the three years that the now-Republic of Ireland boss served under Lerner, they garnered a top-six finish every time, as well as two Wembley appearances -- a League Cup final, and an FA Cup semifinal, both in 2010.

Maybe this should have been the foundation for a glorious spell for football in the region. The 2010-11 season saw all four of the leading names in the West Midlands -- Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers -- begin the campaign in the Premier League.

It didn't stay that way. Birmingham were relegated at the end of the campaign (even if they did win the League Cup), while Wolves went into a well-documented tailspin following their own demotion from the top flight in the following campaign, and last season had to battle their way back into the second tier. Across the city, Birmingham -- hamstrung by their major shareholder Carson Yeung's money-laundering trial and conviction -- have been barely keeping their own heads above water.

The struggles of the Blues from across the city may offer a sense of how much worse it could be, but the mood in Birmingham B6 is still tense as the new campaign approaches. Last season represented a low-water mark in recent years, with West Brom finishing fourth from bottom, three points ahead of the final relegation spot, with Villa just two points in front of them.

Paul Lambert, now working alongside Roy Keane, faces a tough task to revive Villa.

Paul Lambert may never achieve Ron Saunders-like levels of popularity, but his record-equalling Premier League low points total from last season (38, the same as Alex McLeish in 2011-12) has mitigating factors. O'Neill may retain credit for the job he performed at Villa Park, but subsequent events suggest he pulled the same trick Jose Mourinho did at Inter -- stepping away from a house of cards at just the right moment before collapse and largely avoiding implication.

O'Neill spent a lot of Lerner's money, some very well -- with Young and James Milner both providing excellent service before yielding profits -- but some less effectively. Curtis Davies, Habib Beye, Nicky Shorey and Stephen Warnock were all expensive assets who became significantly devalued while picking up big wages. Subsequent managers had their hands at least partially tied by Lerner's experience in those instances.

Gerard Houllier's reign was perhaps a wasted opportunity. The second half of a difficult campaign offered hope for the future -- Villa enjoyed an upturn in form after reconvening following O'Neill's abrupt departure -- but ill health truncated the Frenchman's tenure. If a lot of his time was spent dealing with expensive deadweights, Houllier's ability to reorganise makes you wonder how he might have served Lerner in a director of football role.

McLeish was certainly not the solution, fired in May 2012 after just 11 months in the post, shunted out the door with a club statement that read less like the normal platitudes of thanks for hard work and wishes of good luck for the future, and more like a stinging rebuke. "The club has been disappointed with this season's results, performances and the general message these have sent to our fans," it read. Just four home wins all season said it all.

All of which brings us to Lambert. Even given his modest status, his reign might look different if not for the contributions of Christian Benteke, particularly in 2012-13. The Belgian's injury, effectively ruling out a summer transfer, may be a peculiar saving grace for now. Lambert's situation is a choice between working with limited means or not at all, as it is difficult to imagine a new owner retaining him.

Lerner is symbolic of a trend. The American is a reminder that owning a Premier League club in the modern age is a heinously expensive business, with the script flipped by owners in the mould of Roman Abramovich and the Mansour family -- owners who don't need to break even, or at least didn't have to think about it before the advent of financial fair play. Even billionaires are left feeling the pinch. All Villa fans can hope is for another one to ride to the rescue -- and fast.

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