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What lessons can Leeds fans learn from Aston Villa’s missed promotion?

The financial day of reckoning appears to be here for Villa. What can Leeds fans learn from that

Aston Villa v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

After losing in the Championship playoff final last weekend, Aston Villa will spend yet another year outside the top flight, and after spending heavily to gain promotion back to the riches of the Premier League, it now appears as if they will have to cut costs and sell players in order to comply with Financial Fair Play regulations.

Aston Villa crashed into the Championship after spending 27 years in the top flight after the 2015-16 season, including being a founding member of the Premier League and being one of only seven teams to played in every season of the Premier League up to that point. For fans of the biggest club in the West Midlands, this is an unthinkable outcome. A team that had been regularly seen as having the potential to challenge the “big” clubs from London, Manchester, and Merseyside, Villa will now join teams with histories of success like Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds United, and Nottingham Forest in the second tier of English football while teams like AFC Bournemouth, Brighton & Hove Albion, and Burnley all ply their trade in the Premier League.

One of the biggest complaints that a lot of fans in the Championship have is about the unwillingness of the club’s owner to spend to match the ambition of the team. After all, teams on a strict budget almost never gain success and even those who do get promoted usually wind up right back in the Championship when they are unable to compete with the money being sloshed around by the big boys.

However, Aston Villa outspent almost every other team in the Championship in 2016-17 season, hung on to most of those players in 2017-18, and added some expensive loan players and paid an unimaginable £60k a week to former Chelsea captain John Terry and failed to gain promotion. Was it just down to bad luck? Did Cardiff City’s improbable run to an automatic promotion spot ruin their chances, as Villa ran into one of the other big spending Championship teams, Fulham, in the playoff finals?

Those factors certainly played a part, but it’s more than that. With almost every Championship club spending beyond their means, along with Premier League clubs that can outbid and outspend every lower league club, the prices for players are at an all-time high and if any high-priced player doesn’t work out as planned, the clubs in the Championship can’t just buy their way out of trouble like those in the Premier League can.

So what can Leeds fans take from Aston Villa’s failure to gain promotion? The biggest takeaway from their playoff loss is that just throwing money at players won’t automatically result in promotion.

Villa spent a lot of money on a load of new players in 2016-17 in an attempt to buy their way back into Premier League at their first opportunity, but all of that spending only resulted in a 13th place position in the table, having gained only 62 points with a middle of the road record of 16 wins, 14 draws, and 16 losses and with a goal difference of -1. Not exactly the kind of return on investment that the Villa owner, Dr. Tony Xia, imagined when he spent a reported £76.14 million on transfers during the 2016-17 season. This total includes over £30 million on three strikers, Jonathan Kodjia, Ross McCormack, and Scott Hogan, none of which started the playoff final against Fulham.

This is not a unique problem to Aston Villa. While not at the same level as Villa, both Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday have all run up large debts attempting to get out of the Championship, while Queens Park Rangers spent well beyond their means and achieved promotion, only to come crashing back down after only a few years in the top flight. They’ve been assessed a FFP penalty, but the likelihood of that fine ever being paid off seems small with the debts that QPR have racked up since coming back to the Championship. Leicester City was successful, going up, staying up, and winning the Premier League, but even they had to throw caution to the wind and probably would have been in extremely dire straights had they not gone up when they did.

Of course, not spending money will lead to bad outcomes, no matter what. Preston North End, Burton Albion, and Barnsley FC do not spend the same amount as the heavy hitters in the division, but since Preston’s failed playoff appearances back in the early 2000s, they haven’t been close, and neither have Burton or Barnsley. Brighton was a club that Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani said he would like to emulate, and while it’s true that Brighton did not throw money around trying to get promoted, it’s not as if they ran on a shoestring budget either.

So to gain promotion, clubs have to walk a fine line between throwing stupid money around and investing wisely. The margin of error between going broke or having to slash budgets in face of FFP restrictions and investing enough to go up is very, very small.

Aston Villa spent up to the max to go up and are now paying the penalty. Leeds once paid an ever greater penalty because of spending too much, and as much as fans would like the owners to shell out the cash to guarantee promotion, it just doesn’t work that way. To be successful, you have to be good and lucky and hope that the money you spend is spent on the right players, otherwise you’ll end up worse off than you were before.