Inside Aston Villa’s £400m upgrade to be Champions League ready and crash ‘big six’

Villa's president of business operations, Chris Heck poses at the Bodymoor Heath training facility on 12th June, 2024

The man running Aston Villa’s push to establish themselves permanently in English football’s elite is unequivocal about the club’s ambition: Villa want to get there within the next three years and when they do, they plan to stay there.

The first new English club in the modern Champions League – Villa, of course, won the European Cup in 1982 – since Leicester eight years ago, are in a summer of momentous change at Villa Park. The plan to boost their revenue to £400 million by 2027 has been devised by Chris Heck, president of business operations and a hire from the United States. He is clear that the moment is to be seized.

“There has been such a gap between the [Premier League] big six and everyone else,” he tells Telegraph Sport. “What is it going to take for one or two clubs to enter into that realm? We have a plan to get there. We think we will be there in the next three years. We are definitely playing in that space, performance-wise. We are one of the top performing clubs in the world on the pitch. Our manager [Unai Emery] is arguably top group in the world.

“We have the infrastructure with an incredible fanbase in the Midlands. A brand that is being globalised and owners that are smart and capable to get us there. This is pretty exciting. Not many clubs have that opportunity and we are one of probably two.”

A general view (GV) of Villa Park with a small crowd and empty seats during the Barclays Women's Super League match between Aston Villa and Manchester City at Villa Park on May 18, 2024 in Birmingham, England
Villa Park is undergoing rapid upgrades this summer - Getty Images/Charlotte Wilson

‘We have a plan for PSR’

We are chatting at Villa’s new central London offices where Heck, 55, is based for some of the week. At Villa Park, the club are about to announce what Heck says is the biggest hospitality push in European football: 18 new premium offerings, including private club space and other suites. On the pitch, Emery is preparing for the club’s first season in Uefa’s biggest club competition since Villa were defending champions in the 1982-83 season.

It means that Villa Park is undergoing a rapid and major upgrade to be completed before the new season begins on August 17. “Tens of millions of pounds” is the closest Heck will go to putting a figure on the hospitality renovation across three stands excluding the Holte End. A similar amount is being spent on the Bodymoor Heath training ground, including the building of a 40-room hotel for players and staff as well as new women’s team and academy facilities and new pitches.

Heck has been tasked by the club’s billionaire owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens to increase the club’s annual revenue to £400 million, which is the figure they calculate is needed to live with Europe’s super-clubs.

Bigger revenue. High-spec hospitality. London offices for the biggest club in Birmingham. These are the kind of priorities that can prick the temper of fans. Yet this is the game now and both Manchester United and Liverpool have long had London bases. We meet a day after the Premier League AGM and Villa’s proposal to raise the permitted losses under profit and sustainability rules [PSR] to £135 million over three years has failed. Sawiris will himself go on to call PSR an “anti-competitive” obstacle to the ambitions of a club like his. It is Heck’s job to find a way round it.

The challenges of PSR compliancy are huge. Jhon Duran, the Colombian international striker signed from MLS last summer is a target for Chelsea. Douglas Luiz, another whom Villa would ordinarily not wish to lose, may move to Juventus for £18 million. Nevertheless, Weston McKennie and Samuel Iling-Junior would join Villa in the other direction and the Luiz fee would count immediately towards PSR compliancy.

Aston Villa's Douglas Luiz celebrates after scoring his side's 2nd goal from the penalty spot during the English Premier League soccer match between Aston Villa and West Ham United at Villa Park in Birmingham, England, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023
Douglas Luiz could be on his way t Juventus this summer - AP Photo/Rui Vieira

“Our owners are very engaged on this as well as Unai,” Heck says. “What I would say is we have a plan.

“It’s a harder path than the big six. We have to be more creative and think differently, while they have sustainable businesses that they can just keep going. We think it will take us another three years to build that sustainable business. In the meantime we have some pretty capable individuals on the sporting side who are working very similarly to how I am working on the business side.”

Those are the sporting director Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo – aka Monchi – and director of football operations, Damian Vidagany, working alongside Emery, Villa’s transformative manager. Heck meanwhile has the task of taking Villa into a different league on the balance sheet – adding £200 million over four years.

“The first year we were successful,” he says. “We generated £50 million more and that’s our plan to generate £50 million more each year. That has never been done before and we are doing it. We are already well on our way. We were [on] £219 million [annual turnover] so what is the magic number to get to? We think it’s £400 million to get into the game of sustainability. We have a path to get there.

“We just came back from the league meetings. We know what we are up against and we almost feel that we have to do this on our own. Because these rules are not set up to reward an ambitious club. Or a challenger. It [changing the three-year permitted losses under PSR to a top limit of £135 million] didn’t go through. I don’t want to keep worrying about it.

“When something doesn’t evolve in 11 years and with the cost of living alone, you scratch your head. If the Bank of England says inflation of £105 million through an 11-year period [then £105 million] is now at £143 million. You would think we would follow that same logic but the league has decided not to. I don’t want to waste my time griping about it. I want to find a new path and I think that is where Aston Villa enters into that big-club realm. We have to just get there. So how do you get there within the rules? Well, you try to work harder, and get smarter and be better at what you do.”

‘Not just one type of English football fan’

Heck came from a 33-year US sports marketing career in the NBA and Major League Soccer. He undoubtedly has a restless energy to push ahead. There is a new kit deal with Adidas – the first with the German giant, in which Sawiris is a significant shareholder, in the club’s history – and a front-of-shirt sponsor with the online gambling group, Betano.

The work at Villa Park will include transforming police holding cells in the North Stand, built to accommodate unruly fans, into a new suite. “The Cells” will be one of the 18 newly themed offerings encompassing 5,000 hospitality tickets across different price levels. There is a new superstore and “The Warehouse”, an adjoining matchday food and drink space which will eventually also become a 4,000-capacity concert venue.

For the US sports executive, British stadiums can be something of a step back in time although Heck is polite about that. He looked at Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham’s Riverside Stand as he sought to shape what Villa might do. “Premium meant [at Villa Park] you got a suite, 12 tickets and a rectangular table for a sit down like a family meal,” he says. “It’s wonderful and everyone enjoys themselves but that was the only option. My thought is ‘let’s give people more options and I bet you they are going to be interested’. There is not just one type of English football fan.”

Aston Villa's president of business operations, Chris Heck poses at the Bodymoor Heath training facility
Chris Heck believes Villa Park must cater for different types of football fan - Darren Staples for Telegraph Sport

There will be more season tickets – as per fans request – on sale next season and more the season after that although change has come at a cost. Around 900 season ticket holders have had to move seats. As for the big question of the proposed demolition of the North Stand for something bigger and better, the club’s view is that it simply did not make sense.

“How do you use what money you have best for the club?” Heck says. “We could knock down a stand, add seats and take 17 years to pay it off. That was the math. I thought [last November] this didn’t make very much sense. We don’t have the infrastructure to add 10,000 seats in the blink of an eye. We were also playing extremely well and had this vision in November we could be in the Champions League. Would we want to knock down a quarter of the stadium and then have this small venue of 36,000 seats to watch a Champions League club?”

‘He is leading this club somewhere new’

Instead the plan is to maximise the rapid success on the pitch as quickly as possible. “I appreciate it’s an inconvenience [for season ticket holders moved], I really do,” Heck says. “I just hope that we can be clear and that everybody understands what the big picture is. That is fans are first and the No 1 thing we want to deliver our fans is a winning team.”

There is, he says, no prospect of a move away from Villa Park. “First, it costs a lot of money. Second, it takes a lot of time. We are striking when the iron is hot. Not many people can start a project while you are playing well. You start the project and then expect to play well six to eight years later. We are playing well now. OK, how fast can we catch that train? We are saying we will catch that train – we have three more years. We are on the right pace after year one.”

Emery’s new contract means that he is no longer a head coach but a manager – and one in whom the owners and club have placed all trust. It is not hard to see why with the struggles others have had to appoint a similarly transformative figure in that role. “He is truly our manager,” Heck says. “It [the role change] means that there is stability, that we have trust in Unai and we are working in conjunction with Unai.

Aston Villa manager Unai Emery celebrates. Aston Villa manager Unai Emery has committed to the club until at least 2027 after his contract was extended
The Aston Villa hierarchy have complete faith in Unai Emery - PA Wire/Barrington Coombs

“We have the same vision but he is leading this club to a place that we haven’t seen. You cannot overestimate this. He is a remarkable individual. Not only in how he works with players individually and as a team but also his support group with the coaches. We are running something that is transformational for the club. It really is.”

Within Villa there is clearly a strong sense that this one of the less heralded ownership revolutions. Outside of the Premier League big six only Villa, Newcastle, Leeds United, Blackburn and Leicester City have qualified for the post-1992 format Champions League group stages.

“It is not easy and it is not for the faint of heart but this has the makings of an incredible story happening in front of our eyes,” Heck says. “Why should everyone care? The big six is going to make room for one or two more clubs and we are going to be one of them.” This year is Villa’s 150 anniversary, and Heck points out they have the advantage of being the biggest club in the biggest English city outside Greater London.

“We are in a really interesting time of English football right now,” Heck says. “It has been a good decade of big six stability, meaning they have kept everyone out. Newcastle last year, us this year. I think it is changing and I wouldn’t bet against us.”