- Club in discussions to purchase several teams abroad
- Villa Park set for 60,000 capacity after Premier League return
- New football philosophy – the “Villa Engine” – being championed at Bodymoor Heath
- Moves for two Premier League big-hitters come close in transfer window
Keith Wyness has packed a lot into his life already.
Our amiable CEO starred in BBC’s University Challenge, persuaded FIFA to bring in the referee vanishing spray, won the USA version of The Price is Right and survived Hurricane Andrew.
But he stresses he’s never been more excited as he looks to help re-establish Aston Villa as one of the biggest names in world football.
Wyness chats the week after the close of the summer transfer window and he’s buoyant at what the club has been able to do.
But he’s not just looking at the short-term of getting back to the Premier League.
He’s relishing the introduction of the “Villa Engine” – a football philosophy being championed by Director of Football Steve Round.
“I have been very pleased with our business in this window.
“I know there’ll have been a big rush of fans saying on Deadline Day evening ‘oh we didn’t do anything.’ Well I am pleased we didn’t need to do anything. I don’t want to have to do things on the last day. I think a lot of clubs who are scrambling around on the last day have got it wrong in many ways.
“We did a lot of our business last January, never mind this transfer window.
“So we have now got the squad balanced. We know it hasn’t been the start we had hoped for but I do believe we are in a very good position now to really push on.
“In terms of Deadline Day and outgoings, it went right until 11pm. We didn’t get things across the line that we had hoped.
“In terms of potential incomings, there were a couple of big names in the mix. We’re not going to divulge their names.
“There were two big Premier League names that we were in discussions with. But it’s difficult to get things across the line. I am afraid I will have to tease everybody with that information.
“People would be amazed by it all. I think the ratio is that if you are working on six deals, one might come through. If we say we did seven ins and nine outs, that’s 16 deals, you times that by six, that means we probably worked on approximately 100 deals during this window. That gives you an idea.
“Each one is unique too. It has different pressures, different variables, different people involved – balancing 100 deals over the window is an interesting time. That’s why we are all relieved when it closes.
“My phone is ringing off the hook during the window. On Deadline Day, it started at 5am and with Dr Tony in China we’re talking through the night.
“I remember the last summer transfer window, I maybe had one or two hours of sleep per night for three weeks. It was like that. It does run hot.
“On the football side, it all starts in us getting back to the Premier League. I think everyone can see that there’s a short-term strategy in place in terms of experience to get us back.
“But that’s certainly not the long-term strategy.
“Then we want to see the Villa Engine start to take shape. We are very far advanced in our thinking on this. We have given it a lot of thought and we absolutely have the vision.
“We know where we want to get to but we’re also living in the present moment and understand the reality of getting out of the Championship.
“Steve Round is crucial for this vision going-forward.
“He’s one of the brightest young thinkers in the game today. I really enjoy working with him.
“He’s not only helped with the transfer window and being the major player within the initial phases of all the deals, he’s the one tasked with making sure the Villa Engine is starting to be developed throughout the academy.
“That’s everything – elite coaching, sports science, health and nutrition. Everything is linked together through Steve Round as we look for the right recipe for us to go forward.
“Long-term, I want to see a clear direction of the club in terms of style of play – and generating youngsters…in other words a clear youth direction for the club.
“We want to be seen as an unbelievably attractive club to come and play for.
“Steve Round has been an invaluable sounding board for Steve Bruce too. He’s had 20 unbroken years of coaching in the top level. He’s worked for Man Utd and England. He’s one of the great brains of the game at the moment. He and Steve have a great relationship. They are talking football day in and day out.
“It’s also vital the club has that vital anchor that, if god forbid, we do have a management change, Steve would be the continuum in that we know how to carry on going-forward.
“That’s something we have never had before. Whenever we have changed managers, it’s been total chaos and lurching from one crisis to another one.
“We are now trying to make sure we have a balanced progression no matter what happens and I think that’s important for the future.
“I am excited about the Villa Engine – and it’s not just about style of football. It’s a whole philosophy about playing for Villa.
“It’s an overarching system of what type of players we will be recruiting and the personalities we are recruiting. Of course, it has style of football at its heart but that’s not the be all and end all, it’s actually about who you are as Aston Villa.
“Steve Round has done a lot of work on it. It will go through all the age groups and it will, hopefully, produce an Aston Villa team that will play in a certain style and also have the same character and personality and values whatever the age group.
“It’s about pride, passion and purpose – that one goal that goes through the whole club.”
Fast-forward to a point in time when the Villa Engine is purring through the gears and the stars of tomorrow could be playing in an advanced Villa Park stadium as Wyness reveals long-term plans to expand the ground – and develop the surrounding area.
Wyness is looking at bringing Villa Park up to a 60,000 capacity, with six solutions on the table.
“We would be looking to take the stadium up to a 60,000 capacity. We are in initial discussions about how that could possibly be done. We are in the very early stages at present.
“We’re certainly looking to regenerate the whole area.
“We have groups working on that right now to try and bring a whole different level of attraction here – and redeveloping the whole area around the whole vicinity of Villa Park to improve it.
“We have some clever thoughts on what the area redevelopment would look like. There would be some sporting themes.
“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes, working with the City Council on this.
“In terms of 60,000, I don’t see us pushing the button on that until we were back in the Premier League. These things can take between three-five years too.
“There are six different solutions to make this come to be. We are looking at all of them. North Stand would be the key area to be redeveloped. Other parts of Doug Ellis – and some parts of even the Holte End – would need to be redeveloped to in increase its capacity. But there are so many variables that we have to look into.
“Even though it’s a great piece of land with good access, it’s still landlocked to a great degree and there are big traffic implications to increasing to 60,000. Things like the stations might be need to increase in size.
“There was a lot of work done previously by Randy Lerner and his team. We are reviewing all of that. But we also have our own thoughts in where we want to take it.
“It needs to be updated to keep it as that jewel it has always been.
“We have the utmost respect for the ground and what it means to our supporters and any changes would be in-keeping with that. But it needs to be increased if we are to be commercially successful long-term.”
As well as glimpsing up at a modern Villa Park, the claret and blue star of tomorrow could also see opportunities to play abroad, with Wyness currently in negotiations to increase the Aston Villa brand overseas.
Just as Man City have teams in Australia and USA, Villa are also looking at acquiring clubs far and wide.
News on these could come soon, according to Wyness.
“The strengthening of the Aston Villa brand abroad is very much on the agenda. It’s something I keep a close eye on. I have had several discussions with some groups overseas.
“I think what we have learnt is that you need to get the “mothership” right first – which is Aston Villa Football Club. It’s about getting it right here before we go out and acquire.
“It’s important to have that good structure here so we can then go out and teach those clubs how to run it from the mothership.
“It could be any time soon that we dabble into those markets. It’s not Premier League dependent. We already have contacts and advanced negotiations on a number of areas but nothing absolutely concrete just yet.”
Wyness is still working hard on getting the “mothership” of Aston Villa right – but he’s come a long way.
He’s proud of the work that’s been done in the last year.
“When we took over, the club had just been relegated and we’d had a big redundancy exercise of staff. Times were very tough.
“The first thing you have to do is assess what are the core needs of the club. From that, you then build a team of staff that you are sure are going to go with you for the journey forward. You have to make sure they are looked after, have clear direction and are motivated – we basically build a clearer structure for those people.
“Then things can start to grow again once you have that core of people following you.
“It’s bringing things back to basics and changing the culture and starting off again with a very strong group of people.
“In terms of a turnaround, it’s been as big as Everton. Everton was experiencing tough times when I arrived there.
“That was a big turnaround – but it was done successfully. Villa has other issues and different areas to be addressed but it was just as big and I think the rewards will be even bigger as we get the club back up to where it should be.”
Wyness loves his role as the club’s lynchpin, managing it day-to-day – and he believes his background in business has been vital in his first 12 months in charge.
“The job of a CEO at a football club, you’re a jack of all trades – and you have to be master of all of them.
“One day I am running a retail business, the next day I am running a top restaurant, the next day I am trading for players and then the following day, I am considering property deals.
“You’re covering a whole myriad of business skills. You can’t slip up on any of them.
“It’s vital that you have a very big background in general business and not just football. I would say that 70% of the business I do is outside of football.
“The transfer window is a major part of it and you do need to know your football inside-out. But you have to know everything in business because a football club touches every single part of it. It’s very broad.”
If it’s business experience you’re looking for, Wyness is perfect for the role at Aston Villa.
Here’s a guy who started his career at British Airways as a young graduate – and within a few years he was working on the Concorde project and setting up what is now known as the Executive Club Card.
Even during those six years, his mind was bubbling with ideas.
“Even at BA, I saw at that time the growth of the cruise industry.
“I went off with a business partner to the USA and set up a cruise line in Miami. We started off with a drawing on a napkin and went out with a begging bowl around Wall Street and raised $125m and built the world’s first twin hold cruise ship.
“We started the cruise line which we eventually sold to Radisson Hotels.”
Then it was into football with Aberdeen and Everton, experience which eventually led him to Dr Tony Xia and Aston Villa.
“There was a group who had already been in touch with Dr Tony and had seen he was interested in buying a club. They had known of me from my time at Everton. I think they wanted someone who had a background of doing a turnaround.
“They were the experts in doing the transaction while I was seen as the right person who could come in longer-term to manage the business. That’s how it happened.
“I got to know Dr Tony during the transaction and he’s a very quick judge of people. He decided he wanted me and liked me and here I am today.
“Dr Tony is the brightest man I have ever met and dealt with in business. His academic record shows you that.
“He has a wicked sense of humour and he loves his football without shadow of doubt. He is always looking to the future and can always analyse issues with a speed that is very rare. He has a huge talent for that. But he’s always looking at the vision, we are constantly talking about that. He’s at least two or three years ahead.
“But he also lives in the present and he’s backed us as we look to get back to the Premier League.
“There are FFP limits. I know some fans think that doesn’t exist. But I can assure them, it exists very, very clearly. We have to submit papers to the Football League every year and we are very clear of the sanctions if we were to breach FFP. There are limits. We have adhered to them. We are right on the red line with them but we will be okay.
“Dr Tony has backed us as far as he could do. His thoughts are very welcome but he hasn’t started to dictate. He listens to reasoned argument. We make the right decisions as a group. As chairman of course he has the final say. But he has been wonderful to work with.”
Another man who has been wonderful to work with has been boss Steve Bruce.
Like Dr Tony, Wyness loves Bruce’s honest approach – and ebullient personality.
“He’s revered in football. His black book is second to none. He is well respected. That’s because he’s a good man.
“What you see is what you get. That’s the thing about Steve – he’s a very true character. I speak to him openly and honestly – we have a very clear communication, there’s no game-playing. That’s been fantastic. It’s the best relationship I’ve had with a manager in all my years in football.
“Perhaps younger managers coming into the game, in their own development phase, they might feel they need to protect their own thoughts and are not as good at communicating as they should be.
“I think it all comes out with age and experience that the best way is honesty and sincerity.”
These are two traits undoubtedly shining through with Wyness as he continues to steer the mothership Aston Villa into clearer waters.