As another tedious international break looms, things are looking much more promising for Aston Villa Football Club than they were when we entered the last one at the beginning of October. A lacklustre 2-0 defeat at Preston North End marked the end of Roberto Di Matteo’s short spell at the club. Three defeats in eleven games masked the truth of just one win in the same period.
At that moment, I was happy for Di Matteo to be given a little bit more time. I felt that we had sacked too many managers and needed stability. It was still very early in the season. I also felt that, by and large, the players had let the manager down. Failure to convert golden chances coupled with some sloppy mistakes in defence had contributed to a disappointing start. I was also unconvinced by the names that were being touted as potential replacements for the Italian.
Mostly, I was fearful of repeating the mistakes of last season. This one seemed to be following an identical pattern – sacking a manager after ten or so games, after having spent heavily in the summer, then gambling on the next manager. David Wagner, who has started so brightly at Huddersfield Town, was being lauded yet I wasn’t keen on another ‘next big thing’. We had been there and done that – and it had failed.
The antithesis of Wagner was Steve Bruce, an experienced and seasoned manager who has four promotions from the Championship on his CV. Despite all this, I was not keen on Bruce. I didn’t care one little bit that he had previously managed bitter rivals Birmingham City. My problem with Steve Bruce was that I just didn’t feel he had the gravitas to manage Aston Villa and I didn’t feel he would be a long term appointment. I found him uninspiring. I found the teams he had previously managed to be drab. Sunderland and Hull City were mid-table stinkers at best, the kind of teams that you never really tune in to watch or care about. Bruce, to me, matched these sort of teams perfectly – plain and dull. Bruce and Aston Villa? It seemed like there must be a better option out there. Further to this, and perhaps most importantly of all, I couldn’t help feeling that Bruce’s relegation record as a Premier League manager was being overlooked. This would also mean another short term appointment, which was not in the best interests of the club.
Nevertheless, Di Matteo was given his marching orders and Bruce was instantly installed as the bookies’ favourite. I felt despondent. Had we learned nothing from the past? I was concerned that it also signified that the new chairman, Dr Tony Xia, was heading down the same path as Massimo Cellini, a chairman who found it all too easy to pull the trigger on managers as soon as a poor run of results hit at Leeds United. Would this be repeated again and again?
Fast forward a few weeks and things seem very different indeed: three wins in five games plus a couple of draws mean Bruce remains unbeaten so far. The mood has been lifted and supporters are finally leaving games with smiles on their faces. It has also left me faced with a nice, big humble pie for my dinner.
In actuality, Xia’s decisive action in relieving Di Matteo of his duties was clearly a necessity. In hindsight, it would perhaps have been easier to allow Di Matteo to continue and to hope for the best. Xia’s cut-throat action should be complimented. The chairman is obviously ambitious and keen to return to the Premier League. If that is to happen, there was no time to lose. While there were still plenty of games left, in reality, each game that passed without three points being secured simply made Xia’s target of promotion more and more unlikely. Even though I was happy for Di Matteo to be given another couple of games’ grace, the four points picked up in that time instead against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Reading could be the difference between sneaking into the play-offs and finishing seventh and missing out.
Of course, that is all theoretical and it may well have been that Di Matteo could have exceeded Bruce’s haul and picked up six points. We’ll never know. We do know that it seems highly unlikely. One thing that can’t be denied, and that was a concern for me at the time, was the fact that Di Matteo seemed to have started to panic. Not only were personnel chopping and changing, tactics were changing game by game also. That is never a good sign and it suggests that he was perhaps hoping to stumble over a winning formula rather than having a solid plan of action.
The arrival of Bruce appears to have instilled greater mental toughness in this group of underachievers. More than this, it seems that simple factors, which the fans had been exasperated with for so long, such as bringing on a midfielder for a striker when protecting a narrow lead late on in a game and playing Mile Jedinak in a system which allows him to be effective are being tackled.
Other positives include Jonathan Kodjia turning into a goal machine. Nathan Baker has also really taken his opportunity and has been solid alongside the classy James Chester.
Di Matteo was unlucky in many aspects. Not all of those last minute goals were down to him or his tactics yet Bruce’s arrival even seems to have changed our rotten luck. Maybe the sloppiness is being eradicated. However, if we did well to grab a draw in the Wolves game then we were extremely lucky at St Andrew’s. Earlier in the season, that ball would have crossed the line.
However, despite taking the lead in both games, little has been made of dropping points from winning positions here. This was a hallmark of Di Matteo’s reign. Obviously, not conceding in the last five minutes alleviates the sense of robbery somewhat and the fact that we were outplayed for large parts of both of those derbies leave us feeling grateful for getting a point from each. Whether we concede in the last five minutes or the last forty-five, the outcome is the same. Bruce seems to have escaped this criticism.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt we are experiencing the fabled ‘new manager bounce’. Di Matteo didn’t bring it with him and Garde certainly didn’t either. Not since Tim Sherwood have we felt the propulsion that a new manager should bring. This shows that the players are responding to Bruce, which is obviously a good thing.
Five games unbeaten is a great start, although it isn’t enough to win me over completely just yet. That said, his personality in press conferences so far has been surprising and he has certainly grown on me. I am still wary that the appointment could be fairly short term. Should promotion be gained, Bruce’s poor Premier League record may well come into play and we could be switching managers again.
Of course, t is not the point. Perhaps that was something I didn’t really buy into previously. Perhaps the old school supporter in me needs to get with the times a little. Promotion is the only aim right now and Bruce gives us a great chance of still making that happen this season. After all, those four promotions are not to be sniffed at. That is the only thing that matters right now, not finding a manager who will stay with the club for the next five years.
There is still much that can be improved upon. Some clean sheets would be nice, as would a few more goals. But I’m being picky. It is certainly a good feeling to be winning matches again. Fluidity in our play will hopefully come sooner rather than later and that big win that we’ve all been waiting for should, with a little bit of luck, materialise in the not too distant future.
For now, I’m happy to cut just a slice of that humble pie and tuck into it. Dr Xia seems to have done the right thing. Perhaps Aston Villa Football Club is the place for Bruce to excel as a top flight manager also.
He may still be ‘potato head’ but, right now, he is our ‘potato head’.