More Than A Feeling?
When you’ve supported Aston Villa for a number of decades, you’ll know there’s a feeling you get, when Villa are on the cusp of something special. Call it claret and blue instinct, but it’s when hope turns into steadfast possibility and belief.
It happened when Graham Taylor came into town and his David Platt-inspired revolution began to kick-in after a transition season following promotion, with the penny really dropping when Villa wiped the floor with Everton, 6-2, live on the nation’s television sets. Out of that sprang a title challenge in the 1989/90 season. Ultimately, the potential of that team was cut short with Taylor taking the England job.
Then there was a similiar feeling of solid optimism when Ron Atkinson came in and started to harvest a decent batch of players from Liverpool, players that you couldn’t quite believe would leave Merseyside at the time. As soon as Ray Houghton, Dean Saunders and Steve Staunton turned up on the Villa Park doorstep, to be added to the likes of McGrath, Bosnich, Atkinson and co, you just knew Villa were going to be a different proposition. A title challenge in 1992/92 and a League Cup win followed the next season.
Villa have been good since, but the initial feeling wasn’t quite the same.
The Villa royalty revolution that followed Big Ron, saw a management and coaching team of Brian Little, John Gregory and Alan Evans lead Villa to a season that hasn’t been bettered since, of a League Cup win, a 4th place finish and a FA Cup semi-final.
This was perhaps was more pragmatic and expected, with Little’s wing-back system and astute transfer business, added to the emergence of Dwight Yorke, re-energising what Villa already had in their ranks, so the success wasn’t too surprising, as it came hot on the heels of the early 90’s achievements.
When Martin O’Neill came to town, the fact he had Randy Lerner’s money made it a given Villa should be a top half team. Ultimately though, O’Neill hit his ceiling with bad high-waged transfer business undermining some of his very good business, while the business infrastructure running the club around him wasn’t fit for purpose.
It was a moment Villa could and should have kicked on, but instead, a few 6th place finishes were traded for the nightmare decade that followed.
Which brings us to the present…
Football has changed a lot with sovereign and oligarch wealth, not to mention Premier League TV rights money. The top four and silverware are often seen as out of reach for most clubs, although importantly, Leicester City winning the Premier League title in 2015/16 has allowed us all to still dream that anything is still possible in English football.
A Tingle of New Hope?
The way the current season is starting to roll out has served up a slight tingle of that ‘feeling’ again, that perhaps the stars maybe aligning again for something special ahead for Villa. Although, contrasted against the struggle of recent seasons, any positive signs are in danger of being exaggerated in comparison to former Villa eras.
We will have to wait for more evidence on the pitch of legitimate progress, which the month of October will provide opportunity for, but let’s consider the evidence so far, without validating our ticket for the hype train just yet.
If you consider that Villa had to go through the 2019/20 season to learn how to defend and for their manager to learn the right balance for his team’s ethos, having been arguably too idealistic and naive in neglecting the defensive side to the game, then it was a valuable learning curve.
It’s wasn’t a write-off season as some pundits have dismissed it as, condemning Villa’s transfer business as a failure. The truth of the matter is signings like Tyrone Mings, Ezri Konsa, Douglas Luiz, Trezeguet and Wesley (when he returns), will be much the better for the experience of it.
It would be more apt to describe the season as laying the foundations for something better.
The question though after staying up and escaping relegation was – well, what’s next?
The Grealish new contract happening along with some astute signings, indicated that Villa’s owners weren’t afraid of backing business they felt was constructive in moving the club forward again.
The Villa owners have mentioned their European ambitions in various statements, and when MOMS met Villa owners Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris in person, when they first arrived, Edens told MOMS, that it was the potential and scope of Champions’ League football, that interested him in Villa, rather than say an MLS franchise.
The loan signing of England international Ross Barkley, along with Grealish’s latest improved contract, was a clear indication they are acting on that aim, rather than simply running the club to simply exist in the Premier League for the financial benefits.
The surprise Barkley signing felt similar to some of Villa’s signings in the 90’s – whether it was Dean Saunders or Stan Collymore – players signed from big clubs and still recognised in English football as top players.
Villa’s players best players in more recent years like Gareth Barry, James Milner, Ashley Young and Fabian Delph, have largely built their reputations at Villa. And when you look at our record signings in the past decade – Darren Bent, Wesley and Ollie Watkins – these are players that haven’t exactly come from top clubs.
Barkley felt different from what’s been going on in recent years.
The team also currently has good spirit, with a core of players that have built a true affinity for the club, having gone through Villa’s promotion escapade. Villa’s current situation also mirrors the formative seasons of Leicester City’s amazing rise a few seasons ago. Where that team bond was built through promotion and then escaping relegation the next season, before kicking on the following season to fully transform.
If further evidence of the similarity is needed, Villa happen to have two key elements of that Foxes team’s background staff in Craig Shakespeare (Assistant Head Coach) and Rob MacKenzie (Player Recruitment).
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That said, MOMS isn’t claiming you should be thinking about a title challenge from Villa this season. Far from it. The Foxes achievement was a perfect storm in many ways, with the perceived traditional ‘Top 4’ very much all in transition as teams in the 2015/16 season (although get back to me, if Villa beat Liverpool on Sunday).
The key factor to consider is how a team can transform in a fast-tracked fashion. You don’t necessarily have to slowly build over five seasons to then think about challenging for European places.
Despite Villa’s fortunes last season, as we’ve seen from Graham Taylor’s Villa to Leicester City more recently, that tricky season back in the top tier after promotion, can follow the notion of what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.
Villa are in a much better situation now than perhaps even some of their own fanbase realise.
The proof will be what happens on the pitch in the coming months. The team certainly have the element of surprise on their side, as outside expectation is low.
Surely the notion that they’ll be mass improvement and a few surprises from this current Villa team is more than just a feeling?
More on Villa’s Expectations in the Latest Full Podcast Episode
Episode 116 Notes
It’s four wins out of four for Aston Villa in all competitions for the 2020/21 season, as a 3-0 away win at Fulham sees them now nicely perched in the Top Four of the Premier League.
We discuss the reality of Villa’s bright start to the season, the return of John McGinn to his old self, the rise of Villa’s back four, and the key to get the best out of Jack Grealish and Conor Hourihane.
As well as the Fulham win, we also look back at the Bristol City cup win, Villa’s new third kit, the Premier League handball situation and Gareth Barry’s new sport.
While ‘Underrated or Overrated’ takes a look at Neil Cox and Richard Dunne.
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David Michael – @oldmansaid
Chris Budd – @BUDD_music
Phillip Shaw – @prsgame
Music – Philip Marten
Produced by David Michael