What a difference a week makes! With the gloom and despair of December threatening to put a serious dent in our season, things got back on track with impressive wins against Middlesbrough and Bristol City. Whilst the two victories may have helped to put things back into perspective a little, there is still tension brewing between manager Steve Bruce and the majority of supporters.
After grabbing three points up at the Riverside Stadium against Boro, Bruce’s post-match comments did little to patch up relations between himself and those supporters who had been calling for his head.
Instead of just focusing on the win, Bruce was unable to resist having what has been seen as a bit of a dig at supporters; “Hopefully, that shuts a few of them up”. Sigh.
To be fair to Bruce, in essence, what he is saying is right. ‘We can’t just be going along quite nicely and all of a sudden we’re in crisis’. I actually agree; it isn’t the way things should be.
However, it IS how things are right now. And it will continue to be so for this season at the very least. And there is nothing that he or anyone else can do about it.
The situation at Aston Villa these days is extremely complicated. The club is at one of the most important crossroads of its entire existence. Yes, we’ve been relegated before. We’ve even been down to what is now League One back in the 70’s but with the way football is right now, our predicament is much more serious.
Unfortunately, it all comes down to money. I hate that the game has become geared towards finances to the extent that it has done but that’s how things are. Where in the past, the monetary gap between the have’s and the have not’s was not the be all and end all, nowadays it most certainly is. We are a whisker away from this proud club slipping away into relative obscurity.
Promotion this season is vital. Miss out, and we’re left behind in a way that we have never been before. Already we have seen the clubs finances squeezed to unprecedented levels. Whilst we may consider ourselves the big fish in this division at the moment, that could change very quickly indeed.
Since the introduction of the new television rights deal last year, the team that finishes bottom of the Premier League pockets around £100 million. The price of failure has never been so lucrative. Now, whilst that hasn’t helped the likes of Sunderland or Hull City so much this season, it is only a matter of time before the Championship becomes flooded with teams boasting riches that we can only dream of.
We’ve already flexed our muscles and are now enjoying our last few moments in the sun. We’ve cherry-picked the league’s best performing players, with varying degrees of success. We’d be foolish to think that we wouldn’t be on the end of that treatment from next season onwards. Our best players, the likes of James Chester, would be prime targets for those teams with the financial capability to buy him. Those teams would be a more attractive proposition in terms of being able to gain promotion. After all, after two years of trying, where would the belief be that we could do it at the third time of asking?
Historically smaller teams such as Bournemouth, Swansea and Burnley are already now much richer than we have ever been. Whilst the name of Aston Villa still holds some sway in the football world, the truth is that there is already an emerging generation that sees us as a nothing club, unaware of our proud history and tradition. We only need to look at the likes of Leeds United and Nottingham Forest to see how their standing within the game has eroded. We’re on that same path.
These are the fears that are causing the supporters to panic because failure to gain promotion cannot be an option.
Yes, the fanbase is on edge. When Bruce serves up a poor run of results, he HAS to expect the backlash and he HAS to understand why it is happening. Yes, Steve, we are only ever a couple of weeks away from a crisis because staying in this division would be disastrous for the club.
Poor results are one thing, but poor performances had also been the order of the day for much of our important run of fixtures in December. The showing against Bristol City, however, proved what the supporters have known all season; that this group of players are capable of blowing teams away if allowed to. Jack Grealish looked excellent and once again, Conor Hourihane delivered in a more advanced position.
I can understand Bruce wanting to make the most of an opportunity to get one over on the supporters who have been on his back. We all love an ‘I told you so’ moment but he simply has to suck it in and understand the reasons for the way we are at the right now. If we see any sign of not making the playoffs at the very least then, unfortunately, there will be a panic because we’re terrified of staying in this division and being left behind more than we already are.
I’m not Bruce’s biggest fan. As I said in my article last week I fully expect him to be our manager at the end of this season still. However, he has shortcomings that he would do well to remember and this contributes massively to the leeway that supporters afford him. There is a lack of confidence in him and there is definitely some justification for that.
The result at Boro, for example, is possibly a fortuitous one when you take into account that an important part of the team selection was forced on him by illness. Glenn Whelan was absent from illness, but Bruce freely admits that he would’ve played that game otherwise. This, in turn, would’ve seen Mile Jedinak deployed at centre-back, a position he has looked shaky in this season when asked to deputise in.
Whelan, perhaps unfairly, has more than his fair share of doubters already. Irrespective of that, however, to be willing to persevere with a player so woefully out of form and making mistakes by the game is the sort of decision which we cannot afford to gamble on.
The frustration is that the supporters can see it. Ok, we may not be the tactical geniuses that we like to believe we are, but we can all see when something isn’t working. The changes that needed to be made seemed obvious.
The big question now though is what does the second half of the season have in store? There is a renewed optimism that, after the Bristol City demolition, we will now play free-flowing attacking football and push on. I have serious reservations about that.
Earlier in the season, we were in a similar position after the 4-2 victory at Villa Park over Norwich City. It seemed as if there had been a breakthrough. Hourihane was deployed in a more advanced position due to an early injury to Josh Onomah and grabbed himself a hattrick. It wasn’t long until he was then pushed back into a deeper position once again.
This feels similar. Bruce’s hand was somewhat forced due to injuries to Onomah again against Bristol City and Whelan still being unavailable. Whilst singling out those two players is unfair as reasons as to why we flourished so much, it can’t be ignored that their replacements and the shape of the team seemed much better. Not for the first time, Bruce has stumbled upon a winning formula. This time he has to stick with it. Old habits die hard though and you can’t help but feel we’ll see a return to drudgery before long.
Which is somewhat ok as long as we’re winning. December was unacceptable however and Bruce will do well to remind himself of the reasons why the supporters have such high standards and demands before making any further churlish comments.
Having a dig at the supporters after such a poor run of form was ridiculous. It may be a pressure cooker environment right now but there is nothing that anybody will be able to do about that. There is too much at stake. Bruce has the tools at his disposal to cement a playoff spot at the very least, and in truth, should be nailing second place behind a rampant Wolverhampton Wanderers with the players available to him. Luckily the chasing pack all have weaknesses and that still gives us a chance.
Play the football that we’re capable of. Don’t shackle our creative players. Give Callum O’Hare more game time. Impose ourselves and our tactics onto the opposition instead of being submissive to theirs.
And if you have two or three bad results, understand why we are restless. Deal with the expectations of the fans and the club. It may be intense, but it isn’t unrealistic when failure this season could literally affect the future of this great club.