They did not succeed, but when you examine their finances it is easy to understand why Aston Villa decided to pursue Roberto Martinez as their new manager in preference to Rafael Benitez and Mark Hughes.
This week's Deloitte report into football club spending laid bare the high price that Villa's owner Randy Lerner paid in attempting to break into the Champions' League bracket. The imminent departure of Ashley Young to Manchester United for £21 million underscores the fact that he has abandoned that mission.
The American bought Villa for £62m in September 2006. The previous season the club had a revenue of £49m, a wage bill of £38m (76 per cent of income), and had lost nearly £10m, two-thirds of which represented their net loss on transfers. Under David O'Leary they finished 16th.
Lerner set about lifting the club back into the top eight, where they had spent most of the previous decade. That season Martin O'Neill oversaw an improvement to 11th. A year later, Villa came sixth and made £5m profit before transfers as revenue increased to £75m. Wages were a healthy 67 per cent of turnover.
Everything looked very promising. Lerner had even won over the fans with some well-appreciated gestures like refurbishing the pub behind the Holte End. It was time to think big and challenge for the Champions' League.
However, making that next step proved very difficult. In the next two seasons revenue was increased to £91m, but wages rose faster to reach £80m (88 per cent of revenue). There was a net transfer spend of £58m, taking total losses to almost £100m. On the pitch Villa stood still, finishing sixth twice more, winning plaudits but falling away each season despite O'Neill sacrificing Uefa Cup campaigns.
Meanwhile, Manchester City had been taken over by a Sheikh whose oil wealth far outstripped Lerner's. City, spending £210m in transfers in that period, overtook Villa. So did Tottenham, their £49m two-year transfer spend and £20m per annum larger wage bill underpinned by a commercial operation which produced profits, after those wages had been paid, of £41m across those two seasons.
Lerner, having invested some £180m, decided enough was enough. Last summer transfer dealing was minimal, and turned a profit. Villa sold James Milner for £26m and bought Stephen Ireland for £8m. On the eve of the season, as these deals were being prepared, O'Neill walked out, apparently because he was unhappy that he could not re-invest all the Milner fee.
Tellingly his replacement was Gérard Houllier, a coach known for developing young talent, of which Villa have an excellent crop. True, Houllier was then given £24m to buy Darren Bent, but that was because Villa were suddenly in very real danger of relegation. Transfer dealing this summer is likely to be with a view to turning a profit, starting with Young's departure.
With Houllier's ill-health having forced his exit, Lerner is seeking a manager with a reputation for developing teams on tight budgets. He may now be thinking of an exit strategy, or he could just bide his time, waiting to see what impact Uefa's Financial Fair Play has on fees and wages.
Is it any wonder that owners, increasingly, see FFP as their saviour?Reuse content