Rumours surfaced over the weekend that the board will meet with manager Steve Bruce to discuss his future with the football club and I personally feel that this is a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly but equally it is required fast.
Supporters are in meltdown. Bruce in/out polls are everywhere on Twitter. Every other tweet is asking chairman Tony Xia to clarify our status. CEO Keith Wyness is being bombarded about Financial Fair Play concerns.
The thought of what might have been is still too much to really explore in any detail. Whilst we face an extremely uncertain period, our opponents last weekend, Fulham can bask in the knowledge that they have a mighty windfall coming their way and can look at scouring the market for top talent to improve an already attractive footballing side. One goal made such a seismic difference to our respective futures.
It is still too soon to have the answers to of all the questions that people are panicking about right now. However, despite the supporters appearing hasty in regard to Steve Bruce, one of the most pressing matters is actually a decision on whether our manager remains in charge or not.
Right now, I really don’t know. What I am keen to avoid is simply thinking because we didn’t go up then Bruce must go. In truth, I can see pros and cons to sticking with him.
One thing we can be certain of is that we’re in for a summer of austerity. Any funds generated will be going towards our Financial Fair Play obligations. This isn’t something entirely new for Villa. Last summer we were in a similar situation and spent next to nothing in the transfer market.
In my opinion, Bruce did an excellent job in terms of the players he brought in on limited resources. By his own admission, John Terry signed for the club largely due to Bruce. Sam Johnstone again came back to the club in part to Bruce. And it was the manager’s relationship with both Robert Snodgrass and Ahmed Elmohamady that helped bring them to Villa. Glenn Whelan had his detractors during the season but for me was a very useful addition also. And the signing of Lewis Grabban in January was massively successful.
My point here is twofold. Firstly, Bruce has shown that he is capable of working with next to no money. In our current situation, that ability is not to be sniffed at. Not everyone can do it. All of the players mentioned above were good signings for the club and did well for us this season. The wages must be taken into account and we’ll need to scale that down in the coming season, however.
Secondly, it is clear that Bruce has plenty of respect and contacts in the game to help him out. There is a clear relationship with Manchester United especially from his playing days and that is a massive advantage for a club in our position right now who need to look at loan signings. There is already talk of Axel Tuanzebe returning next year which would be welcome. But Terry and Snodgrass in particular probably wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for Bruce.
With the clamour at the moment for Dean Smith to take over, it is worth considering these points in our current position. Smith is relatively inexperienced as a manager and in truth hasn’t achieved anything tangible to suggest he would be up to such a huge job at Villa Park.
Many supporters like the fact that he is a Villa fan as a reason why he should get the job. But that isn’t enough for me. That doesn’t mean he would be able to get us promoted. It is talent and ability over the passion that counts.
However, it can’t be denied that on the pitch, Bruce has faltered somewhat. The naivety of his tactics in the Playoff final was incredible. To set us up in a similar fashion as the games against Middlesborough was ridiculous. Everyone knew we needed to take the game to Fulham. We wasted 45 minutes and ultimately conceded a goal anyway.
And that has been the case in far too many games this season. Over-cautious. Worrying about the opposition rather than coming out and playing to our own strengths, which were plentiful. I’m all for trying to get the basics right and making us solid at the back. But it became overly negative at times.
The use of substitutes has been rightly derided also. When losing games, the tendency to replace midfielders and end up with four strikers on the pitch by the end of the game is laughable. It’s the sort of tactic employed when playing ‘Football Manager’ on the PC. There is no thought that there is no one left in the midfield to create the chances for all of those strikers to convert. It is one of my issues with the defeat to Fulham; if we’d have just kept our shape rather than trying to go gung-ho, we’d have had a better likelihood at creating one or two clear-cut chances against ten men.
Yet even in times of hardship, there are opportunities to prosper. And with no money to spend, possibly even on wages, we must surely look at introducing some youth. Callum O’Hare must surely be promoted, especially if Jack Grealish is sold. Rushian Hepburn-Murphy has been knocking on the door also. Jake Doyle-Hayes is there or thereabouts also.
The consensus is that these guys won’t get much time under Bruce and even if they did, would they be stifled by his brand of football? Well, we can look at the way Grealish has flourished to argue against that. And also the progress that Andre Green was making before injury robbed him of this season. But there is no doubt that Bruce will always put an experienced head over a raw talent if possible. I don’t believe that necessarily neglects youth, but there is an uncomfortable use of youth at times.
There is no doubt about the fact that a manager such as Dean Smith plays a much more attacking style of football. Brentford has earned plaudits for their football this year. But ultimately, it didn’t do them any good, finishing in ninth position. The idea is that at a club with more resources Smith could push us and himself on, but for me, that is simply a gamble. Remember how we all wanted Paul Lambert to bring his attractive football from Norwich with him? It never happened.
I genuinely don’t know what the answer is with Bruce. Off the pitch, he seems to get it right. He bought in the right players last season and created a professional hard working dressing room. That in turn created a bond with the fans unseen in years. That cannot be underestimated.
Something needs to change on the pitch. The frustrating thing is that we saw on several occasions just how good we were. The demolition jobs of Bristol City. Wolves. We also scored four goals in a game against Norwich, Burton, Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich. Overall, the season was enjoyable. It felt good supporting Villa again.
The board must make a decision on the path the club is going to take first and foremost. If we are looking to dabble in the loan market again and bring in experienced Premier League players, then Bruce is the man to do that.
However, if we are going ditch as many of the high earners as we can and promote youth then maybe we also look at a more tactically attack-minded manager to let those kids really flourish, whether that is Smith or anyone else fitting that category.
Either way, that needs to be one of the first decisions made and it needs to be done quickly. We’re a club of uncertainty right now and we need to show signs that we have a plan of action as soon as possible. Decide on our approach in tackling the road ahead, and then decide on the man to make it happen.