The trIumphant Aston VIlla team pose wIth the football league trophy, 1896

More than just a club

The four men who founded Aston Villa could not have imagined what would follow


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

All football fans claim a great heritage for their clubs, but mine has a rich history and romantic beginnings. 150 years ago this year, on 21 November 1874, four men from the Wesleyan chapel adult bible class met in the cold under a gas-lit lamp on Heathfield Road, Birmingham, and founded Aston Villa.

Those four men — Jack Hughes, Walter Price, George Matthews and William Scattergood — were cricketers who wanted to keep their team together during the winter months. They could not have imagined what would follow. An itinerant team playing in different locations became an established club whose chairman, William McGregor, founded competitive league football in 1888.

The events of the years since then — league and cup wins, relegations and promotions, becoming champions of Europe — are worthy of a multi-volume history. The club today — buying players for 30, 40, 50 million pounds, owned by billionaires from America and Egypt and riding high in the Premier League and in Europe — is a whole different business to the years and decades past.

Unlamented former owner Tony Xia

For football is indeed a business, and a ruthless global business at that. The owners of Manchester United, the Glazer family, have just sold a 25 per cent stake in the club to Sir Jim Ratcliffe for just over £1 billion. Their neighbours, Manchester City, are owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group, which has spent £2 billion on new players in the last 15 years. Newcastle United, after being bought by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, spent £221 million in the first year alone.

Foreign sugar daddies are now commonplace right across the sport. Little Luton, somehow in the Premier League, are a rare exception: owned by a supporters’ trust. Elsewhere, even stories of smaller clubs climbing the divisions, or sleeping giants awakening and taking their place once more amongst the elite, are often explained by the injection of cash by a wealthy owner. Nottingham Forest, for example, spent more than £150 million in the summer they returned to the Premier League.

These sugar daddies do not bring a guarantee of sweet success and can carry bitter problems to their clubs. A former Villa owner, a Chinese national called Tony Xia, took the club to receivership and the brink of extinction. Chelsea fans found themselves plunged into crisis when their former owner Roman Abramovich was sanctioned by the Government for his links to Vladimir Putin following the invasion of Ukraine.

And of course, rich owners do not guarantee success. In a league with multiple billionaire owners and extraordinary TV and commercial revenues, English clubs can outbid most foreign rivals, but whilst there are differences in spending power amongst Premier League teams, to some extent wealth can cancel out wealth.

Financial fair play rules also play a part. These mean that clubs can incur losses of no more than €60 million over three years, whilst spending on wages, transfers and agents’ fees must be limited to 70 per cent of total club revenue. The rules are in effect an act of protectionism: the clubs that benefited from years of extravagant spending by their sugar daddies — such as Chelsea and Manchester City — are preventing others from doing the same. All in the name of restraint and protecting clubs from excessive debt, of course.

Manchester United’s Erik ten Hag during a press conference ahead of the Bangkok Century Cup match on the 2022 pre-season trip

There are other consequences to financial fair play regulation. Some clubs gamble — sometimes successfully, sometimes disastrously — on getting promoted into the Premier League. If it works, huge revenues await; if it fails, they risk points penalties and a spiral downwards. And some clubs cheat by hiding spending and using creative accounting. But again, whilst some get away with it, others do not, and the consequences can be severe.

Another consequence is the drive towards deeper commercialisation. For clubs to operate within the financial fair play rules, regardless of their owners’ willingness to invest, they need to expand their revenues so ticket prices increase and merchandise becomes more expensive.

Out-of-season tours become more elaborate. Even transfer strategies are affected: signings from particular countries can expand a fan base and therefore revenues. Increasingly, owners set up parent groups which allow big clubs, in effect, to buy up smaller foreign clubs and partner with them. Some clubs have even endorsed and sold dodgy digital non-fungible tokens, ripping off their own supporters.

By and large, supporters seem to accept that the game has become an enormous business, but the change raises important questions. If a normal business goes under, another takes its place in the market, but football clubs are, for many, vital and irreplaceable community institutions. What happens if the recklessness of an owner brings about the collapse of a club? What are supporters supposed to feel if their club is taken over and run in the interests of another? What happens if the commercialisation drive leads the club to behave unethically — even towards its own supporters?

We are a world away from those four men of faith who met under that gas-lit lamp. But 150 years of history means Aston Villa, like teams up and down the country, is in the words of the Barcelona motto, “Més que un club”. That is why, whoever owns the shares, the true owners of clubs are us, the supporters. There can be no football without us.

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