By Robert Smith
So Villa failed to go up…
It was always a possibility, evident from the early part of the season, when we only won one of our first seven games. Ultimately another nine points would have seen us pip Cardiff for second place. We all know there were many games where we could have gained those elusive points.
Hull on the opening day, Brentford and Middlesbrough (down to 10-men after less than five minutes) at home, blowing a two-goal lead against Sheffield United, then QPR, Bolton, Norwich, and Hull again at the KFC stadium or whatever its called. There’s just so many, it’s a bit painful to recall. So why didn’t we get them?
There’s been lots of talk about the inconsistent performance level, negative tactics, poor substitutions, but ultimately for me all we have lacked is toughness.
Its 11 v 11 at the end of the day and when we have matched our opponent’s commitment to the cause, we have almost always come out on top.
Perhaps inevitably, the Wembley game was like the season all rolled into one, with Villa starting badly, standing off the opposition and allowing them to dominate play, then realising too late what was required to succeed, leaving us huffing and puffing, and falling short, again.
The Manager Question.
It’s hard to criticize Steve Bruce given the personal challenges he’s faced this season, while in football terms he’s fought back from what looked like an inevitable dismissal around Christmas and taken us to the brink of promotion, all while handling himself with dignity throughout. For this, he has earned my respect and that of most Villa fans. But is he the man to lead us forward?
This starts with his failure to inject steel to a midfield that’s been a weak point since he took over in autumn 2016. Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak have acquitted themselves well but were always a little long in the tooth for such a physical role over an immensely tough 46 game season.
This leaves Grealish having to drop deeper to help out and thus not hurting the opposition where it matters most. Up front, we have needed a big, burly striker who would get on the end of crosses from Adomah and Elmohamady. Grabban has proved a decent loan signing overall (eight goals), but he was poor at Wembley and in the few weeks before, suggesting his commitment to our cause may not have been absolute or that Villa needed more of a target man.
Fulham signed Aleksandar Mitrović in January, and his physical presence has got them out of jail on several occasions. If Brucie had managed a similar loan/signing, we might be where they are now.
Tactically, our manager struggles when we go a goal down. Throwing on attacking players at random when no midfield is left to supply them is just nonsense and is a lesson he should have learned a long time ago. Hopefully he has now.
Despite the above, we came bloody close. Ultimately one bad 45 minutes from promotion. Steve Bruce is exactly the sort of manager we need to get us out of this league. When he took over, we were looking over our shoulders towards League One, and he has fairly quickly transformed us into a unit that was almost good enough to go up.
We will inevitably lose several key players this summer, but if the club’s management team remains there’s a good chance we can replace players quickly and go again next season, which after all is only a couple of months away.
We will also be operating with less money, and Steve’s experience in taking Blues and Hull to the Premier League will prove invaluable here (I think he spent a bit to achieve this – Ed).
I’ve often wondered if, as a down to earth guy from the north-east, he’s more comfortable hustling on a smaller budget. After all, his loan players (Snodgrass, Johnstone, Grabban) have so far proved better value than his larger permanent signings (Hogan/Lansbury).
Some key men will leave this summer. Snodgrass, Terry and Grabban for certain, Samba and Johnstone too. James Chester will inevitably be of interest to several Premier League clubs, and we might struggle to hang on to him. After all, he is following playing in a European Championship semi-final with the prospect of a third season in the Championship.
Grealish will get offers too, but unless they come from the very, very top, I expect him to stay for next season at least. Our full backs have looked vulnerable and might need looking at, and reinforcing the middle is a must. That said, I won’t bang on about who we might buy or promote from the U23s because everything, everything depends on the financial fair play (FFP) situation. Strange to think the biggest influence on next season might not come from any of our playing squad or management team, but there it is.
We could be in a right mess here, it seems we might have to take action now to avoid a points deduction in the future, and this does not bode well for this summer’s transfer dealings.
It could have the double-whammy of making it tougher to recruit good players, while making it harder to convince those already here that its worth sticking with us. But fear not, the manager has made excellent use of loan deals this season and if he stays, I expect him to do the same next time around.
Cardiff are just the most recent example of a club with limited resources making it to the top league. Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Swansea, Barnsley, Bolton, Derby and West Brom have also done it, to name a few. Burnley managed it a few years ago and they’re now in Europe. Our present manager has done it too and anyone calling for his dismissal needs to remember that a guy who achieved promotion with scant resources at Hull and our dearest neighbours has a good chance of doing the same at Villa Park.
Its hard not to feel some sympathy for Tony Xia, he and the Recon Group potentially rescued us from our situation getting any worse ala Sunderland and have spent a sizeable chunk of cash.
Tony’s very communicative with us fans, and insists the club is too. Ticket prices are reasonable and there’s a sense that he really enjoys owning the Villa. That said, Recon have gambled with our clubs finances and how they handle the whole financial fair play situation will really show us what they’re made of. This may well be the first time I’ve ever hoped a wealthy corporation manages to avoid playing fair on the financial front, and it’s probably the last too.
What we don’t need right now is any unnecessary upheaval. If Steve Bruce carries on at Villa Park, we should support him while he guides the club through what could be a difficult summer.
Dean Smith may well end up being our manager at some point, but unless Bruce decides to walk away now is not the right time for him at the Villa.
Despite our current position, there is a good feeling around Villa Park, with the ownership and management team both sensible and experienced. Contrast this with Leeds, about to embark on a morally horrendous tour of Myanmar at the insistence of their new owners, and we can see how much worse things could have been.
Our club has not had any stability since O’Neill walked out almost a decade ago. We need it now more than ever. Get this right, and we could be celebrating next May. Panic, and we might find ourselves marooned down here for a while yet.
Follow Robert on Twitter here: @pkingsspotkick
These supporter opinion pieces are not necessarily the views of My Old Man Said