Aston Villa's owner, Randy Lerner, appeared to signal a diminution of his club's ambition yesterday, stating that their competitiveness would be restricted by their resources as he explained why Villa's manager, Martin O'Neill, had left five days before the new season.
Lerner, whose club is expected to receive Manchester City's Stephen Ireland for a medical today in the deal which will take James Milner in the other direction, described Villa's aspirations as "always to be as competitive as possible given our size and resources" when he finally issued a statement explaining O'Neill's exit.
The American's tone was markedly different to the one he adopted in May when he said "the ambition and appetite to compete for the top-four spot and qualify for the Champions League is as alive as it's ever been," though Lerner also declared back then that the "other strengths" which would get Villa there without deep pockets was "continuity of your manager".
Though Lerner also stated yesterday that "there have been no changes in our approach to building the club," his comments did seem to be an acknowledgement that Villa's size will restrict their growth – an assertion which, even though the club recorded a £73.4m loss last season, he refused to accept three months ago. Back in May he said that the weakness he perceived among other aspiring top-four clubs meant that he was "was not so sure the game's over yet in terms of us catching up or doing better".
Of O'Neill's departure, Lerner said: "As for explaining why Martin left, I can say only that we no longer shared a common view as to how to move forward."
Lerner's fairly terse statement, allied to the departure of one of the Premier League's brightest managers, may not encourage Ashley Young to stake his hopes of reviving his England career on Villa, with Tottenham aiming to take him to White Hart Lane.
The competition facing Villa is generally looking far more intense, 48 hours out from the start of the Premier League season. Liverpool's signing of Joe Cole, allied to the renewed commitment of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, make the Anfield club a far stronger prospect than the one which ended last season one point and one place behind Villa, while Everton's fully fit squad probably has its best chance of hitting the top four since 2005.
Even Midlands rivals Stoke City, who were yesterday finalising the £7m signing of Sunderland's Kenwyne Jones and have pursued the Nice striker Loïc Rémy for a club record £10m, are showing more ambition in the transfer market than Villa.
The belt-tightening may also make the task of persuading Martin Jol to leave Ajax a tough one, with the Dutch club convinced that he is now ready to stay after a move to Fulham fell through last month. Sven Goran Eriksson became the clear bookmakers' favourite to succeed O'Neill yesterday, though Lerner does not seem ready to be rushed.
He said his most immediate focus was "supporting Kevin MacDonald", the reserve team manager who will take the team into Saturday's opener with West Ham at Villa Park. It is unclear whether a resounding win, followed by progress in the Europa League qualifier with Rapid Vienna five days later, would persuade Lerner to give MacDonald – a popular figure at Villa Park – a longer run.
Lerner and his chief executive, Paul Faulkner, have certainly not waited for a new manager before allowing the Milner deal to go through. Lerner also said that to deal in greater detail with the circumstances of O'Neill's departure would "do little but cause additional distraction for the club as it faces the clear priority of hiring a permanent manager".
Other names in the frame for the managerial position include the US coach, Bob Bradley, and Gareth Southgate, who would probably both be more willing than Jol to accept whatever budget Lerner allows. Milner is expected to be a City player in time for Saturday's visit to White Hart Lane. It was also in May that Lerner said Villa would open talks with the England midfielder over an improved contract after the World Cup. "I don't worry about him leaving because he is wanted at this club," he said back then.Reuse content