More than a game

More than a game

Aston Villa’s season has been pretty miserable, but running a football club is not just about results on the pitch, as Villa chief executive Paul Faulkner explains.

Aston Villa lies at the heart of the Birmingham and West Midlands community, an integral player in the grand theatre of modern football.

Since 2006, when Randy Lerner bought the club, we have concentrated on developing a sustainable local business – and a culture within that business – that can function and grow. Working with and within the local business community has been a key element in our strategy.

The history, heritage and great traditions of Villa were attractive to Mr Lerner from the outset. We’re proud of the fact that the founder of the Football League back in 1888 – William McGregor – was a Villa man.

We’re proud of the great European Cup winning team of 1982, of players such as Mortimer, Withe and Cowans.

And we’re proud of our work in our community, binding us to our roots and to our core fans and fans of the future, from the equality and diversity ideals we espouse through initiatives to bring together a spectrum of young people at Villa Park, to the Soccer Schools run by our FA-qualified community coaches.

It was the opportunity to embrace these many different elements of a society and area which had great potential for growth that contributed significantly to the decision to buy Villa.

The city isn’t a crowded marketplace in terms of football, certainly compared with London and the North West. We felt that a club in the right-sized city would give us the chance to develop a core fan base and corporate backing to support a competitive team.

Birmingham and the West Midlands were big enough for that to work. Estimates show the city’s population of more than one million will grow by around 12% over the next 15 years, with a further two million people living within a 15-mile radius.

The average age of residents is 36 against a national average of 39, and the city is one of the most ethnically diverse in Europe. Birmingham is thriving and developing and offers exciting opportunities for organisations based in the area.

Birmingham has a highly-developed transport infrastructure which benefits from being in the heart of the country.

Birmingham Airport’s £40m runway extension will double its passenger capacity to over 20 million people annually and open new routes to the Far East and North America.

This is something we are excited about and hope to benefit from, as new routes to markets with avid followers of English football open up increased sponsorship possibilities with new airlines and businesses.

Birmingham is also a major hub of the UK’s rail network. New Street Station’s £100m redevelopment, and the new retail and leisure facilities that are part of the project, will give the city centre an economic boost, providing an attractive new welcome to visitors.

There is no doubt that the recession from 2008 has hurt the area and hurt good people. But the vitality central to developments such as these, and Birmingham’s general ‘Big City Plan’ regeneration programme, give genuine reason to be optimistic.

Jaguar Land Rover recently announced 800 new jobs at its Solihull plant and over £370m of investment to the region. The new £200m Library of Birmingham, of which I’m proud to be a Trustee, opens in September – the UK’s largest public library, it will be a cultural focal point and an iconic city building.

The £500m Queen Elizabeth ‘super hospital’ provides a national specialist centre for liver, heart and lung transplants, as well as cancer studies, and is a beacon we can all be genuinely proud of.

Birmingham is a national centre of excellence in life sciences, and the QE’s future developments could make the city a global leader in that field. I take particular pride in the fact that my wife is a doctor at the QE and also in the ongoing relationship between the club and Cure Leukaemia, whose centre is based there.

This took on added resonance when our club captain, Stiliyan Petrov, was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in March 2012. Cure Leukaemia enables patients in the West Midlands to access potentially life-saving and ground-breaking drugs and treatments. Cure Leukaemia’s dedication and pioneering work is inspiring and we’re delighted to have worked with them.

Stiliyan is a very powerful symbol of the way in which leukaemia can strike anybody, however fit they may be, and he also embodies the strength and courage needed in the battle to overcome this disease. From day one it has been our aim to be ‘good citizens’ in our community, and the most high-profile example of this is our longstanding relationship with Acorns Children’s Hospice.

Acorns was proudly displayed on our shirts for two seasons from 2008/09, and has remained our official charity partner. Continuous funding is vital to provide the necessary care for more than 600 life-limited and life-threatened Acorns children, and we remain committed to providing both money and a platform for Acorns to maintain a high profile. We fundamentally believe in the strength of our relationships with our charity and other partners, and with fellow businesses within Birmingham and the region.

A strong infrastructure is crucial when you are building something designed to be solid and lasting. For Aston Villa, this is intrinsic in recent redevelopments at Villa Park, for instance in the Trinity Road Stand and the Holte Suite, at a cost of £8m, allowing us to offer award-winning hospitality. At the most recent Official Football Hospitality Awards we won seven gongs, including gold standard for chef team of the year.

VMF, our renowned training restaurant, currently in the top 10 restaurants in Birmingham on TripAdvisor, addresses environmental issues by using a remarkable 80% of produce from within a 40-mile radius of Villa Park, including fruit and vegetables grown at the club’s own allotment.

The £13m redevelopment of the Bodymoor Heath Training Ground, completed in 2007, provided the club with a world-class facility.

Players such as Ciaran Clark, Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan and Chris Herd have recently emerged from our Academy, continuing a rich tradition of youth development. From 1998 through to the 2010-11 season, 145 players came through Villa’s Academy.

Of these, 51.7% have played in the Premier League, the Football League or top overseas leagues, and 15 became full internationals. The club secured Category One status for the Academy following an independent audit of our youth development programmes, part of the Barclays Premier League Elite Player Performance Plan.

In addition, it was ranked as the No.1 Academy in the country, a real testament to our investment in young players, vital in the new era of Uefa’s Financial Fair Play and the Premier League’s tougher regulation of clubs’ financial outlays.

All of this feeds into the composition and competitiveness of our first team. Last summer, Villa identified in manager Paul Lambert the kind of qualities we believe will heighten our prospects of being able to compete strongly in one of the most fiercely-fought and unforgiving environments in the world of sport.

Although our Premier League performance to date has been more inconsistent than anyone associated with the club would have wanted, results such as winning at Anfield and progressing to the Capital One Cup semi-finals provided tangible evidence of a young team coming together.

The development of the team, with its mix of youth and experience, bodes well for the future, which we feel will be exciting for the club.Football is about communities – people coming together, showing passion and demonstrating a dynamic confluence of their hopes and fears, their anxieties and aspirations.

It is a vital drama in our everyday lives, and Aston Villa is a central part of the landscape of this modern, growing, constantly evolving, vibrant city.