By Graham Hill
WITH Villa heading for record season ticket sales – and their biggest figures in more than a decade – the old question of ground capacity comes under the microscope once more.
Randy Lerner – remember him? – announced in 2010 that work would soon be starting on a plan to increase Villa Park’s seating from 42,000 to 50,000.
And former Villa chairman Tony Xia made it clear he wanted to redevelop Villa Park before bit all went wrong for the Chinese businessman.
His plan was for a 60,000 stadium, but that depended on the club getting into the Premier League 12 months ago.
But Lerner fell out of love with the club – and Xia’s plan was soon overtaken by a financial crisis last year that threatened to plunge the club into administration.
But now the spark that Lerner saw nine years ago is back.
Villa are selling tickets like hot cakes. So much so that Villa have put a cap of 30,000 on them.
That means seats will be hard to come by next season and you wonder if co-owners Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris are already looking at making the most of the planning permission Villa have to rebuild.
Work was meant to begin on the North Stand in the early part of this decade.
And this is what each regime had to say about upping the capacity.
Lerner announced in 2010: “We will start this year but not on a grand design project.
“We have internally grappled with the visitors’ entrance, the first thing you see coming down Witton Lane.
“The time frame will be either two to four years or one to three years, it depends.
“There are a couple of things that need to click in terms of a commercial model to put us in a position to really do something special with the North Stand.
“It’s on our minds, we’ve got plans, we’ve got drawings.
“There are things we can do piecemeal, for example upgrading the entrance and upgrading some of the hospitality, possibly taking some of the Doug Ellis Stand and doing some upgrades there.
“At some point we’re either going to rip it down and put another one up but we’re not quite there.
“But it is the centrepiece of our next big plan.”
His fears that the club would not be able to fill the seats came true but only because mis-management behind the scenes catapulted Villa towards relegation and fans voted with their feet.
Lerner added at the time: “If you don’t have attendance at some point your success will decline and so there are a variety of balancing acts that go into figuring out how to generate additional capacity and at what price you’re going to do it.
“Does it mean 60,000 seats is the right number? I would predict no, it’s probably not the right number for us.
“But there is a very long tradition in this region and at Villa Park for being conscious of your stadium, upgrading your stadium. There’s a long history of stands being built and rebuilt and being built beautifully.”
Xia’s plans were given clarity by former Chief Executive Keith Wyness who said: “We would be looking to take the stadium up to a 60,000 capacity.
“We are in initial discussions about how that could possibly be done.
“We have groups working on the project right now to try and bring a whole different level of attraction here – and redeveloping the whole area around the whole vicinity of Villa Park to improve it.
“We have some clever thoughts on what the area redevelopment would look like. There would be some sporting themes.
“In terms of 60,000, I don’t see us pushing the button on that until we were back in the Premier League. These things can take between three to five years too.”
So now it’s over to you Mr Edens and Mr Sawiris. They have now seen for themselves the popularity Villa can create when things go well on the field. A long and successful stay in the Premier League will cause an even bigger demand.