The bomb has been defused! The ‘bomb squad’ saga has been assigned to history and we now look ahead to the new season with at least unexpected ‘signings’ for which we paid absolutely nothing, apart from the £150,000 the three players collectively are reported to receive per week. This was yesterday’s big headline (along with Gary Gardner signing a new contract, which I want to congratulate him on) and it all sounded rather too sensational to me.
I want to analyse this massive U-turn and see what the positive and negative effects of this decision might be.
First of all, the term ‘bomb squad’ needs to be defined; too many have been using that term in very different ways and it became hard to tell which players were actually a part of it. The most obvious hint that someone was a bomb squad member and surplus to requirements was being assigned a squad number in the high thirties, if he even had a squad number in the first place. Overall, a total of eight players were seemingly told that they were no longer part of Lambert’s team and should be looking for new clubs: Shay Given, Alan Hutton, Enda Stevens, Barry Bannan, Stephen Ireland, Charles N’Zogbia, Darren Bent and Nathan Delfouneso.
Looking back, it is hard to tell who had to decide which players had to step away from our first team. Was it Lambert? Was is Culverhouse? Did Randy Lerner have a say? While the reason behind the internal clear-out has become very clear in recent weeks – cost cutting due to a planned sale of the club – it is still very difficult to identify the aim of the whole process. Instead of showcasing the players, whose wages Aston Villa Football Club was still responsible for, and attracting interest from other clubs, they were “locked away”, told to train on their own or with the development squad, presumably in the hope that their names alone would spark interest from other teams. This tactic wasn’t really successful as five of the eight players listed above will still be paid by Aston Villa once the new season begins. Only Bannan and Ireland have transferred permanently while Delfouneso will be released in a month’s time. With minimal, if any, interest in the remaining players, our restricted budget might have been used very inefficiently on their wages without anything in return. This might change now!
According to reports, our owner Lerner has urged Lambert to utilise his full squad, which officially always included the ‘bomb squad’ members. We might actually see these players return to first team action and I welcome this decision. As long as we are paying a player’s wages, he should be able to help the team. We might be better off financially if the five (or at least some of them) leave this summer but everyone knows that, for different reasons, it might be very hard to move any of them on. Until then, we should give them the chance to prove that their time at Villa is far from over and that each and every one of them has something to add to our current team, which, because of our financial situation, might not see many additions over the summer.
Shay Given, who is still a solid goalkeeper, could provide cover for Brad Guzan. This would give Jed Steer the chance to get some match time during a loan spell. Should Given decide to leave or take up a coaching role, he would free up a considerable wage and we could continue with Guzan, Steer and the Under-21 goalkeepers so no other reinforcements would be needed.
At right-back, Alan Hutton could be the defensive cover for Matt Lowton, allowing Leandro Bacuna to move further up the pitch, maybe filling the gap left by the released Marc Albrighton. The Scot has the ability to fill that role and has proven this when playing for his national team and during a loan spell at Bolton this season, where people were very content with his services. While his departure would further reduce the wage bill, we would probably need to bring in another right-back so it might not be a bad option to keep Hutton until his contract is up next summer.
Enda Stevens is in a slightly different situation than the others and his rather low wages should allow us to find him a new club during this transfer window. Otherwise, he could still help us as additional cover at the left-back-position, should we not be able to bring in a left-back over due to our quite unstable situation.
We have been calling for a creative spark all season and maybe Charles N’Zogbia might do the trick, should he regain his fitness. He has shown before that on his day he can make a positive difference to our play and if he could do that more often in the near future it might justify the money the club has invested in him. Should another club show interest in him, we could maybe even command a small fee for him, thus improving our chances of finding a creative player.
Last but not least, we have the lost striker: Darren Bent. With the right service, which, according to rumours, we are currently working on, he should be able to get a few goals, at least until Benteke is back. In my opinion, he could form a dangerous strike partnership with Libor Kozak when the Czech returns from injury. Who knows? Maybe we’ll actually find a buyer for our record signing as Newcastle once again look interested in him. In that case, it is debatable whether a new striker would be required. With Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann in the team, this is not a priority. So, again, money would be freed up to be invested in more pressing areas. If he is staying he would be another option and should be seen us such.
While I welcome the decision to invite these players back into the team, we will have to wait and see how the players react to it. This might well depend on who forced them out of the squad in the first place and how this was done. If it was done in a professional manner, re-integrating the five players should not be particularly problematic and the whole club should benefit from this U-turn. With these words, we will hopefully be able to wave goodbye to the idea of a ‘bomb squad’. We are one team and should appear as such.