The heat of the summer is wearing thin, the sun is starting to hang a little lower in the sky. As we come to the final weeks of summer, we look forward not to the weather, but the return of the beautiful game. Transfer rumours still run riot, news from training camps and pre-season blowouts is still on the wire - but things are moving somewhere. Each of us, who follow a football club, are heading towards a final destination - be it the nail-biting evasion of relegation during an away game on the final day of the season, to lifting the Championship trophy in front of an adoring home crowd. It could be that your team needs to fight one, and be the least club standing at Wembley, celebrating the final promotion place.
Football’s back. Aston Villa are back. A lot has happened over the course of the Summer though, and while it wasn’t as raucous as last season, there is still some explaining to do.
Welcome to our Aston Villa season preview - and welcome back to the Championship.
Here’s part one of a multi-part season preview. Today, we’ll be focusing on Villa’s aims for the season ahead. Dig in.
Previously At Aston Villa...
You walk to Grand Central station with expectation hanging heavy in your heart. This central hub of Birmingham is busy - with people of all shapes and sizes, but you spot a few pockets of Claret and Blue. You get on the train - but it’s not buzzing like it was this time last year. Villa have business to do, and trailing in at 14th or 10th won’t be good enough. We took a knockout blow and limped out of the Premier League in 2016. 2017 needs to be better and everyone knows it. The singing will be saved for the stands. You get off at Witton to make it quick, but last season you got off at Aston to take it all in. Things are different now. They have to be.
One thing stays the same though. You’re going to see Aston Villa on a hot August day. It’s not just their return to football, but yours. We’ve already seen one match - it was was a rather promising 1-0 loss away to Wednesday at Hillsborough, but you know this time it’s going to be different - because the best of the Championship have to walk into the lion’s den at Villa Park if they want to grab the points. First up were Rotherham and a Rudy Gestede double finished them off, before Jack Grealish froze time and slalomed around a treacle-footed defence to walk the ball into the net.
The joy found when Jack Grealish launched himself into the Holte End on that day wasn’t found too often. Villa started off playing the best football in the league, before realizing a win was hard to find. Then the draws became harder to find. Roberto Di Matteo was sacked after Preston put two past Villa. Tony Xia’s revolution looked to be a bit dead in the water. The knives came out for the scapegoats, but they didn’t last long. Steve Bruce was installed at the end of the month and got to work.
That didn’t last long either. As the cold of winter came in, Villa froze. They couldn’t find a win until a home game with Derby, where they fought tooth and nail to grab three points. Villa then went on a winning streak that threw them the slightest chance of promotion, but this was ended with a 1-1 draw in Burton that prompted Villa to lose to Fulham. The dream was over, and even a win against Birmingham couldn’t change anything. Aston Villa went out the same way the season had begun - with a Jack Grealish goal at the Holte End. Villans leaving the ground that day might have felt that history was repeating itself. They’d have to wait until August once again - but it wouldn’t be for the fanfare of football, but knowing that Villa, once more, had business to do - and a lot to prove.
What Are Villa’s Aims This Season?
It’s funny that you should ask, because they have not changed at all. Aston Villa need to get promoted this year, or they will face being strangled by the financial fair play regulations of the Football League. Parachute payments don’t last forever.
Don’t get it twisted though. The lottery of the playoffs isn’t enough. You can bet your bottom dollar that the Aston Villa leadership team want an automatic spot. That means being the best in the league, or being very close to the best. If Aston Villa fall short of the playoffs, look for drastic changes. Look out for the same if Aston Villa fail in the playoffs. It’s not all or nothing yet, but failure here will show Aston Villa’s owner, Tony Xia, that the plan isn’t quite working.
The State Of The Championship
As for the league itself? It hasn’t gotten any easier. We welcome Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Hull to the Championship from the Premier League, while Millwall, Bolton and Sheffield United return to the Championship.
We say goodbye to Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic and Rotherham, who suffered relegation to League One. Thankfully, Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield are gone as well - having gotten themselves promoted last season.
Everything else is still the same. There’s 46 games to play, and you’ll need to win the majority of those to stand a chance of going up to the Premier League.
The Race For Promotion
There’s a number of complex scenarios in the Championship, and it hasn’t gotten any easier. Thanks to the playoff structure, there are a number of incredibly strong Championship teams each and every season. The league is heavily dynamic though - as this year’s favourites might be destined for mid-table mediocrity come the next season.
You’d have to consider Reading, Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds United, Norwich, Derby County and Fulham as the big hitters, but what about the teams dropping in from the Premier League? Hull, Middlesbrough and Sunderland could have a huge impact on the dynamics of the Championship.
Hull and Middlesbrough will be looking to claim those top two spots themselves, and while you’ll certainly consider Sunderland as favourites to go up - they looked very similar to Villa’s 15/16 team that got relegated. That tells us that things will not be easy for Sunderland, and they might find it hard, just like Villa did, to find their feet. They’ve got a decent coach in Simon Grayson, but they might not go straight up.
Aston Villa will need to be better than all of these teams throughout the season if they want to go up. You’re going to need to do slightly better than two points per game throughout the entire season to go up, as well - if you want to emulate last year’s winners, Newcastle United. What that means is one thing - Villa need to start winning from day one.
Next up? We’ll be taking a look at the players - stay tuned!