Wolves v Aston Villa: Clash of the titans of tomorrow?
The rivalry between Wolves and Villa is never going to be the fiercest in the region.
Yet it is one which could well become more heightened in the coming years, with both clubs harbouring the same ambitions and facing some common problems in how precisely to achieve them.
Sunday’s match at Molineux, let’s not forget, is a clash between two of the five wealthiest clubs in the country – at least when it comes to the estimated riches of their respective owners.
Neither has made any secret of their bold long-term visions. “I do hope we can be the top club in the world,” Wolves chairman Jeff Shi said last year, while Villa’s billionaire co-owner Nassef Sawiris, described the sky “as the limit” following his club’s promotion in May.
Just 11 matches into their Premier League return, Villa are obviously several steps behind Wolves, who needed only one campaign back in the top flight to break into European competition.
But ultimately, the desired destination remains the same and both clubs know they will likely have to tread a similar path in order to reach it.
The days of simply splashing the cash to break into the Premier League’s elite are long gone, thanks to the financial restrictions which limit spending and mean any club with top six aspirations must grow their business alongside the team.
“The downside of Financial Fair Play is that it has helped to protect the status quo,” explained Dr Rob Wilson, a football finance expert based at Sheffield Hallam University.
“When Wolves first went up into the Premier League they spent quite heavily, but you cannot keep doing that.
“Clubs now have to try to find other ways of increasing their income streams, whether it be from raising ticket prices or other means.
“At the moment you have clubs trying to look for ideas others might not have thought of. If it is a good opportunity, then they are going to take it.”
The desire to increase revenue streams can explain several of the recent financial headlines surrounding Wolves.
Admittedly, the procurement of a £50million loan from the Australian investment bank Macquarie, secured against future television funds, was done chiefly to improve cash flow.
Neither was it unusual. The practice is actually now very common among clubs – both in the Premier League and the Championship – seeking to get an advance on transfer fees or prize money. “It is not something which ever concerns me,” said Wilson.
“Debt and borrowing are fine for any business so long as they have the funds to back it up.
“Obviously, the £50m figure is a big one, but it is actually less than half of the prize money Wolves are guaranteed from this season anyway.”
More intriguing is the club’s desire to attract outside investment through a share issue, with a view to a possible public listing.
Owners Fosun do not intend to sell any of their existing shareholding, or relinquish any control.
Instead they intend to create extra shares, while as Shi suggested last month in an interview with the Financial Times, they also intend to be “picky” when searching for potential investors.
The emphasis is on finding those who might also help the club grow in other areas.
Wolves have come an awfully long way on the pitch since Fosun purchased the club for just £30million in the summer of 2016.
The speed of success (the initial plan was for promotion to be achieved in 2019) means they were, to a certain extent, left playing catch-up off it. Some of the most important work has and is being done on building an infrastructure capable of delivering long-term success.
In many respects it is a similar scenario at Villa, where promotion was also won a year ahead of schedule.
Just 10 months previously, Sawiris and co-owner Wes Edens had saved the club from administration and though the scale of their investment since has had by far the biggest impact on Villa’s fortunes, so too has clear and coherent planning in the boardroom.
The appointment of Christian Purslow as chief executive was significant in several ways. Experienced at running a club on a day-to-day basis following his time at Liverpool, Purslow also knows one or two things about increasing revenues having negotiated several lucrative sponsorship deals while serving as Chelsea’s managing director.
His appointment at Stamford Bridge in 2014 was part of the London club’s drive to become self-sufficient and less reliant on Roman Abramovich’s billions.
A similar long-term goal exists at Villa and though that remains some way off, the strategy could be seen in the club’s much-publicised £127m summer spend, which focused on recruiting players who can contribute now but also increase in value. There has also, just as at Wolves, been a restated commitment to the academy, while plans for a new superstore, museum and possible hotel further indicate intentions to work on the club’s infrastructure.
A possible expansion of Villa Park is also expected to be high on the agenda provided Premier League status is retained this season. That must be the primary focus and Villa will head to Molineux to meet a team more established than themselves.
It is the first time the clubs have met in the top flight since 2013 but should the plans of both ownership groups come to fruition, it is a fixture which may soon take on a much larger standing.