Coming into his role at Aston Villa, Steve Bruce was expected to be a clean pair of hands to perform a tidy job and get Villa promoted.
However, there’s a problem.
We are only a week away from crisis at Aston Villa according to the rather mocking tone of Bruce, who has ironically mentioned crisis and mass hysteria at least three times within a week.
After today’s 1-0 win against Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough, Steve Bruce was questioned by Villa about the result. The first thing he did? He lead into the ‘mass hysteria’ narrative that is entirely of his own creating. The ‘crisis’ is like the episode of Black Mirror where that weird nerd plugs his head into a video game - it’s made up and only he is living in it. There’s no crisis at all, nobody is panicking - the truth is that people are just plain bored of Aston Villa sleepwalking through games - games that are not free to enjoy. Especially when the talent in Villa’s side - even with an ‘injury crisis - is capable of storming the league. There’s no panic, just frustration; that’s the honest truth.
So, what did Bruce say in his presser? Here’s the first minute or so of what he said to Villa’s media team.
‘We had a bad forty-five against Brentford, and all of a sudden, we’re in a crisis. It was only a game and a half ago that we were two up against Sheffield United. We’ve got to stop this mass hysteria otherwise we aren’t going to get anywhere.
I know we disappointed against Brentford, but you’ve just got to look at the Championship results to see how difficult a league it is and I know we are Aston Villa and there’s a big expectation, but you know - all of a sudden there’s a crisis again.
The result? I’m delighted. I’m delighted we went up to Middlesbrough and won... Because it’s shut a few people up hasn’t it? It’s become very, very annoying that we are a week away from a crisis, because we’ve gotta’ stop and get on with the job at hand, and that’s taking this club forward’
What’s lost in this paraphrased copying of Bruce’s comments is the tone. It’s the genuine delight he takes in proving a set of Villa fans wrong. It’s an almost orgasmic glee that he hones in on when he mentions how delighted he is with the win, and not because it’s three points - but because it has ‘shut a few people up, hasn’t it?’
This selective targeting of an outspoken portion of the fanbase (be it those who booed Bruce off against Brentford, or those on social media) is never going to end well. At best, it splits the fanbase into defensive sections (akin to #WengerIN and #WengerOUT), and at worst it pisses everyone off.
Why does he say these things? Well - for the reasons of self-preservation. Before today’s game, Steve Bruce had seemingly thrown in the towel:
Bruce: “We are down to the barebones. Can we cope without our best players? I’ll be able to tell you in a couple of hours.” [bbc wm] #avfc— villareport (@villareport) December 30, 2017
A squad down to the bare bones would be, well, down to the bare bones right? Forced to deploy reserve players and youth teamsters in most positions? Right? Well, not unless you’re Steve Bruce, because ‘down to the bare bones’ also translates to ‘having to use Tommy Elphick’. Elphick was poor at points last season, but having to use someone who has been very good at this level throughout his entire career apart from a single season, is not, as you’d put it, down to the ‘bare bones’. Implying that Elphick is a last resort is a bit of an insult to him, his ability and Villa fans.
Elphick, who put in the best performance of his time at AVFC so far in today’s match, wasn’t even going to start. Why? Because Bruce was going to force Mile Jedinak into the centre-back slot (after this move had failed previously), only for Glenn Whelan, Villa’s only other holding midfielder (apart from Josh Onomah and Conor Hourihane and Jake Doyle-Hayes) to call in sick. Thus, Mile had to play his natural position and Tommy had to play his natural position as well. Influenza picked a better team than Bruce.
And that’s the general concern of the Villa fanbase. Not that Bruce is a bad manager, at all - but the fact that his squad selection is extremely suspect. Tottenham fans have been telling us all season that Josh Onomah is better in midfield - but Bruce will isolate him as a 10 and lump the ball to him. Brentford found success running Scott Hogan through the channels and using through balls to utilise his pace - while Bruce’s Villa will put the ball on the Cassini Probe and launch it to Saturn, hoping it falls into the path of Hogan. There are a bunch of players who are doing well for Bruce, but there are a number who are genuinely suffering as a result of his choices.
But of course, Bruce is immune from this criticism as ‘he knows what he is doing’ - and of course, Villa fans are wrong. We, of course, don’t know as much as he does about the job he is doing, but we also have enough evidence to highlight a number of flaws and improvements that he could make to his system.
As for the crisis and mass hysteria? Well, paying £600 for a season ticket doesn’t entitle us to wins and points, but it should at least bring some form of entertainment. Boos and moans aren’t a crisis - we’ve seen that before (see 15/16), so it’s very mocking of Bruce to suggest that we plunge into panic mode with every loss. It also hints at SB being the type of manager who can’t wait to fall on his sword and run to the media when he eventually loses the job - a martyr splashed with warm ale in a dimpled cup. You can already see the TalkSport ‘tell-all’ coming, can’t you?
Now, a real crisis? Try this on for size:
Last week Tommy Elphick was strangled to death. Mile Jedinak has lost his sight and Jack Grealish has broken down with arthritis. Jonathan Kodjia also retired from football - Easah Suliman and Cal O’Hare have moved into modelling and Albert Adomah teaches dance instead of playing for the Villa. Also, Tony Xia was a liar all along, the club has been run with monopoly money, administration is coming and now Villa Park is owned by Mike Ashley.
Let’s reflect. That’s a crisis. A few fans booing, bemoaning the poor mis-match of footballing styles, player usage, and shouting on Twitter is not a crisis - so Bruce, please don’t act high and mighty for performing somewhat poorly in a job you are being paid to do - because we are paying to watch. Bruce does need the fans on his side, and we are always halfway there, but calling people out is going to do a lot more harm than good. There is not one Villa out there that revels in the club’s failure, and everyone wants to see Bruce, and Aston Villa succeed - but not if they are to be mocked for calling out bad performances when Villa do bumble their way to victory.