By Sam Lovell
Could Have, Should Have…
What now then?
Being a big club does not mean you should get promoted, having the largest average attendance in the league does not mean you should get promoted, and winning a certain amount of trophies in the past does not mean you should get promoted.
Assembling the most expensive Championship side ever, with proven Championship quality, PLUS players that have been promoted from the Championship before, PLUS the anomalies of a player who has won it all and still capable at Championship level along with a hugely talented local lad, means that you definitely should get promoted, never mind who the manager is. But when your manager has been promoted from the Championship four times before, with the squad he has, then you really, really should get promoted!
Yet Villa will remain in the Championship next season and Steve Bruce, I’m afraid, has failed. Such is the fickleness of football, he was only one game away from succeeding, however the future does not look too great for Villa as we stare into the dark abyss of a longer than planned stay in the Championship.
Park that Playoff Bus
Like MOMS tweeted after our result against Derby, there’s no prizes for finishing 4th. However the play-offs were Bruce’s and Villa’s potential get out of jail free card.
— MY OLD MAN SAID (@oldmansaid) April 28, 2018
The players and the manager at the club were ideal for a game like the play-off final. Big game experience, leadership, knowhow and previous experience of getting promoted were all there in abundance. Added to that was the fact only a couple of Fulham players had played at Wembley before.
Yet, as we all saw, in the final against Fulham we looked bereft of ideas, especially in the first half. Lewis Grabban was far too isolated and unfortunately is not the target man you need in a strategy that focuses on trying to contain the opposition, letting them have possession and hoping Jack Grealish can create something out of nothing to win us the game.
Overall, it was too negative, too slow, too little predictable, with too many weird, desperate substitutions. Sound familiar?
Slow Start Comes Back to Haunt Bruce
Although many have rightly pointed out the Norwich, Bolton and QPR results as being key to us not finishing in the top two, it was our start to the season that was perhaps more detrimental to our failure as we won only one of our opening seven league games.
Like many other fans, I was baffled by such a poor performance against Cardiff away in only the second game of the season. Coming out of the ground, the words of one Villa fan stuck in my mind. “44 more games, we’ve got 44 more games, we can still do this!”
I thought he was right.
It turns out he was wrong in more than one way. We actually had 47 more games and we didn’t do it.
A week before the Cardiff game, Bruce made the peculiar decision to play Gabby Agbonlahor ahead of our eventual top scorer Albert Adomah against Hull in the opening game of the season. As well as that, even any Conor Hourihane skeptic would have been confused to see Leandro Bacuna on the team sheet ahead of him against Hull, particularly as he was shipped off to Reading a week later and Hourihane scored a hat-trick against Norwich a week after that. It seems we started the season with Bruce not knowing who his best players were and it proved to be quite costly.
Other discoveries throughout the season were mainly because of luck. Andre Green’s injury presented Adomah his opportunity on the left-hand side of midfield and Glenn Whelan’s injury against Nottingham Forest saw Birkir Bjarnason perform well in a holding role.
Then there’s the lack of plan B, which was exemplified in the Fulham game. Moreover the plan B seems to be to chuck on as many strikers as possible, a strategy I can’t recall that has ever worked for Villa and one that smacks of desperation.
And if we’re being really critical then some proactive management would have helped this season. For instance beating Wolves 4-1, then playing the same team against QPR three days later springs to mind (Bjarnason was chomping at the bit to play, as we saw when he came on against Wolves), as does beating Reading 3-0 then the same team performing terribly against Norwich three days after that.
We had a good enough squad to rotate for such games this season, especially as we played two games a week. I’m not sure if the same can be said of our squad depth next season.
Time for Youth?
That being said, all we need for next season is a style of play that doesn’t involve fearing the opposition, a new goalkeeper, two-three new centre backs, a back up left back (presuming Taylor is first choice), a new winger, a central midfielder and for James Chester and Jack Grealish to stay at the club.
Also Keinan Davis, Andre Green, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy and Callum O’Hare will surely be given the chance to exhibit the talent they clearly have next year and it’d be nice if James Bree was given a real chance considering we spent around £2million on him.
There have also been mentions of Jake Doyle-Hayes, Mitch Clark and Corey Blackett-Taylor, all being promoted to the first team after making their debuts in the past season or so. It’ll also be interesting to see if Jacob Bedeau and Easah Suliman make the step up to the first team. Bedeau made 7 league appearances for Bury in the 2016/17 season before moving to our U23 side and Suliman has been involved with England from U16 to U20 level, scoring in the EURO U19 final last year, yet failed to make an impression in loan spells for Cheltenham and Grimsby.
Expectations have to be tempered. The current U23 team is only a second tier outfit. Look what happened to the NextGen winning vintage of 2013, who were the toast of Europe. They are proof that there’s a big jump from youth football hype to senior first team reality. Grealish, Samir Carruthers (Sheffield United) and Callum Robinson (Preston) are Championship players, the rest ply their trade in the lower regions of football.
Either way there are big question marks as to whether Bruce is the person to get the best out of youth or whether he’ll even give them a chance. It was poetic justice that Tom Cairney, a player Bruce let go of whilst at Hull, scored the winner for Fulham in the play-off final. He’ll now be captain of a Premier League club next season.
There is an obvious split amongst Villa supporters as to Bruce’s future. After all football is a game of opinions and that’s what it’s all about. But how should we not be finishing in the top two? How can remaining in the Championship be considered a successful season?
It’s going to be a long and interesting summer.
Please stay Jack.
These supporter opinion pieces are not necessarily the views of My Old Man Said
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