After the summer facelift Villa Park received for Aston Villa’s return to the Premier League, it was something that was missing from the stadium this season, that supporters have noticed the most.
A Chinese flag no longer adorns the roof of the Doug Ellis stand – a clear sign that Doctor Tony had finally left the building.
The Companies House entry of 9th August 2019 had confirmed that a week before, Dr Tony Xia was terminated as a director of Aston Villa Football Club. His token Vice-Chairman title was relinquished too and alas the Chinese flag was needed no more.
In the build up to his departure, a couple of months ago, MOMS was informed that Xia’s ever-dwindling stake in the club stood at 27%. It decreased further as Villa owners NSWE (Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens) injected more cash into the club, having the knock-on effect of diluting Xia’s stake further to 17%.
The writing was obviously on the wall for Xia, as soon as Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens bought a controlling stake in the club last summer to prevent it falling into the abyss of becoming the latest ‘crisis club’ in English football.
When MOMS met the new Villa owners last year, during their first ever visit to the club, MOMS asked Wes Edens directly about his experiences of the initial three-way ownership of the Milwaukee Bucks. In short, he said three didn’t work, but his current two party co-ownership of the Bucks worked well.
Edens’ candour was appreciated, as it clearly laid out how Villa’s ownership situation was going to play out.
From what Villa CEO Christian Purslow has said since Xia had left the club, as expected, Xia and the Recon Group had very little to do with the club in the past year.
“Dr Tony Xia’s departure has no impact on Aston Villa,” said Purslow, in a recent interview. “I haven’t had any contact with him since joining the club last September.”
Considering both Purslow and Xia were in the same seating block at Wembley Stadium for the Championship Play-Off final, it shows you just how ostracised Xia had become at Villa.
“When NSWE took over the club last July, he ceased to have any executive involvement whatsoever,” added Purslow. “This announcement is just a confirmation (of that).”
MOMS only meeting with Tony Xia, through the Villa Fan Consultation Group, certainly provided an interesting insight, if nothing else.
Apart from some spot-on candid views on Jack Grealish needing to stay away from players that were bad influences like Gabby Agbonlahor, Xia’s talk seemed to be idealistic and cut from the stem of Recon Group’s core values of ‘ROSES’ (Right, Optimistic, Simple, Enthusiasm, Sharing), rather than offering up much substance.
There had been talk at the time about new plans for North Stand expansion at Villa Park, expanding the stadium to 50,000+ and regenerating the Aston area, ‘Smart City’ style.
It all seemed to be ‘cart before the horse’ kind of talk, as everything hinged on promotion back to the Premier League. With that in mind, MOMS asked Xia what would have to happen on and off the pitch to actually trigger the rebuilding and regeneration plans?
Bizarrely, Xia seemed to freeze when put on the spot. He stared into space, while several seconds ticked by. Supporter reps and Villa staff alike, sat around a large round table in a North Stand suite, looking at each other with surprised and uneasy smiles.
After an awkward period of silence, former CEO Keith Wyness stepped in to answer, which prompted Xia to finally address the question.
“50,000? Why not 60,000, 80,000, 100,000…?” He declared.
The ‘optimistic’ and ‘enthusiasm’ core values of ROSES had been triggered, mirroring Xia’s unrational talk when he first took over the club of making Villa one of the top three clubs in the world.
There’s certainly no surprise that Xia didn’t elect the ‘R’ of ROSES to stand for reality.
With their club in decline and stuck in limbo, many Villa fans lapped up Xia’s placebo-like promises, but behind the air of positivity and much talked about plans, there seemed to be little tangible action.
Most worrying was an underlining complacency at the club in terms of its approach to their task of promotion, that filtered through Fan Consultation Group meetings attended by the ever affable CEO Keith Wyness.
It seemed promotion to the Premier League was a formality and expected, and the transfer policy seemed to reflect that. Get a couple of 20-goal-a-season strikers in, pick off some of the best players of other Championship sides and add a couple of big-waged Premier League players loans in the mix, and it’ll be job done.
The complacency certainly seemed to seep into the mindset of some Villa players, judging by some private correspondence that MOMS has been privy to.
“1000% we’ll get promoted”, declared one, at the start of Villa’s first Championship season.
In one Fan Consultation Group meeting during Villa’s second season in the Championship, I said to Wyness, that I hadn’t felt a sense of focus or a boot camp mentality at the club in terms of winning promotion since relegation. I referred back to Villa’s previous relegation at the end of the 1980’s, when even as a kid, I felt the single-minded dedication of Graham Taylor and the club to their promotion mission.
This time round, it appeared we hadn’t even rolled our sleeves up to begin the graft.
A week or so later, after this meeting, Villa’s players went to an army boot camp.
Coincidence or not, it made me laugh – a few hours driving tanks and rolling around in the mud, wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.
Near Crisis (Club)
Looking back, Villa’s flirtation with financial oblivion now seems so fleeting that the potential ramifications never really sunk in for the club’s fanbase.
It was a slippery slope from the moment Villa couldn’t pay a £4m tax bill and potentially faced being served with a winding-up petition by HMRC.
Let’s not forget, when buying the club, it was structured so Xia would delay £30m of the fee to Randy Lerner, until the club was promoted (there was an on-going sketch on the MOMS Podcast of Randy Lerner wondering when he’d get his 30 mil back). It’s this outstanding back-end payment, that has essentially provided NSWE with a method of constructing Xia’s final severance from the club.
Essentially, Xia’s remaining stake was dissolved and NSWE took care of the outstanding payment to Lerner.
What’s Behind the Curtain
MOMS had long seen the former Villa owner as ‘The Wizard of Xia’, hiding behind a curtain of Twitter emojis that seduced some of the fanbase, while applying bogus logic to run the club.
From the off there was apparent Chinese government connections to Recon’s businesses and move to buy Aston Villa in the first place. Part of Xia’s downfall was the fact the Chinese government weren’t reckless. While Villa were already chewing up Chinese yuan with few signs of offering any return, Xia was openingly seen trying to buy a Hollywood film company.
Coincidentally, it was the same film company that an old friend of MOMS had been a successful film director for in terms of recent box office. While we questioned Xia’s motivation behind the potential move, my friend joked he was hoping for a ‘you’re welcome’ present of a Lamborghini from Xia. I joked, it’ll probably be delivered on the same day Villa win the Champions League.
The film company deal seemed to quickly go up in smoke, as China seemed to put the shackles on Xia’s activity, not wishing to leak anymore money out of the country with uncertain hope of seeing any return.
Come the turn of the year, during the 2017/18 season, the situation in China, very much made it promotion or bust for Villa that season.
Like Randy Lerner before him, Xia obviously didn’t set out to fail in his stewardship of Aston Villa and had good intentions, even though his ego, put himself publicly front and centre of the club.
MOMS, like some other Villans, were concerned from the off, as the assembled entourage involved in the initial purchase of club, raised alarm bells and seemed to be reason enough for the Premier League and EFL to rethink the current Owners and Directors test to safeguard clubs and perhaps consider independent regulation.
Whatever happened to Chris Samuelson? Front and centre of the Villa takeover at the time of the deal. Then seen in India wearing an Aston Villa tie and gleefully representing the club, only to then suddenly be whitewashed out of the picture by Xia.
The current Owners and Directors test only focuses on the first two years of ownership, when in terms of taking over a team recently relegated from the Premier League, a new owner would have the first two seasons of substantial parachute payments to play with.
It set up something of a loop hole for a gamble. Xia and friends also managed to manoeuvre themselves into a position to reduce the risk further by back-ending £30m of the purchase price, so it could be eventually covered by Premier League TV rights money in the event of promotion.
You can’t blame them for brokering such a deal and taking advantage of a previous owner in Lerner, who was very keen to cut his loses and wash his hands of the club.
The irony is now, that NSWE with its genuine wealth, have also been opportunistic in coming in to effectively rescue the face of a desperate owner and pick up a club that was financially on its knees for a rock bottom price, considering its true potential.
The difference this time is NSWE clearly mean business in terms of harnessing that potential.
NSWE had obviously done their homework and have worked astutely and pragmatically since. Early necessary investment into the club’s academy structure was an early sign, that they were keen to set up a robust plan for Villa.
Their overall message was simple too – judge us on our actions. A sentiment echoed by CEO Christian Purslow in the two Fan Consultation Groups meetings so far with him. They are disinterested in courting social media popularity with staged ‘passion’ goal celebration videos or pandering to the fanbase with empty words.
The approach seems to be working judging by the climax of last season.
That success has perhaps even surprised NSWE themselves, with Villa CEO Christian Purslow admitting they are a year ahead of schedule after the recent promotion.
What has happened to the club in the last year since the fall of Xia is a remarkable ‘Phoenix from the Flames’ story, perhaps lost in the mist of this lazy media narrative of Villa potentially ‘Doing a Fulham’ this season.
You could not have planned the turnaround, that in a league increasingly devoid of tradition and awash with sheiks, oligarchs and international superstars, now has the founders of the football league, returning to the top tier with supporters in both the manager and captain positions.
Tony Xia will only be remembered as a curious footnote in Villa’s history, the final false turn that unexpectedly led hopefully to a path of impressive resurgence for the club. At the very least, he’ll be a lesson learned for supporters.
Whatever awaits Villa in the future, the club can now look forward in the Premier League with a clean slate.