In spite of languishing in the lower echelons of the Premier League, last month Aston Villa struck a deal worth up to £24 million to take Darren Bent to the Midlands. The 26-year-old’s goalscoring prowess isn’t in question, but was chairman Randy Lerner gambling with the club’s future when he rubberstamped the deal?
Man City’s astronomical offer for James Milner this summer – which used midfielder Stephen Ireland as a makeweight – proved irresistible for the Villans. With the side languishing dangerously close to the relegation zone, they opted to reinvest the cash in Sunderland’s star-striker Bent, who now bears the weight of responsibility to save Villa’s top-flight status.
Villa will use stats to justify the expenditure. With a goals-to-games ratio rivalling Drogba and Rooney, much-needed firepower has definitely been added. And Gerard Houllier won’t be receiving any sicknotes from the marksman, as Bent was one of only two outfield players in the entire Premier League to start all 38 games last year.
Bent has been purchased for colossal sums before and proved to be good value, but Villa have paid a mid-term premium rate that is typical of most January transfers. With their season in the balance, many clubs face the dilemma of choosing whether to stick or twist in the winter window as their objectives are reviewed and reassessed – especially in light of factors like injuries and dips in form.
The other big-money transfer this winter was Man City’s acquisition of Bosnian star Edin Dzeko. A first league title since 1968 is an increasingly-real possibility, so City had no hesitation in enhancing their strikeforce by plunging into their bottomless transfer-kitty. However, their motivation is imagination, not desperation. For pretty much the rest of the Football League, survival as an operating business is the primary objective, even if that means planning for the worst and hoping for the best.
Chester City were dissolved less than 12 months ago, and Sheffield Wednesday narrowed survived several winding up orders last year. Portsmouth famously fell victim to a combination of their own financial myopia and, bizarrely, on-field success – the 2008 FA Cup triumph cost the club millions in wage bonuses which ravished the club. After administration and rocketing debts, Pompey are now seldom able to name an 18-man squad. History and honours can’t be used as currency in the modern game.
For Villa, survival this season is now crucial. Signing Bent has given them a greater chance, but it has magnified the consequences they will face if they drop through the trapdoor, even with a prolific academy. Reputation can’t safeguard a club of any size. An inspired signing, or digging their own grave? We can speculate, but only time will tell.
This article was submitted for publication in Doncaster Rovers’ matchday programme for the npower Football League Championship match against Burnley on Feb 1st 2011.