After the release of the Sky Bet Championship fixtures on Wednesday, the realisation is finally beginning to dawn that Aston Villa Football Club will be competing in the second tier of English football next season. Many will be expecting the Villans to cruise straight back up to the Premier League, although it may not be that simple given the intensity and unforgiving nature of the league.
After last season ended in sheer disappointment, many Villa fans would have been forgiven for thinking that the club may become trapped in the second division and never return, in the way big names like Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Wolverhampton Wanderers have done.
So far, the summer has helped to temper these fears, with a new owner and manager coming in and taking the club in a new direction.
One of the key parts of Roberto Di Matteo’s first few months in charge of the club will be choosing the right signings to improve the side and act as a catalyst to success in the 2016-17 season.
Last week’s confirmation of the signing of Bournemouth’s club captain, Tommy Elphick, certainly shook a few of the Villa fans into believing that Di Matteo is intent on building a strong squad that holds Championship experience. This could also be an indication that the Italian is looking to complete most of his business early in the window.
The Villans conceded the most goals in the Premier League last season (76) so strengthening the defence is something which will no doubt be high on the agenda of the former Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion boss, an issue which will be addressed in part by the signing of Elphick. The full back and goalkeeping areas were just as much of a problem as the central areas and the emphasis will be on improving these areas too.
Here are four players who could help in the fight for promotion:
Virtually unknown outside of Northern Ireland or Hamilton until the start of Euro 2016, McGovern has stamped his name on European football, producing performances that have almost certainly guaranteed him a place in the ‘team of the tournament’, even though the knockout stages have yet to even start.
Integral to Northern Ireland’s progress to the last sixteen and a quarter-final clash against Wales, the thirty-one-year-old has produced some exceptional saves to keep his side in their three group games against Germany, the Ukraine and Poland.
With a host of Premier League and European sides apparently after his services, the promise of first-team football and the hope of Premier League football the season after could make Villa one of the most tempting sides for the free agent.
He has conceded only two goals in the European Championships so far and, after managing ten clean sheets last season, he would be an ideal replacement for Brad Guzan, who is expected to return to his native USA.
Another player who has impressed at the Euros, Gunter will face McGovern in the last sixteen. A player who has spent most of his career in the Championship, he would bring with him knowledge of the league.
The right side of defence is a position the club has struggled with for many years. Alan Hutton may want to stay and prove himself to be a brilliant player in the second division but many Villa fans will think it is time for a change, although Hutton was one of the only players who can honestly say he gave his all in the last campaign.
Gunter has played 167 times for Reading since joining in the summer of 2012 but he did sign a two-year extension to his contract in February so it may take a significant amount to make the Reading boss consider selling the twenty-six-year-old to a Championship rival.
Known for his marauding runs from the back, Gunter would be a brilliant acquisition for the club.
There is no doubt that, given the dismal tally of twenty-seven league goals last season, Aston Villa needs a striker capable of scoring goals to allow any chance of securing promotion.
An international team-mate and a former club team-mate of Gunter’s, Robson-Kanu is a bit of an enigma at times. He plays for Wales and he is red hot, unplayable at times, but for Reading he was on and off more times than a kettle in the office. If Di Matteo were to try and convince the free agent to sign up to another season in the Championship then he could have a good player on his hands.
He has scored once in the European Championships, helping Wales to reach the last sixteen, but only managed to find the net five times for the Royals last season.
Playing alongside proven Championship goal-scorer Rudy Gestede could bring the best out of Robson-Kanu so maybe signing him is a gamble worth taking.
Another free agent, having been released by Tottenham Hotspur this summer, Tom Carroll will no doubt be courted by many of the sides who occupied the bottom half of the Premier League table last season.
The England U21 international is known for his ability to pick out a killer pass in the final third and has the technical ability to counteract his obvious lack of height and stature.
After experiencing loan spells at Derby County, Queens Park Rangers and Swansea City, it is now time for Carroll to take his chance and live up to the potential that he has always been touted as having.
The Villans have lacked a play-maker for many years so filling this position is key to success.
Taking a risk on Carroll would be small in relation to the previous risks the club has taken on foreign imports and he would fill part of the void left by Jordan Veretout and Idrissa Gana should they, as expected, move on.
What Di Matteo elects to do remains a mystery but we live in hope that there is indeed a bright future on the horizon.