Twelve months ago, the club were facing the most challenging and heart-wrenching summer imaginable. A 1-0 Playoff final loss to Fulham meant that we faced at least another season in the second tier of English football, parachute payments were drying up and add to that an owner with an unclear financial situation. Staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, we were inevitably going to be stripped of our prized assets and the prospect of becoming Championship ‘furniture’ or worse, seemed increasingly likely every day.
With the relatively unpopular Steve Bruce at the helm, we were resigned to losing star player Jack Grealish with Tottenham sniffing around to take advantage of our plight. Even the most optimistic of fans wouldn’t have given us a chance after a rather dour start to the new campaign.
Fast forward to May 2019, just over a month ago and you’ve got Jack, as captain, holding the playoff final trophy aloft with billionaire owners Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris applauding magnanimously next to boyhood Villa fan and Head Coach Dean Smith drinking in the celebrations.
With money to spend and Premier League status regained, things are looking up again at B6. It’s hard to believe we came so far in a single season given how close we were to being sucked in to football obscurity. For some clubs, they don’t get the slice of luck we were afforded – highlighted by the situation at Bolton.
So where are we now? How are things shaping up for our return to the big time? It takes more than just splashing cash to assemble a squad that will keep a newly promoted team up (just ask Fulham). You need structure and vision, things that CEO Christian Purslow often details and presents the fans with on a regular basis. It’s refreshing to have the upper echelons of the hierarchy informing us of on-goings as we fans are the core of the club for which it wouldn’t exist without. The long-term goals of the club are ambitious but achievable. We’re not going to dominate Europe any time soon but to be able to sustain ourselves in the top flight is at the forefront of fans’ minds. Without this, progress, in every department, is impossible. Whether it’s the redevelopment plans for the surrounding areas of Villa Park, the shrewdly devised scouting network we’ve put in place or engaging with the fans at community events, Villa earn top marks for off-the-field activity.
I don’t dispute the decision to release any of the players that we chose to release after our promotion. Age and salary being the key reasons so many were not given contract renewals. Now take in to account the loan signings, of which there were a few, returning to their parent clubs after a job well done. Also, removing some of the dead-wood that have underperformed, if at all, can be tough so taking losses on certain names was inevitable. This all points in one direction: signings!
On the face of it, we’ve started pretty actively in the transfer market. Jota, Kourtney Hause, Anwar El Ghazi, Wesley and Matt Targett are all through the door even before the players report back for pre-season training. Throw in the January addition of French full-back Frederic Guilbert and we’re making strides to ensure we can compete and won’t be so pitifully relegated like our last spell alongside England’s elite. Having said that, there are many positional needs still to address at Villa Park. With only two senior centre-backs on the books, you’ve got to assume that two more will be signed before the start of the new season. We’re still light of wingers and forwards – cue the rumour mill heating up online. An incoming goalkeeper has often been talked about, even though I think Jed Steer earned his chance to be No.1 for the time being. A defensive midfielder is also required with Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak having left the club. I’m not convinced Conor Hourihane can do that job at this level seeing as he naturally likes to drift forward. Expect plenty more photos of figures holding that claret and blue shirt up with the training facilities in the background.
It’s too early to suggest where we’ll finish next season. Football is a funny old game where things can go wrong in an instant. I look back to our 3-2 defeat at the King Power Stadium back in 2015 and think what could have been had we held on to that 2-0 lead (Leicester’s miracle season could have been so different too!). I genuinely believe that gutted the players for a long time and you could see it in Tim’s Sherwood’s post-match interview. We may well have not been promoted had Chris Brunt decided not to lunge in to a rash challenge on John McGinn to earn his second booking and kill all momentum Albion had in the playoff semi-final second leg at the Hawthorns. What I do believe is that it’s going to be a struggle, simply because it is for any new-comers to this league. We need to keep our expectations in check, don’t get on the players backs if we’re a goal down early on – the Villa Park faithful has been guilty of that in the past.
Whatever happens, the ride should be fun. We’re preparing as best we can and with season ticket sales at an all-time high, fans are clearly relishing the opportunity to see Villa take on the best again. With the right leadership in place, here lies a chance to bring the entertainment back to the stands after numerous cloudy years.