On the eve of the Championship play-off final those managing Aston Villa’s recruitment had two clear plans laid out: one for success and one for failure.
Staying in the second tier would mean turnover for the 2019-20 campaign of under £30million, while promotion to the Premier League opened up an income for the year of more than £100m.
Such drastic disparity – decided on the outcome of one match at Wembley, where vagaries can strike in seconds – might easily have prompted muddied thinking for the summer ahead.
It is near impossible to work on deals when the division you’ll be playing in next season is not confirmed until May 27 – 11 days after the opening of the summer transfer window.
‘Only in football could you be at a company where on one single day your prospective budget can be reduced to 25 per cent of what it would be,’ a source said. ‘You clearly can’t advance targets until you know which scenario you’re in.’
So, in the days leading up to the game, a Plan A and Plan B sat on the desks of chief executive Christian Purslow and sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch. Fortunately for Villa, it was the former strategy picked up and enacted.
The 2-1 victory over Derby County meant Villa could once again be aspirational, free from the shackles of the EFL financial regulations and with billionaire owners in Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens ready to invest their own cash. And given clarity over budgets arrived later than any other club in England, the way Villa have gone about their work since has been impressive indeed.
They have signed 12 players for a combined total of just £130m. It has been a remarkable spending spree but one carried out with diligence and decisiveness, a far cry from the scattergun approach taken by Fulham last summer.
Back at Craven Cottage 12 months ago it seemed Slavisa Jokanovic had alternative ideas to others working at the club and as a result the squad felt disjointed when new faces came in at big cost. The spirit and style that had seen Fulham promoted was lost.
Instead, Villa have recruited in unison with clear vision. Dean Smith is reunited with players he knows well or has scouted for some time, while there are also exciting, young prospects that should bring fresh impetus and raise the standard.
The speed of Villa’s work has been a crucial factor, with seven signings ready to fly out to the USA on the club’s pre-season tour this week and two more subsequently joining.
The first was in at Bodymoor Heath on June 5, just a week after the delirium of Wembley. Jota arrived from rivals Birmingham in a swap deal with Gary Gardner plus £1m. It was a shrewd piece of business by Villa, taking advantage of their city rival’s need to trim the wage bill, and reunited Smith with a player he knew from Brentford.
Anwar El Ghazi’s loan from Lille was made permanent for £8m five days later and three days after that Wesley Moraes turned up as a £22m purchase from Club Brugge. Moraes, a striker to replace Tammy Abraham, had been linked with Roma and Newcastle but Villa swept in quietly.
Last season the 22-year-old scored 14 goals and appeared in the Champions League, and should he have similar output in England the fee will be regarded as a bargain.
Then came Kortney Hause for £3m, another of last season’s loan players who will need no time acclimatising to the club, and on July 1, when most clubs were beginning to get into gear, Matt Targett was putting pen to paper as Villa’s fifth signing at £15.6m.
On July 8 Villa could finally #AnnounceMings. The central defender who arrived on loan from Bournemouth in January and provided rocket fuel for promotion was back permanently. Villa had a matching clause as per the January agreement, meaning if another club had a bid accepted they could offer the same and begin negotiating personal terms.
Purslow waited to see if that happened, to potentially strike a lower deal, but ultimately pushed the button to get Mings in time for the American tour. At a cost of £20m potentially rising to £26.5m based on a number of add-ons, the terms work for Villa with some believing the 26-year-old is a future England international.
Villa triggered the £12m release clause in defender Ezri Konsa’s Brentford contract next and another centre-back Bjorn Engels was announced as joining for an estimated £9m. Smith said he has tracked the 24-year-old for more than a year.
Douglas Luiz arrived from Manchester City in a £15m deal – the Brazilian was named Player of the Tournament award at the prestigious Toulon tournament as Brazil won the competition – while Villa have agreed a £10.75million fee with Club Brugge for Zimbabwe midfielder Marvelous Nakamba. That deal will be completed subject to a work permit.
A new goalkeeper was also on the agenda. Villa walked away from the £25m price attached to Jack Butland by Stoke and will not overpay for players. Burnley’s Tom Heaton cost just £8m instead.
It was the same situation with Kalvin Phillips as it was with Butland, once Leeds demanded £30m for a midfielder who is talented – and would complement Jack Grealish and John McGinn – but has not played in the Premier League before. Villa saw an offer of £15m rising to £20m rejected and have not been back.
Whatever happens, this summer already feels like a smooth transition for Villa emerging from the Championship shadows to the Premier League sunlight.
Plan B is in the bin, let’s see how Plan A does on the pitch.
Tyrone Mings (Bournemouth, £26.5m)
Wesley Moraes (Club Bruges, £22m)
Matt Targett (Southampton, £15m)
Ezri Konsa (Brentford, £12m)
Trezeguet (Kasimpasa, £8.75m)
Jota (Birmingham City, £4m and player exchange)
Anwar El Ghazi (Lille, undisclosed)
Kortney Hause (Wolverhampton Wanderers, undisclosed)
Anwar El Ghazi (Lille, undisclosed)
Douglas Luiz (Manchester City, £12.50m)
Marvelous Nakamba (Club Brugge, £10.75m – subject to work permit)
Tom Heaton (Burnley, £8m)
Gary Gardner (Birmingham City, player exchange)
Tommy Elphick (Huddersfield Town, free)
Corey Blackett-Taylor (Tranmere Rovers, free)
Albert Adomah (Nottingham Forest, free)
Alan Hutton (released)
Micah Richards (released)
Mile Jedinak (released)
Glenn Whelan (released)
Ross McCormack (released)
Ritchie De Laet (released)
Mark Bunn (released)