Amongst the frustrations and overwhelming sense of disappointment, uncertainty would perhaps be the best word to describe the next chapter of Aston Villa’s future.
It’s been a gut-wrenching morning and after sleeping on it I chose to watch the game back this morning to try and digest it in some form.
Firstly, I want to make it clear that in my view it was the right result. Fulham were given the space and the time on the ball and they made full use of it, attacking a static, flat-footed team. The goal itself was indicative of the relaxed, somewhat lazy start and Ryan Sessegnon fully exploited it pinching the ball and feeding a mature, well placed pass between John Terry and Alan Hutton and the impressive Tom Cairney did the rest.
Cairney, the man of the match was superb from start to finish, something that will be mentioned again shortly.
Secondly, we can argue the red card decision but without trying to be biased, Grealish could and probably should have seen the same outcome. When Fulham were eventually reduced to ten men Villa simply didn’t do enough to threaten. It was all huff and puff without any real conviction. Bettinelli not having to make a single save after Denis Odoi saw red.
It was similar to several Villa performances this season. Almost ‘testing the waters’ in the first half before turning it on second half without any end product. Not putting in the maximum effort for the full 90 minutes.
Fair play to Fulham, over the course of the season they deserved it and we now have to put that one to bed and quickly too.
The inevitable question was posed almost as soon as the final whistle went yesterday.
Steve Bruce’s future – Stay or go?
Bruce has turned a toxic set of players into a team that appear to care and fight for one another. The mutual appreciation with the fans is stronger now than it has been for an awful long time. It should also be admired the way in which he has dealt with horrendous family issues whilst trying to manage the squad day in, day out. I think a lot of people would’ve loved to have seen a win for him as much as anyone else yesterday.
Bruce also came in at a point when we feasibly could have seen a successive relegation under Roberto Di Matteo. The turn of fortunes steadied a rocky ship and despite a poor finish many of us felt this season would be the one to get us back in the big time.
However, a highly expensive assembly of players managed to reach the automatic promotion spots for just 24 hours and poor performances against the likes of Preston North End, Queens Park Rangers, Bolton Wanderers and Norwich City saw us drift away to a just a comfortable playoff position.
Going back to the togetherness of the squad. With the looming and confusing regulations of Financial Fair Play clouding over us, it is inevitable that many players will have played their final games for Aston Villa yesterday.
Sam Johnstone, Robert Snodgrass, Lewis Grabban, Joshua Onomah, all loanees, will report back to their respective parent clubs.
High earning players may not be affordable and John Terry sees the option of an extension to his one year deal ended with yesterday’s defeat.
Ross McCormack, Pierluigi Gollini, Carles Gil, Gary Gardner etc. will all initially return from loans.
A strong spine is important to our future but in increasingly tough times should decent offers come in for the likes of James Chester and Jack Grealish, we may not have a choice in terms of keeping them or saying goodbye.
Ultimately, the target for Steve Bruce along with the team was promotion and we failed to do so finishing seven points adrift of a stubborn and gritty Cardiff team.
In the playoff we managed one goal in three games and some players looked their age which I also think was half the difference yesterday. Tom Cairney (27), Ryan Sessegnon (18) and Aboubakar Kamara (23) looked too quick, raw and clever at times for our experienced players.
Despite being resolute at the back and tough to break down, we have also shown a negative approach to many games. Our big wins over Wolves and Bristol City as well as performances such as Ipswich and Sunderland away came from attacking, imposing football. All too often we have played with the handbrake on at times.
So with many of the players more than likely off to pastures new, disrupting the unit of spirit that Bruce has built, could it be that a fresh, modern and forward thinking manager will be way to go should we thank Bruce and say goodbye? Again, the decision really needs to be made sooner rather than later.
After listening to the thoughts of people and reading the fallout as I do every week after whatever result we achieve, I have spent this morning thinking of realistic or left field targets should it indeed be the case at hand.
The obvious candidate would be Dean Smith. Currently at Brentford, a self confessed Villa fan and has massively overachieved with a tiny budget and constant outgoings from his squad. In fact Brentford only missed out on the playoffs by six points. They also play attractive football and have an average age of around 23.6 years as opposed to ours which is around the 29.9 mark depending on selection. Players such as Neal Maupay, Ryan Woods and Romaine Sawyers all impressing and annoyingly turning it on whenever they have played us!
Two left field appointments are both ex-Villans.
Olof Mellberg would be the ‘cult hero’ choice and has managerial experience and success in guiding IF Brommapojkarna to back to back promotions and indeed back to the top flight in Sweden. Obviously it’s a completely different league and standard but regardless it is an impressive feat.
The other is Mark Delaney. He has worked wonders with the U23 side this season and he has worked day to day with players such as Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, Andre Green and Callum O’Hare who could quite easily become integral parts of our first team next season.
Whatever the outcome and whoever is in charge we need to back them and the board also need to decide whether we look at our game philosophy too. My personal view is younger, attacking football is the way to go. We have struggled with Saturday-Tuesday fixtures and need fresher, fitter, fearless players.
Fulham haven’t lost once when taking the lead this season too, sometimes scoring a cluster of goals in a short spell such as Millwall away and then keeping things organised at the back.
It’s going to be more than just a season-defining summer in regard to our future and the enquiry and ground work needs to be starting now.