COMMENT By Graham Hill
VILLA are heading back to the Premier League – but how do they avoid ‘doing a Fulham’?
The wealth and budget at manager Dean Smith’s disposal is similar to the money Slavisa Jokanovic was handed by Craven Cottage owner Shahid Khan 12 months ago.
And Fulham spent an incredible £100million to try and make sure they stayed up.
But despite having a side containing supposed stars of the future, they could not get it right and had three separate managers in a season which saw them head straight back down to the Championship.
The Wembley Play-off winners are notorious for getting to the Premier League and struggling to stay there.
Why should Villa be any different? How can they be more like Wolves who moved into the top flight effortlessly?
It can and should be done judging by the events of the last few months.
Just take a look at the structure at Villa Park and see how it has changed from the nightmare season of 2015-2016.
Back then, Villa were owned by an increasingly disinterested owner in Randy Lerner.
He was actively looking to sell the club but by the time he did – to Tony Xia – the club had been relegated.
The dressing room at the time did them no favours. The most senior players were the ones who were most disruptive. If that was the message seeping down from the players who were supposed to be setting an example then no wonder Villa went down.
Can you really see Tyrone Mings – assuming he signs permanently – letting that happen.
Jack Grealish, who allowed himself to get caught up in the playboy lifestyle promoted by some other players, is a changed man and, as captain of the team, has gained an admirable aura of responsibility.
Admittedly, there was some talk of splits in the camp before Grealish’s return, but boss Dean Smith, whose credibility cannot be doubted any more by those who said Villa was too big a job for him, showed he is a brilliant man manager.
The choice of manager by owners Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris, and chief executive Christian Purslow, showed that you do not need to appoint a ‘sexy’ name get success.
They looked at Thierry Henry and Brendan Rodgers before turning to Smith.
And it proved to be the right – if not their first – choice.
But back to the ownership. Lerner clearly did not care if Villa went down or not, his initial vision of buying his way into the Champions League disappeared amid a row with ex-manager Martin O’Neill.
Villa became an expensive hassle for him and once O’Neill had gone, he was left with a huge wage bill and a desire to dump the club as soon as possible.
Managers came and went with reputations in tatters, Paul Lambert, Tim Sherwood, Remi Garde. There was only one outcome.
Xia proved little better, appointing Roberto di Matteo after the previous regime had recommended Nigel Pearson – and then Steve Bruce who was under immediate pressure to win promotion.
And when that did not happen 12 months ago, it became obvious that Chinese businessman Xia had done the equivalent of staking his house on the 3.30 at Ascot.
Which is where Edens and Sawiris come in. Bruce was a casualty of an early slump in results but the club now appear to be on an even keel again – and guaranteed the riches of both their owners and the £170millon worth of TV money.
The Premier League has changed since Villa were last there. When they went down, Leicester City were winning the title!
And that means the top six are stronger than ever with even the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal struggling for Champions League places.
Teams like Leicester, Wolves, Everton and, if they have a new buyer, Newcastle will also make life difficult.
But if Villa can keep Grealish, sign Mings, bag a top new striker if Tammy Abraham returns to Chelsea and make careful new improvements to the squad, they can not only stay up, but flourish.
That is clearly the owners’ aim, they know that a long stay in the top flight will see a huge return on their investment and, hopefully, translate into success on the field.