So here we are, another season and another Championship play-off campaign at the end of it. I can’t help but cast my mind back to this time last year when we finished comfortably in fourth place, but going into the play offs - I did not feel comfortable at all.
Don’t get me wrong, there was a great feeling around the club, especially with natural leaders such as John Terry and Robert Snodgrass leading the charge! But I couldn’t help but feel worried - if we didn’t gain promotion then what happens to my beloved Villa? I felt as if we’d thrown all our eggs in one basket and if this plan failed then there would be no safety net. Given the events that followed in the summer, those fears were very nearly realised. So that leads me to ask, why does it feel different this time around?
The obvious answer is of course the new ownership & management of the club and the feel of a solid plan going forward. This time I feel as if we have a lot less to lose. Sure I want to see us get promoted more than anything else in the world but if we fail I don’t think it’ll feel as devastating as before.. as this time round I feel the club is more prepared than it’s ever been for another season in the championship. Last year it was made clear that Tony Xia’s grand plan was Premier League or bust and to his credit, it nearly worked. Though let’s take a minute to really think where we’d be now if we had won on that fateful day against Fulham..
Just looking at Fulham themselves is a stark reminder of how difficult it is to survive in the top flight of English football. Fulham carelessly spent big in the summer and it’s backfired, nearly to the point where they look in a worse position than we do right now. Would we have done the same in their position if we’d gone up? It’s hard to say for sure but given that a large portion of our team was (and still is) made up of loan players - you’d be forgiven for thinking we’d have likely gone down a similar road. Also let’s not forget that the man leading us down said road would have still been Steve Bruce.. I want to say that I appreciate everything Bruce did for Aston Villa, he was able to stop the rot during a horrible period for the club and almost led us back to the promised land. Though the idea of a Steve Bruce led Villa under the ownership of Tony Xia in the most ruthless league in the world actually terrifies me on reflection. So yes looking back I think this season could have potentially been a disaster if we’d had gone up.. and a lot of the things I love about Villa today may have never come to pass.
Let’s look at our captain - Jack Grealish. He may not be the player he is now without the events of this past season, being able to captain the club he loves and essentially be the stand out player in the championship has done his confidence a world of good and now more than ever looks to be a truly world class player. Would this have been the case if we’d spent the season in the Premier League? Who knows but again I can’t help but look to Fulham and what has happened to the stand out young player of last year - Ryan Sessegnon, who to me went from the name on everybody’s lips to an almost-forgotten man in one single season. I also can’t help but think that Nassef Sawiris & Wes Edens would be nowhere near the club had Xia got that Premier League cash injection and the ‘safety’ of potential future parachute payments. And without Sawiris & Edens I don’t think we get our newly beloved Dean Smith at the helm of this new Villa voyage. So maybe missing out on promotion wasn’t such a bad thing? But would it be the end of the world if we fail again?
I think not. My only big worry would be losing Jack as at this point in his career I think it would be unfair for a player of his ability to not be playing at the top level of this game and another season in the championship might just be one request too far. Same goes for the loan players we have, the like of Tyrone Mings, Axel Tuanzebe and Tammy Abraham will not likely fancy another season in the second tier. But aside from that I truly believe we are set up well for the future no matter what happens this May, Dean Smith is an extremely smart and exciting manager who with time has the potential to create something special at Villa Park. It’s not that I don’t think he can do a job in the Premier League because I do, it’s just the championship is a league that Dean knows incredibly well and the idea of him having a full season and preseason there actually really excites me. Dean Smith has already broken records with Villa this season, just imagine what he could do with a full year in this league!
This may sound like I want another year in the Championship, I really don’t! I want the mighty Villa to be back at the likes of Old Trafford and Anfield and I like to think that a lot of the top flight teams miss their annual trip to Villa Park as well. What I am trying to say is.. let’s not panic and more importantly let’s not get all doom and gloom if it doesn’t happen again because we are in a stronger position now than we were this time last year and no matter what comes of the play offs, we have a lot to smile about when it comes to Aston Villa these days.