Aston Villa clinched Championship playoff glory by beating Derby, but now the hard work begins
LONDON -- Aston Villa are back in the big time. Three seasons after being relegated from the Premier League, one of English football's aristocrats are back where many believe they belong after defeating Derby County in the EFL Championship playoff final, 2-1, to reclaim their place among the elite.
Of course, the reality is that no club has a divine right to play and succeed at any level of the game, but some clubs really should be too big to fail and Villa -- seven times champions of England and European champions in 1982 -- certainly fit that category. Only five English clubs (Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham) have won more major trophies than Villa, who will play their 106th season of top-flight football when they return to Premier League action in August. Only Everton (117) can top Villa on that score.
They were also cheered on at Wembley by Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge and future king of England, and are co-owned by Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, the latter a joint-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks. Edens saw the Bucks lose their NBA Eastern Conference finals series against the Toronto Raptors at the weekend, so Villa's success will certainly soften the blow of that basketball disappointment.
On a financial level, at least, nothing comes close to winning a Championship playoff, with Villa's finances guaranteed to be boosted by at least £170 million ($215 million) by winning this game and securing a passport back to the Premier League. But despite everything that is weighted in their favour -- history, a huge fan base and wealthy owners -- the hard work really does start here for Aston Villa.
Yes, Birmingham's biggest club are back among their fellow giants in the Premier League, but since being relegated at the end of the 2015-16 season, Villa have had it tough. They have been bought and sold twice, players have come and gone and, due to the terms of the sale of the club from former Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner to Chinese businessman Dr Tony Xia in June 2016, current owners Sawiris and Edens face a £30m payment to Lerner following promotion to the Premier League and a further £10m if they remain in the top flight for the next two seasons.
Having just been assured of at least £170m by winning promotion to the most lucrative league in world sport, the money owed to Lerner may sound like loose change, but when you are competing in the Premier League, every pound counts. Villa will need to back manager Dean Smith with substantial funds if they are to survive their first season back among the big boys. Of the last five Championship playoff winners, only Huddersfield Town have been able to avoid relegation in their first season in the Premier League. But even the Terriers couldn't survive Year 2, with the club finishing bottom of the table this season.
Queens Park Rangers and Fulham both reacted to promotion by making wholesale changes to their squads, but relegation followed regardless. Huddersfield, Hull City and Norwich all attempted a more prudent approach, but it only worked for Huddersfield and they paid the price this season anyway.
So what about Villa? Four of Smith's starting line-up at Wembley were players currently on loan to the club while a fifth, Kortney Hause, was introduced from the substitutes' bench late in the game. Of the five loanees, Axel Tuanzebe (Manchester United), Tyrone Mings (Bournemouth), Tammy Abraham (Chelsea) and Anwar El Ghazi (Lille) have been key figures in the promotion campaign; if they are to play a part for the club next season, Villa must spend to either buy them or loan them once again merely to keep the current squad intact.
Spending money to stand still is not an ideal recipe for playing in the Premier League, especially when the former owner is due £30m of the promotion windfall, but if those players are recalled by their parent clubs, Villa will have to replace them. Yet manager Smith, a boyhood Villa supporter who arrived from Brentford last October, is confident that Sawiris and Edens will back the club with substantial funds this summer.
"We've got two owners who have got a lot of money and are in it for the long haul," Smith said. "The potential now is massive."
On the evidence of their 2-1 win against Derby, secured with goals from El Ghazi and John McGinn -- the latter a £3m bargain buy from Scottish club Hibernian last summer -- Villa will need to strengthen in every department to ensure they stay up next season. McGinn has been outstanding for Villa this season -- check out his EFL Goal of the Season stunner against Sheffield Wednesday last September -- but Premier League survival will not be achieved by making smart recruits from Scottish football. Villa will have to aim higher and spend more.
It's not all gloom, of course. By winning promotion, they can at least rest a little easier about the future of captain Jack Grealish, who has arguably been the most consistent player outside the top flight this season. With a £60m escape clause in his contract, the 23-year-old midfielder was almost certain to leave Villa Park this summer if the club failed to win promotion. But now that they are back in the Premier League, Grealish can be the foundation on which all the other bricks are laid by a club with a big history and big ambition.
It won't be easy, and survival will be the priority next season, but Villa have a better chance of staying up than most playoff winners. That said, they know better than most, and from bitter past experiences, that even Aston Villa are not too big to fail.