If Aston Villa’s opening day victory at Arsenal seems a distant memory, then you'd probably need to be a Birmingham-based elephant to recall 24th March 1996.
That was the date when - with Euro 96, Baddiel & Skinner and Villa Park hero Gareth Southgate's infamous spot-kick still a few months off – Brian Little led Villa to League Cup success against Leeds at the old Wembley.
Some 18 years later, all plans to extend Villa’s once bulging trophy cabinet have been postponed – and possibly abandoned for good.
Randy Lerner’s announcement on Monday that he plans to sell the club he acquired to such fanfare in the summer of 2006 has thrown the Midlands giants into fresh turmoil, after another season to forget for the former European Cup winners.
And the last man to deliver silverware to the club tells FFT that Lerner’s statement has done little to alleviate the tension around one of English football’s most historic institutions.
“You got the feeling there was room for a little more content in the announcement – not just up for sale but bought,” says Little.
“Stage one hasn’t come as a surprise, but obviously it’s important that something happens quickly now, because if it drags on then it won’t be of any help to anyone.
“I’m not sure how well that will go, no-one knows how much interest there will be. We’re in a situation where people will probably be more concerned than they were before. It’s not the most stable position for a Premier League club to be in.
“The club will want to attract new players, but the players themselves will be thinking ‘if I go there then what’s really going to happen?’. It puts everybody’s position in jeopardy at the club.”
Perhaps the biggest potential loser in the current situation is Villa boss Paul Lambert, who, despite the club's on-pitch woes, has worked tirelessly to reduce a crippling wage bill that saw the club report losses as high as £54 million for the financial year ending May 2011.
That eye-watering deficit hurried Villa’s decline as Lerner – who let’s not forget made his fortune in the credit card business – tucked his cheque book safely away and began cashing in on the club’s highest earners and biggest stars.
The austerity that Lambert has been forced to live with contrasts sharply with the largesse on offer during Martin O’Neill’s reign, but despite taking action to transform the club’s spending and transfer policy, the Scot could be about to pay the price himself. Villa fans vented their frustration towards Lambert during their final-day defeat at Tottenham, but Little has defended the current Villa Park boss.
“Paul has done a good job,” says Little. “In the cold light of day, Paul has had a directive to move out the more seasoned players, the people who have earned a lot of money. His two year plan has been to retain the club’s Premier League status and he has done what he has to do loyally and faithfully to his chairman.
“That says a lot for him. Everybody knows that when clubs change hands, people and personnel change too, but Paul has done nothing wrong in a lot of people’s eyes and particularly in the eyes of football people.
“He has done his job for his chairman and he’ll be in place until something happens. He will obviously be given consideration by the new people - if he does stay, then great, he might well find himself in a position where he’s given money to spend and could oversee a massive improvement.”
Lerner’s decision to walk away from Villa Park comes at the end of months of rumours and conjecture over the American’s future. It also comes after another underwhelming Premier League season, as Villa continue their slide into also-ran territory.
“It has been a hard season, it's been very difficult,” says Little. “They’ve been almost a Jekyll and Hyde team really.
“They’ve almost got rid of all the high wage-earners, which was obviously a target for them to do - it seems obvious that there was a game plan to change the club around. Hopefully there was a two-year plan to change the club around but from now on the club have to get their recruitment right for the future.”
There have certainly been plusses in the form of Fabian Delph and Ashley Westwood. Delph’s sensational flicked goal against Chelsea in March was undisputedly one of the goals of the season and certainly one of the brightest moments witnessed by the club’s long-suffering fans at Villa Park.
Delph’s audaciousness that afternoon, though, contrasted sharply with Villa’s at times unimaginative approach both home and away.
“A lot of the home fans have said that we’ve not looked like a team that can cut the opposition open,” says Little. “We need a player that can make that telling pass. I’m sure the manager, deep down, sees it in the same way. It’s almost his team now in many respects and I think he has to move onto another plan now.
“His plan was to try and change the team around, which he has done, recruit younger players, which he has done. But I think two years on he’ll look at that and think we’ve got to change again now and I think the change is that we need to recruit again but recruit better than we did first time around.”
Whether Lambert gets the opportunity to carry out another recruitment drive is anyone’s guess, but whoever takes over the club from Lerner – and early indications suggest that no-one is falling over themselves to do so – will know that it will take a serious amount of cash to help Villa off their sick bed.
Little, though, is in no doubt that Villa are still a club worth investing in.
“It’s a massive football club and facility-wise, there’s nothing to be spent in that respect in terms of rebuilding the club. It’s absolutely spot-on,” he says.
“If mega people come in then you start looking at that particular situation. If someone mega takes over then that really comes onto the agenda. The first step would be to re-establish them as a really good Premier League team. The first thing to be addressed is the team and the team needs some help.
“If somebody mega comes in then Man City have proved that it can happen very, very quickly but we will have to wait and see what type of person comes in.”
Villa fans have grown used to waiting, but this summer could prove particularly testing.
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