Proud History, Bright Future.
I have a Villa kit or two with that tagline on it. It was a great, catchy slogan, really.
Good old Randy Lerner, the man who, in an odd way, is probably the biggest reason I’m an Aston Villa supporter.
Several years ago, that tagline faded away into obscurity, and for good reason — the “bright future” it represented had, itself, faded away.
Many point to Martin O’Neill’s hastily arranged departure as the start of Villa’s downturn, and really, they’re right. The Claret and Blues went from European qualifiers to relegation candidates in the space of a season, only making a late-season run to get back into the Premier League’s top half.
But while O’Neill’s departure marked the start of the downturn, I’d argue the “bright future” didn’t truly leave until the next summer. Gérard Houllier’s time at Villa wasn’t particularly fun, but some of the transfer links — most notably Yohan Cabaye — would’ve at the very least helped stabilize the club.
Instead, Houllier’s health problems forced him to step down as Villa manager, and so entered Alex McLeish. The Scotsman, who came over from Birmingham City, is absolutely one of the worst managers in Villa’s history. He also accomplished his mandate: to keep the club in the Premier League.
While McLeish only stayed at Villa for a single season, his appointment was reflective of something more — after Houllier stepped down, Lerner made a decision. Financially, he wouldn’t be able to see out his goal with Villa of Champions League football, so he started cutting expenses. I don’t need to walk through the rest of that story, which culminated in the inevitable relegation five years later — we all know it well, and it wasn’t a very fun one.
Three years ago, though, we thought we had our “bright future” back. Lerner had sold the club, and in came Tony Xia, talking a big game. He spent a pretty penny, too, assembling the most talented Championship squad money could buy. The first season, of course, went very poorly. The second went better, I suppose, with Villa losing in the play-off final.
As we soon learned, it was one of the greatest things that ever happened to this club.
Even if you’re willing to overlook the fact that Villa were a squad full of loanees and old veterans — hardly a team that suggested a “bright future” — ultimately, Xia ran out of money to run the team. In the aftermath of that play-off final defeat to Fulham, it soon emerged that Villa were in a genuine financial crisis. The supposed “bright future” under Xia had suddenly turned into a “dim future.”
Eventually, Xia acquiesced and sold the club. New owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens invested immediately, getting the club’s debts in order and sponsoring some cash to spend in the transfer market. They ensured Jack Grealish stayed at the club instead of moving to Tottenham Hotspur.
In the biggest move of all, the Villa management made the call to sack Steve Bruce, appointing the clear best choice, Dean Smith, as Villa’s new manager. Smith brought a coherent, forward-thinking style of play to Villa, and perhaps most crucially, a genuine interest in developing youngsters. André Green came back early from a Portsmouth loan to get stuck into the squad; many of Villa’s U23 players went out on loan themselves in January, gaining needed senior squad experience in the EFL’s lower leagues.
The last three months, then, have been the culmination of all these moves. The 10-match winning streak; the penalty shootout win over West Bromwich Albion; yesterday’s win to secure promotion at Wembley.
Twelve months ago, Villa were a club in crisis. Eight years ago, they were a club that had thrown away their chance at the top.
Now, Villa head to the Premier League in a near-perfect position. The ownership group is stable, wants to invest, and has bigger ambitions than an annual relegation scrap. The manager is a boyhood Villa fan who’s shown he’s absolutely perfect for this job. The young talent you developed is still here, at 23, ready to captain this club in the Premier League. He’s worth tens of millions of pounds, but you’re not selling.
You’ve already found your bargain in midfield to deploy that captain alongside — and every time you watch him step on the pitch, you’re happy Celtic decided £2.5 million was just too much for a player from little Hibernian. A dynamic winger? You’ve got a fee already agreed to sign him. Ditto for a versatile young defender who himself has a bright future. A vital centre half? You’ve identified him, and have an option to match any other club’s offer.
Are there holes in this squad? Absolutely. Work will need to be done this summer to keep pushing the club forward. Simply winning promotion is not the goal, nor should it be. The resources, leadership and top-end talent is already at the club.
Today, we can visualize our away trips in the Premier League to some of the world’s most famous grounds. Perhaps tomorrow, then, we can allow ourselves to dream a little bit about European nights coming back to Villa Park.
All because we have our “bright future” back.