Even the most generous and wildly optimistic fans of Aston Villa, Newcastle, and Sunderland would agree that this season has not been their clubs’ collective finest hour.
With all three looking increasingly likely to be relegated from the Premier League and so lose out (at least temporarily) on the massive financial rewards and prestige that participation brings, the predictably furious blame game has begun.
Inevitably, given the massive power and influence they wield over fans’ beloved teams, chairmen are often the target of much finger pointing, but is it fair to place the ultimate blame for a season of failure on men who are not responsible for on-pitch performances?
Some fans might argue that the blame lies with their club’s chairmen because it is these individuals who make the decisions on managerial staff.
It is hard to look past some of the calamitous managerial appointments that have been made by the chairmen of these three clubs. Steve McClaren’s Newcastle tenure was an unmitigated disaster; Remi Garde looked hopelessly out of his depth at Aston Villa; and Sunderland have had a string of managers who proved utterly incapable of managing a Premier League side, perhaps best exemplified by Paolo Di Canio – a man whose solution to his club’s woeful form was to ban ketchup from the player’s diets.
While it would be easy to blame chairmen for the appointment of incompetent managers, they are not alone in this decision-making process. As millionaires, or billionaires as is the case with many Premier League chairmen, they will be surrounded with advisers who will have recommended and researched any potential managerial candidate.
To assign personal blame to a chairman is to ignore any chance that they have the club’s best interests at heart and that any mistakes are simply the result of incompetent advice they have received.
Perhaps the real problem with club chairmen is when the fans feel that the men at the top are not truly as in love with the club as they are.
This can stem from a feeling of disconnect – as can be seen in Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner’s very public desire to sell the club, a feeling that the club is more of a commercial vehicle – as is painfully evident throughout Mike Ashley’s involvement in football and the continuing use of football clubs to build his Sports Direct brand, or a (sometimes inaccurate) belief that the chairman is refusing to use his abundant wealth to help the club perform on the pitch.
This last accusation has been levelled at all three of the relegation candidate clubs’ chairmen and it generally seems quite unfair. Setting aside the nature of the Financial Fair Play regulations and the tight restrictions they place upon clubs’ spending, there is also strong evidence to dismiss such allegations as the result of fans being unrealistic about what their club could or should be spending.
Mike Ashley has poured money into Newcastle this season, with massive transfer window spending providing little in the way of improvement to their team; the signing of Jonjo Shelvey – a capable but limited midfielder – for roughly £12m in January is indicative of the wasteful nature of Newcastle’s transfer dealings.
Likewise, Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce was allowed to spend millions on signing new defensive lynchpin Lamine Kone and attacking midfielder Wahbi Khazri. Clearly Sunderland chairman Ellis Short is not reticent with his chequebook.
The one person who could reasonably be accused of such a thing is Aston Villa’s Lerner, although this is only in recent seasons, as the £24m signing of Darren Bent proved. Lerner has clearly grown disillusioned with the club and it is no surprise to see a corresponding drop in investment. In the end, fans must accept that, for the most part, club chairmen are not the malevolent boardroom entities many make them out to be.
Perhaps the fans’ ire would be better directed at the underperformers on the pitch rather than those off it.
Image courtesy of Marion O’Sullivan (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ no alterations made)