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Premier League clubs must not choke themselves with lofty ambition

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It always happens during pre-season. Amidst the international tours and world record singings comes the talk of ambition. Spoken in hushed tones across Premier League boardrooms as data and results are mulled over, platitudes are soon ferried to the awaiting masses. 

Ambition is a concept that begets both hope and ruin. It is a prodigious promise that relinquishes any ill will and replaces it with a newly found sense of optimism. A claim that they are ready to finally deliver on years of susurrus supposition, but ultimately, can compel a sense of attrition when repeatedly unfulfilled. 

Club chairpersons can break transfer records, and incoming managers can claim that ‘’we’ve got to take the club forward’’, but when those words have been preceded by years of regression, they feel hollow. It has become an all too familiar story of clichéd nothingness for so many fans.

 When Dr Tony Xia completed his takeover of Aston Villa in 2016, he said he wanted to turn the side into one of ‘’the top three’’ sides in the world, ‘’even the best well known in the world in less than 10 years.’’ A severely outlandish claim, even for a man who has the imagination to call journalists ‘’jerknalists’’ on Twitter.

Tony Xia never did get Villa to the Premier League as chairman of the club. Xia was forced to sell his majority stake in the club to Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris in July 2018 after taking the club to the brink of administration through failed payments and club deficits, a deficit that promotion to the Premier League would have solved. 

Now, just a year later, Aston Villa are back among English football’s elite alongside a renewed and unblinking sense of footballing ambition. With over £100 million spent this transfer window and new owners who say that ‘’the sky is the limit’’ in what they can achieve, Aston Villa are now light on their feet, the problems of yesterday have dissipated and the world is their oyster. However, like final year students, it is often hard to conceive of the new world that you are graduating into and the unforeseen problems and pitfalls that come along with it. How does one cement themselves as a Premier League stalwart when approximately 50% of teams that are promoted from the Championship are immediately relegated the following season? Well, Villa’s solution seems to be to spend more than anyone else in world football other than Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus. Compare that to the £1 million spent by Norwich City, and it becomes clear that Aston Villa must have greater ambitions than just survival in their first season back in the Premier League. 

Comparing Villa to Fulham has become a bit of a joke on social media over the last few weeks as their spending continues to rise, but it’s difficult not to make some comparisons, and huge recruitment drives very rarely work the way supporters expect them to. Villa cannot say they have not been warned, and as unlikely as they are to make the mistake of ostracising their key player, Jack Grealish the way Tom Cairney was at Fulham, the dangers of such ambition are far from fleeting. Perhaps Fulham will act as the augury that will prevent Villa from becoming one of the panoply of teams to suffer the same fate. 

At the other end of the spectrum, you have the teams looking to break new ground. To make a statement and disrupt the leagues steadfast and resolute top order. 

West Ham’s co-owner David Gold, when responding to a fan on Twitter recently said ‘‘There are many people at the club who believe we can finish in the top six good luck.’’ A deflective response. But beneath the jocular, and slightly Trumpian, exposition lies a determined truth. After a second consecutive summer of spending big, albeit with many outgoings too, David Gold will be expecting better than the 10th place they achieved last season. The only problem is, so are other clubs. Everton, Leicester and Wolves all have top six ambitions.

‘’My ambition when I came in was to get European football for Leicester and to win a cup,’’ Leicester manager Brendan Rogers said earlier this year. Wolves’ ambitions, since their takeover by Chinese conglomerate Fosun, are no secret, and Everton should be aware of the perils facing those who overstep their boundaries after their flirt with relegation two seasons ago. 

Only through the ephemeral Sam Allardyce were Everton able to scurry up to eighth in the table in the 2017-18 season after a summer of wanton spending in an attempt to capitalise on the waning powers that be after Leicester’s triumph in 2016. The failed signings of Sandro Ramirez, Davy Klaassen and Henry Onyekuru, among others, and their unwavering reliance on an outcome that was in hindsight rather unrealistic, almost doomed them to lower league football for the first time since the 1950’s. And as many clubs have previously discovered, the Championship is notoriously hard to get out of, especially for a recently relegated team in a financial hole with players that need offloading.

Leicester’s Premier League title win was only the second time – and the first since Blackburn Rovers in 1995 – that any team other than Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea or Manchester City have won the Premier League. An often forgotten fact, that season also happens to be the last time we saw a team outside of the now ‘traditional’ top six to finish in the European places, with Southampton placing sixth. This will never happen again, they told themselves, and they would make sure of it. Leicester’s resplendent toppling of the establishment ultimately achieved the opposite of what it promised as the ‘big clubs’ dug their heels further into the sand. But it also seems to have also offered a tincture of hope for a future in which the battle for the Premier League’s top six is a meritocracy rather than the stagnant and arid competition that it is slowly becoming.

Of all these clubs hoping to finish in sixth place this season, one of them will finish at least as low as tenth. They have to, and that is assuming that no team from the bottom half from last season breaks into the top half. Will it be considered a massive failure should any of the aforementioned teams finish tenth or lower in the coming season? You would assume so considering the pre-season rallying and spending from these clubs. With the potential short sighted repercussions – such as the premature sacking of a manager – any one of them may suffer should that reality come to pass will mean that, the ones who just fall short of their lofty ambitions, are liable to choke themselves in a desperate pursuit of a mountaintop so many are scrambling to reach. 

Having ambition should by no means be avoided or scoffed at, for it is that very same ambition with which heroes are made. But club’s must be realistic and adjust rather than upheave when they find themselves lost amidst an overly saturated crowd.

This season may just well be the best chance they have to unsettle the nobility for the first time since 2016, or even surpass any expectations in Aston Villa’s case, but with a host of others mirroring each other’s ambitions, those very same ambitions may just see some unjustly collapse to an unnecessary fate. 

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