- Happy with season so far and still targeting automatic promotion
- Big plans for Villa Park
- Thrilled with John Terry contribution
- Loans on the agenda in January
- Stressful watching games as chairman
- Heart operation has revitalised owner
Dr Tony Xia strode into the Chairman’s Office where I was waiting for an exclusive interview with him.
“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, Paul,” before sitting down for a full 45 minutes as he spoke on a range of subjects – all the time beaming about his love for the club and his hopes and aspirations for the future.
For a football club owner, you feel unusually comfortable in his presence – but that’s the measure of the man, a real people person.
That’s demonstrated most notably by his use of social media as he keeps fans connected with the inner workings of the football club.
He loves chatting to supporters, even if he doesn’t have as much time for it now due to his immensely busy schedule.
“It’s good for me. I enjoy it. In all my companies, I like to talk to people, I like to connect with people. I don’t like hierarchy structures. It doesn’t matter to me in society or in business.
“I like interacting with people. And I certainly like interacting with our fans. I have been trying my best to get more time to communicate with them.
“But honestly, practically, it is getting harder and harder. I just don’t have enough time to do it as much as I can. Fans might have to expect that I can’t tweet as much as I usually do.
“When I first started, I thought it was vital to communicate with fans and try my best to tell them that we’re doing everything we can to turn the club around. I am hoping they can see those changes a little bit now.
“I wanted also to re-engage their passion and believe in this magnificent club again. They had gone through a lot before!
“Last year, I did much more tweeting. And, if I get more time, I will keep doing it. But everybody, I hope, can understand I might not be able to do so frequently as I did before.
“One day, if the club is running perfectly and is really healthy and they don’t think they really need me to talk too much, I think that would be good! It would be time for me to escape.”
If Dr Tony’s drive and determination is anything to go by, there’s no question this moment will come sooner rather than later.
He leaves Steve Bruce and Steve Round to focus on the football and has highly experienced Keith Wyness in charge of day-to-day matters.
But he’s a fully engaged owner, who lives and breathes Aston Villa.
He’s seeing progress as he eyes automatic promotion – his first goal – but also has bigger, grander plans for the future.
“I think it’s fine to say that we didn’t start as well as we expected this season. But after the close of the transfer window, we have been getting better and better. We set a target of two points every game to achieve automatic promotion and for the last few games we have been hitting that target.
“I think the Sheffield Wednesday game was something we didn’t expect but after that we have showed good character and bounced back.
“We are very close to the target we set. There’s still a long way to go. I think the next two months are crucial to us.
“We hope we can keep climbing up a little more by the first half of the season.
“It was difficult when I stepped in as chairman. As I always emphasise, it was the worst time – it couldn’t be worse.
“My belief was ‘it’s not easy to go back to the very top but at least if you get the right direction you can improve everything.’
“We have done something good I believe. We have changed a lot of things – changed the environment and mentality of the team. Now we are in a positive place.”
John Terry has undoubtedly been Dr Tony’s marquee signing since arriving as chairman in June 2016.
And he couldn’t have been happier with the impact of the former Chelsea and England captain since signing him this summer.
“We were thinking about how to improve. It’s why, when we had the opportunity to bring in John Terry, we tried our very best.
“We know his mentality. His leadership would help a lot, we thought – he’s definitely improved things.
“We always want to bring in players with the right attitude and mentality – it will help the whole team and whole environment. It takes time. But, right now, it’s good.
“John is respected and admired, that’s for sure. For people like John, he has self-discipline. He knows how to affect and help others.
“When he came in, I think a lot of fans might not have had a real sense of what kind of influence he would bring into the club. We can see very practically his influence now.”
As November now ticks down and Christmas is on the horizon, those in the football fraternity are clearly turning their attentions to the transfer window – and Dr Tony is no different.
He stresses that the desire to improve the squad must be balanced with the need to be financially sensible as the club keeps a close eye on FFP.
There will be incomings, he told us.
“When Steve Round came in, we started working on trying to improve the whole structure of the playing staff – the first team through to the youth teams.
“The first priority is obviously promotion.
“In terms of strengthening, everyone knows that for January we have the FFP to look at. But very possibly we will bring in a couple of loans to strengthen our squad. We want to keep getting better and better and help us end the season well.
“I hope in the next summer window, if we can go up, there will be a collection of more of my maths equations. Our ambition is that if we go up we won’t be satisfied to just stay there. We want to go back to being one of the elite clubs in the division.
“In order to achieve that, we will have to bring in some high-level players. I know this.
“But also, I have been impressed with our U23s players too, I must say. I like to watch the U23 training. We can see O’Hare, Davis, Hayes, Clark and Suliman coming through. There’s also Green and Grealish who have made that journey. We have a group of very good young players.
“I was chatting the other day and pondering whether in the next few years we could have a ‘late 1990s and early 2000s team’ - with people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s creating the ‘star Villa academy product team’."
Within months of Dr Tony arriving as chairman, he spelt out his vision – being in the upper echelons of the English game and competing in Europe, once again.
He’s confident Aston Villa will achieve this.
“When I took over, when I said those kinds of words, it’s more about ‘I have to say something to make people positive and believe we will do something special’. It’s something we needed to do to make this whole environment positive – including the fans.
“I wanted them to believe that we would get back on track. It was more, at that time, for that kind of purpose.
“But I have to fulfil all the promises I have made and all the words I have said. I will keep my word and do my best to complete the promise.
“The only difference from now to when I took over the club is that I have a much clearer strategy and solution now – more practical information on how to achieve that target.
“It may take years to achieve but honestly, right now, I am really confident we can do that. I am positive we will do it. It doesn’t matter how many years. I know we will achieve it.”
When Aston Villa hopefully battle the likes of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona in the future, life could be very different at Villa Park.
Dr Tony has grand ideas concerning the stadium.
Naturally, he was reticent to share all the information but said the plans would be ground-breaking.
“We have very big plans for Villa Park. We finished a plan in China a few weeks ago. We handed it to the management team here. It’s fair to say they were shocked.
“It will be something really different from what we can imagine from other clubs.
“One element will involve the North Stand, which I know people talk about a lot.
“The main point I want to make is it will have a very modern style but will definitely keep the historic feel, which is very important.
“But in terms of the whole plan? I am confident people will like it. People who have seen the plan love the plan.”
Dr Tony’s desire to keep tradition at the forefront of any future strategy shows, once again, his connection to the fanbase, which was first born when he took to the pitch on the eve of our win over Rotherham in August 2016.
It’s a moment, Dr Tony admits, he will never forget.
“When I walked on to the pitch that day it was very, very emotional – but it also gave me more strength to face all the challenges.
“I think that was a really important moment. At that time, people were questioning whether we could take this great club forward. But the support from fans that afternoon was something that helped me carry the burden and look to help us move forward. It was an emotional moment.”
He watched Villa win 3-0 that day and there have been many more victories in the year since that standing ovation.
But, more often than not, Dr Tony is travelling the world when Villa are playing.
What’s it like cheering on a team you own?
“I would say to a fan ‘you wouldn’t want to be the owner of the club’. You feel so much pressure. It’s incredible.
“You are nervous for every second of the game when you are the owner. It’s never easy watching the games.
“If we can achieve promotion before the end of the season – with several games left – I will enjoy very much for the rest of the games. We can all celebrate together then.”
He smiles as he delivers that aspiration – and he appears contented throughout as he spells out his vision.
He looks well, too – probably helped by the heart operation he underwent several months ago to correct a longstanding issue.
“I am much better than last year. I was born with a heart problem – not a very serious one. But I asked to take the operation when I was doing my PHD at Harvard.
“My doctor said the ratio of the operation was about 90%. I didn’t want to put my life on the line. I had a lot of things to do. I didn’t want to put that all into 90%.
“I delayed the operation for 15 years. But I feel good now. After 15 years, the technology has been very much improved. It has become now almost 100%.
“That’s good and I have more energy now which is great because for the last couple of months, it’s been the busiest time of my life.”
There’s the true measure of the man!
“The busiest time of my life” and yet no issue with giving me some quality time to interview him.
As I walk out, he takes a sip of his drink and shouts over: “Have a great weekend, Paul.”
Thanks very much, Dr T! You too!