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Football, Media, Atmosphere: Aston Villa need to look forward

There are three key areas to this club, and they need to look at moving forward in all of them.

Aston Villa v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Play Off Semi Final:Second Leg Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

It was a month or so ago that I wrote about Aston Villa - under Tony Xia’s rule. Villa, were broken - and for the first time in my life, I was lost for words. I’m an exaggerator, someone who is too fond of extending the truth. I play with hyperbole and overly-romantic metaphor too often. I read books, then take whatever I can from them to seem smart. But, after that play-off loss, any thought of writing was cut out of me. How can Villa fix themselves?

Now, we’ve got a catalyst. We’ve got the means for radical and progressive change. I think I’ve got it. Ideas, that is. I think I know how Villa can fix themselves and there are three ways in which they can do so. Heck, I don’t think I’m totally right here - and I doubt anyone of note will be listening (due to my status as a sweary, flip-flopping moron on social media, I doubt that will ever change, and I won’t apologise for it).

Football

I have a working theory that footballing results are secondary to a footballing experience. Simply because not all successful clubs are well supported and not all ‘faltering’ clubs have empty stadiums. I’ll come onto that in the third part of this article as thoughts on the atmosphere

Villa have chosen to stick with current manager Steve Bruce - and despite the criticism - that can only be a good thing. Why? Well, from the outside looking in, Villa lack the footballing infrastructure to become a progressive team. Hiring a manager like Dean Smith would be generally deemed a move in the right direction, but not being able to sustain or meet his needs would result in an outright disaster - almost like Paul Heckingbottom’s stint at Leeds that came at a time of confusion and rendered Heckingbottom’s obvious talents as null and void. Simply put, there is not enough time for Villa’s new boardroom to implement change - as doing so could create a chaotic chain of events that do not allow a stable bedrock to be formed.

Allowing the foundations of a progressive side to be built will mean that Villa need to effectively spend one season ‘existing’ - why would they, in that sense, remove themselves of Steve Bruce? While Villa should certainly aim for promotion, they should also use a season to assess and move forwards. That requires staying put, gathering results, and enacting change. Villa’s new regime have not seen enough - and enacting any change would be almost disastrous, considering plans to buy the club were only put in place less than 21 days ago. Things can move too fast. Scouting structures need to be placed, coaching systems need to be reworked. There is a lot of work to be done at Aston Villa.

This could cost the club Jack Grealish and James Chester - but it could earn Villa long-term and sustained success. No one, or two players are bigger than Villa, so if they are the price to pay for laying a progressive structure, then with an extremely heavy heart, I say so be it. That being said, these two may feel comfortable ‘buying’ in to the long-term plan at Villa in a move that may restrict their career options. It remains to be seen.

For the mean time, Villa’s owners need to seek squad players - and they will do so via various agencies. However, when the season starts, there should not exist the concept of a ‘day off’ as plans must be put into place to ensure Villa have a footballing future, and an identity on the pitch worth building. That cannot happen overnight, and any single manager hired in the immediacy of this takeover, may simply be thrown to the lions.

Media

Villa, for the most part, seemed to excel at content creation when life was good. However, when things took a dark turn as they are wont to do in both life and football, I’m not sure Villa deliver much. There was plenty of highlights across their social media, including an outrageous attack on Leeds United’s failed badge project - but I found myself wanting more from their YouTube.

My main gripe with Villa’s media output stems from Villa’s relegation to the Championship. Instantly, this blog was met with a number of emails and messages from worldwide Villans worried sick about not being able to follow the club week-in, week-out. Truth be told, I was unsure how this blog would cope - with the vast majority of the writing team unable to watch Villa - and only able to follow games via AVTV’s radio feed. A radio feed ripped from BBC WM, and even though former Villan Tony Morley was a part of the radio team during that season in 16/17, he didn’t exactly come across that well to anyone listening. Villa lacked a presence for the entirety of the 16/17 season, and again - I was unsure how to answer people who came to this blog to follow their team. Most could no longer watch until AVTV and ESPN+ became options in the 17/18 season that concluded in May. There was a thought that I might be able to commentate on games with the help of someone like Jack Grimse or Elis Sandford to provide an alternative but nothing came of it - and most were left wanting.

They still are - in a way. AVTV has much improved, but there is still such a long way for it to go to not seem like an afterthought. The coverage seems incomplete and operating with a one-man commentary team seems like a poor idea. If there’s any chance for the team to double down with bias and fall completely and utterly into their coverage of the team - it’s via AVTV, the club’s own channel. However, technical issues have plagued the setup, and this 18/19 pre-season has shown AVTV at it’s weakest - with two poor showings against West Ham United and Walsall that were seemingly filmed on an iPhone 3GS and an abysmal output against Dresden, where a 2. Bundesliga side outshone Villa’s own coverage - while Villa bizarrely failed to provide any commentary at all. Does this serve fans? Especially those who A) cannot understand German or B) cannot hear at all? The fruits of success are there for AVTV to reach, they need only actually reach for them. There is plenty of room for brilliance here and even more room for creativity.

In terms of YouTube, Aston Villa have followed a formulaic approach that delves too much into repetition. The same concepts are deployed with the same players over and over again and there is no ‘longform’ approach. Most videos follow the same pattern and are over within 4 minutes. Quick hits? Maybe. I’d rather the club completely forget the idea of chasing views, as views - for the most part - are worthless. The club instead should focus on building loyalty, creating a brand, providing entertainment and attracting new fans via these channels. I’m not sure how that is done via bitesize videos that follow repetitive patterns. There is barely any sign of a Villa Ladies team either.

Two series that I have enjoyed are the ‘Villa Til I Die’ and ‘Away Days’ segments (and no, not because I had a ‘starring role’ in them, but thanks for that Villa!) because they are worth so much to supporters, because they feature supporters. What’s more, the club seemed to excel at FB Live coverage via a local presenter and a former Villan . In essence, I’d like to see more of that. FB Live as pre-game connection to the club, and any loss of that would be a big hit. Villa’s media should bleed claret and blue - or it shouldn’t exist at all if the only goal is to meet baseless metrics rather than create and foster cultural capital within the Villa fanbase. There’s room for it to be special, and room for it to become an opening into what has seemed, at times, as a very closed off club - completely separate to it’s fanbase.

Atmosphere

I truly believe that footballing results, in and out of themselves are almost secondary to a footballing experience. People across the world flock to see teams of all sizes. There’s no monopoly on footballing support and on some days, it seems as though Dulwich Hamlet of non-league fame can boast a fervent wall of support enviable at most tiers of the game. True enough, teams like St Pauli can boast big support regardless of long-term success. Even Aston Villa, who have middled around for the past eight footballing seasons, can still attract 30,000 fans at the very least. Why would 30,000 fans attend a single footballing game? There has to be something more than the result, and more than long term success. 30,000 people attend footballing games to be part of something.

This is something Villa have to reinforce, bolster and utilise - before the very real threat of apathy sets in - and it will do, because it happens regardless of success or failure. Clubs can stagnate - and Villa have been in danger of doing so. Fans become too expectant of winning, and too used to failure. We are here for the unknown, for the thrills and for the story.

One thing I remember vividly about my trip to Craven Cottage last year was the atmosphere. While Fulham are associated as a quiet, droll, middle-class ‘southern’ team - that is only partly true. Before the game, the atmosphere is electric - and that’s something the club have enforced. Seemingly ten minutes before kick-off, all the home fans are in place, slowly clapping to the beat of an up-tempo rock song that throbs the entire stadium as the team news is read out. For most clubs, this is an afterthought, but for Fulham, it was part of the theatre. Mise en scène, placed by the football club to create an experience. Is that something that we can say happens at Aston Villa? Is there an aura created by the club, or does it rely too much on a fanbase? I’ll opt for the latter. It seems that Villa stick on a few tunes, play the usual songs, read the lineup quickly, and it’s done. Hype is seemingly never built bar a few occasions. Atmosphere should never be faux, and overly ‘plastic’ - but little touches can create something truly special and unique.

I’d really like to see Villa go the extra-mile in and around the stadium pregame. I’d love to see more pyro, I’d love to see more excitement. It can get pretty droll sometimes, before a game - and much of the excitement relies on a fanbase that cannot often muster it.

There is hope for this, and I cannot believe that groups like Project B6 haven’t been backed to the hilt by the club. PB6 seemingly have to crowdfund almost everything. I’d want to see Villa organise with them, and even fold them into the club if necessary. The stadium, by all rights, should be a sea of claret before each and every game - no matter the context.

While atmosphere does stem from the fanbase, there is plenty that Villa can do to ensure every single fan is wound up before each and every football match. At the moment, I’m not sure that enough is done by the club to build Villa Park into a fortress. I’m sure we can do all do our part when called upon.