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Saturday’s play-off final is about more than promotion for Aston Villa

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An Aston Villa win Saturday means more than a return to the Premier League — it’s also a chance to keep this crew of Villa players together.

Aston Villa v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 10: Robert Snodgrass of Aston VIlla celebrates during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Villa Park on March 10, 2018 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images,

When Aston Villa step onto the Wembley pitch tomorrow, the outcomes are simple: If they defeat Fulham at the end of 90 minutes, extra time or penalties, they’ll play next season in the Premier League. If not, they’ll spend next season in the Championship.

If it began and ended with that, I’d be a little less nervous about our outcome. If the end result of all of this was an opportunity to run it back next season with the same crew, I wouldn’t feel awful. Winning football matches is actually fun (and something the club hadn’t done consistently in a long time) and if most everyone came back, the Claret and Blues would certainly be one of the favourites for promotion next season. For as enjoyable as this season was, a 95-point championship campaign would be even better next year.

The issue, though, is that it’s not as black and white as Premier League or Championship, because tomorrow’s result is perhaps more about keeping this Villa team together.

At the end of tomorrow’s match, if Villa are the losing side, it’s expected that at least four, if not five, of Steve Bruce’s starting XI will never play for Villa again. It’s not because of upcoming big-money transfers, though, but due to contracts and the club’s impending Financial Fair Play problem if they aren’t promoted. Once the final whistle blows on Villa’s season, irrespective of result, Lewis Grabban will go back to Bournemouth, Robert Snodgrass will return to West Ham United, and Sam Johnstone will head back to Manchester United. John Terry’s contract will be up, as is Alan Hutton’s.

In the event that promotion is won, all could be back. From the sound of things, Hutton would certainly be offered a contract, and Terry’s indicated it’s in his contract that he comes back for a Villa Premier League season. Grabban and Johnstone will certainly be available for sale — and Villa would likely be ready to snap both up — while Snodgrass is unlikely to want to play for the Hammers again; if they come to their senses, they’d work out a deal that benefits everyone involved to bring the Scottish right winger back to Villa.

If Villa don’t win, Hutton could still get a contract offer if the club’s able to make the FFP numbers work, but it’s incredibly unlikely to see a scenario where any of the other four are back. The club won’t have the opportunity to bid for Grabban and Johnstone, and in the process, both will move onto other clubs — a host of Championship clubs are likely to be in for Grabban, while a Premier League side would probably snap up Johnstone and pay United the fee we can’t. Snodgrass may or may not move from West Ham, but if he does, I’d imagine it’s on a permanent deal that Villa couldn’t match. Terry likely doesn’t return to the pitch in English football again with a loss — he could either move abroad or start coaching at Chelsea, but I don’t see him back at the Villa.

Win and you keep the gang together. Lose and some of your key contributors will never wear the shirt again.

It’s a situation that us American supporters might be a little more used to. On my side of the pond, we have interscholastic athletics — high school sports are big in some communities and parts of the country, and college sports is big in most of the country. In both, players have four seasons, and once that’s up, that’s it. They graduate and move on to the next step in their lives. I’m living this right now with my high school alma mater’s baseball team. We have a core group of really good seniors, and every win we record gives us one more game with this crew.

Villa are dealing with the same kind of thing. Grabban, Snodgrass, Terry and Johnstone are our “seniors,” a core group of players whose Villa career could be coming to the finish line. But unlike our baseball team, where a win gets us one more game, a win Saturday gives Villa 38 more. Another full season with this crew.

More than promotion, that’s what I really want.