It is just a day until Aston Villa begin the 2019/20 campaign and after our three-year hiatus from the Premier League, the mood in this part of the West Midlands is optimistic to say the least.
In fact, after a summer of non-stop transfers, record season ticket sales and a positive US trip, has there ever been such a high-spirited feel to things at Villa Park ahead of a new season?
It all began, of course, with that unforgettable day in May when Dean Smith’s men overcame Derby County 2-1 at Wembley and secured a spot back in the big time. It resulted in a claret and blue party in the streets of both London and Birmingham, with Jack Grealish chief orchestrator of the festivities.
Our skipper’s extended celebrations, Tyrone Mings trip back to the south coast still clad in full Villa kit and the abundance of former Villans congratulating the side via social media, only prolonged the party atmosphere for the Villa faithful.
When the euphoria had relented, the reality of what came next has proved to be even more enticing. A return to the Premier League means Villa will be back on Match of the Day again, back in various fantasy football games and even will be a top-tier side on EA Sport’s FIFA video game once again.
While in many senses such things should not be deemed as an achievement for Villa, still one of England’s most successful clubs, but those novel changes are a marker of the Villans’ triumphs in 2018/19 and acknowledge the difficulty posed in escaping from the Championship.
The excitement kicked up another notch in early June when Villa were officially recognised as a Premier League side once again, before fans were left drooling over our first game of the new season: Away at Tottenham Hotspur’s new state-of-the-art ground. What says Premier League more than that?
A return to the top division also means Villa have become big news again. Regularly the topic of debate on football phone-ins and TV shows, the general public’s interest in the claret and blues has reached a height not seen for at least a decade. The fascination with the Villans this summer even peaked with BBC Radio 5 Live’s Football Daily podcast designating an entire programme on Villa ahead of the new season. Yet, with the plethora of incomings at Villa Park in the past few weeks and months, it’s been simply impossible for media outlets to avoid coverage of the club this summer.
While many expected Smith to make serious moves in the transfer market, none could have foreseen just how aggressive Villa’s recruitment would be. To date, over ten new signings have rocked up at Bodymoor Heath and for fans, the excitement has been palpable.
First and foremost, so many new signings provide hope for supporters. Before they’ve kicked a ball each new addition has the potential to be the next Olof Mellberg, a Christian Benteke in the making or a Stiliyan Petrov-type leader. While only time will tell as to just how good these additions are, on reputation alone most of the early signs seem encouraging. Premier League experience, Champions League participants last season, England youth and senior internationals, two record signings and even a few familiar faces from 2018/19.
Villa’s squad now looks packed full of quality, and more than any other factor this summer the new signings have spurred the optimism in B6. Supporters simply cannot wait to see our recent recruits in action against Tottenham; whether it’s Wesley Moraes, Ezri Konsa, Trezeguet, Douglas Luiz or our old pal Tyrone Mings, Villa fans have never had so many players to quickly learn to love.
The positivity surrounding Villa’s new purchases has gained further traction on social media, thanks in part to the club’s fantastic social media team, who have latched onto the feel-good factor amongst fans this summer. Most notable was their coverage of Villa’s US supporters during the short trip to Minnesota in July, which again only denoted the positivity and exuberance among the fanbase.
The announcement of Mings coupled with the unveiling of the club’s new home kit was also a stroke of genius by the club’s commercial department and unsurprisingly, it sold out within hours. Also quick to sell out were Villa’s first home game of the new campaign against Bournemouth and the pre-season away allocations against Shrewsbury Town and Walsall, while over 3,000 travelled to the Valley to see Villa beat Charlton Athletic 4-1. In the midst of all this, the club have sold a record 30,000 season tickets ahead of the new season, perhaps the best indication of just how high morale is among the claret-and-blue aficionados.
Not only has the support been immense in pre-season, so too have the results. Five wins from five, 16 goals scored and some encouraging performances from the likes of Jota, Frederic Guilbert and Grealish. The latter has also increased the enthusiasm in the West Midlands. To say Jack’s Premier League career fizzled out is an understatement, but after emerging as Villa’s hero in the Championship, there is huge expectation on the no.10’s shoulders to consistently deliver this year.
Whether Grealish can really cut it in the Premier League has even awakened the interest of the general football fan, and this summer has seen an explosion of online articles devoted to how this truly is the midfielder’s moment to shine. For a long time now Jack has been the Villa poster boy, but recently Sky Sports and BT Sport have featured the boyhood Villan in their advert campaigns for the 2019/20 season. Like Villa, the general public are gripped by the prospect of Jack back in the big time.
Yet ironically, Jack’s return to the Premier League begins at the stadium which 12 months ago seemed certain to be his new home. That trip to north London will mark the end of a crazy, glorious summer for the Villans, one that will live long in the memory of fans. In fact, it is almost certainly the best off-season in a generation.
The last summer of genuine positivity actually came ahead of the 2015/16 campaign, when Villa hoped to build on an encouraging end to the previous season under Tim Sherwood and were buoyed by the influx of several highly recommended new signings.
It didn’t turn out too well…
The summer of 2008 was another optimistic time, with Martin O’Neill plotting to improve on the previous sixth-place finish. His plan involved recruiting the likes of Curtis Davis, Steve Sidwell, Brad Friedel, Carlos Cuellar and James Milner to the Villa cause and there was hope that a slip-up from one of the ‘top four’ could see the former European champions earn a spot in the Champions League for the following season.
It didn’t happen…
And while that summer was certainly an encouraging time for Villans, it was offset against the Gareth Barry transfer saga and the fear that it would be tough for O’Neill’s side to reach the heights they had attained the season prior. Even the transfer business was frustrating, with most deals wrapped up near the close of the window.
In many ways that is what makes this year so unique. Since that Wembley triumph in May, it has been good news story after good news story, without the caveat of any real negativity. For that reason, in my 15 years following Aston Villa, this summer is without doubt the most optimistic I have ever experienced. The last few months following the exploits of this great club has provided no end of joy and excitement - long may it continue!
The summer may just be a grand dress rehearsal, but the signs at this early stage appear overwhelmingly positive. While 2008 and 2016 have demonstrated good summers don’t necessarily mean achieving the ambitions set out at the start of a campaign, there really is a feeling that the stars have aligned at Villa. Boyhood fans as both manager and captain, a talented, young squad and a happy fanbase, who in the main will see a lack of any real success as a good season.
Survival is the minimal - and very achievable - expectation, anything more is a just bonus for now. Over to you then, lads…