Aston Villa supporters’ patience with Steve Bruce wore even thinner last weekend following a draw against Blackburn. But when will enough be enough?
The trip to Ewood Park was always likely to be tricky. With Rovers having adjusted to life back in the Championship fairly well so far. And with the Lancashire outfit unbeaten at home in nearly a year, a win was by no means nailed on.
I think the vast majority of fans are clued up enough not to just think that simply playing a newly promoted team equates into three points. Rovers are no mugs; players such as Charlie Mulgrew and Corry Evans are decent at this level. Bradley Dack, in particular, showed again why he is earning more and more attention with each passing week.
That said, it’s absolutely more than fair for fans to have an expectation of winning a game like this. Rovers’ impenetrable home record is impressive. That does come with the caveat that it was mostly achieved against League One opposition. And with the players we have available to us, we certainly shouldn’t be setting out for anything other than trying to win the game.
Of course, the issue is that we never look or feel like we’re being sent out to try and win the game. The result of the match, in this case, isn’t really the issue. I think the result would have been accepted to a certain degree if we’d actually gone out with a visible game plan and displayed some sort of purpose and intent.
Obviously, this is nothing new. It is becoming a real chore watching us. It is boring. And on top of that, we aren’t even getting the results to make it worthwhile anymore. I’ll be absolutely honest. When Conor Hourihane whipped in that incredible free kick, I didn’t jump up and down like I usually would. And I’m not one of those that want the team to lose so that Bruce gets the boot. I just felt so underwhelmed by it all, the whole situation, that it just didn’t get me going like it should’ve done. Maybe it felt like the reward of one point gained wasn’t enough to compensate for the performance perhaps.
If we win, he stays
We play Rotherham at home on Tuesday evening. I expect us to win the game and I think we will pretty comfortably. Horribly, however, an emotion and thought have started creeping in that if we do win, then it will only prolong a decision on Bruce that needs to happen now. I absolutely hate feeling like that. I don’t want us to lose games. I detest the fact that when we do manage a win, it comes with the handicap of keeping Bruce in his job. It shouldn’t even be a factor. So why has it started to be?
The reason is that Bruce is scraping along doing the bare minimum to keep himself in the job. At the time of writing, we are on a run of just 8 wins in 22 matches. Real mid-table nothingness. Not good enough. Wishy-washy form with a win here and there to keep things ticking over. To keep us within touching distance of being able to put two or three wins together and put ourselves in contention. It isn’t good enough to be ‘there or thereabouts’. It hasn’t been good enough for such a long time now. So when will enough be enough?
New owners Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris have been silent since their introductory piece upon coming into the club. Not necessarily a bad thing. However, their backing of Bruce at the start of the season was worrying then and is even more so now. In truth we don’t know much about them; how they operate, how ruthless they are.
Purslow – The decision maker
You would imagine that any decision will be made with new CEO Christian Purslow. Interestingly, Purslow has not publicly spoken since his appointment at the end of August. So all in all, it’s difficult to gauge the mood of the key decision makers. There is usually a public vote of confidence for the manager when they’re facing such pressure as Bruce is, which is typically then followed by a sacking. It’s eerily quiet at the top.
If there is any sort of ambition between them though, the discussion must have taken place about Bruce’s future. I have always tried to be fair to him. I do think he was needed as a stabilising factor after the Roberto Di Matteo fiasco. There were a professionalism and a pride to play for Villa again last season which it’s fair to credit in part to him also. And we certainly have him to thank for having a memorable year with John Terry as our captain, and for also securing some other decent signings for our current level.
But things have massively unravelled in the last few months. The long winless runs are incredibly damaging to any hopes we have of promotion. After the Blackburn game, Bruce defended himself by saying ‘we’ve lost 1 game in the last seven and we’re flirting with a crisis’. Well, yes actually. Because we’ve only also won one of the last 6 which is abysmal with the fixtures we’ve had.
But it doesn’t stop there. There is a real sense that Bruce is beginning to delude himself. His proclamation that ‘he knows what he’s doing’ after the 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Sheffield United isn’t being backed up by his actions.
Team selection continues to baffle supporters. The insistence to use Mile Jedinak at centre back at least seems to have halted for now but went on for too long. But it is clear he is struggling to decide on both a formation and a settled line up. His acceptance to let Albert Adomah leave on transfer deadline day was strange enough, but then to play him ahead of the promising looking Anwar El Ghazi confused matters further.
The excuses are becoming more and more far-fetched. The latest being that the team has changed in personnel since last season. Well, yes, but that’s what happens when you build a team as a short-term fix with no plan for the long term. Similarly, his statement of being in 19th position when he came to the club as some sort of ‘look how far we’ve come’ boast has massively backfired; Cardiff was actually in that position, we were in 17th. And look how far they’ve gone since then.
For me though, his substitutions, or lack of them, give a real insight into his limitations. The match against Blackburn is a superb case in point. Villa had not played well and aside from a couple of chances for Tammy Abraham, hadn’t really looked threatening. With a strong bench featuring Jonathan Kodjia, Yannick Bolasie, Conor Hourihane and the aforementioned El Gahzi, it took going a goal down before Bruce decided to make changes to make us more attacking and chase a goal. Granted, Adomah had been switched out for Kodjia before the goal but that was as a straight swap, there was no difference to our play. Surely there was also a need to chase a goal at 0-0 to try and win the game? Bruce happy to drift towards a goalless draw with the hope of pinching a goal. And that is the situation we need to get away from.
We need to be proactive. If we aren’t winning games, we have to be brave and make the changes to ensure we do win them. But it never happens. We get panicked substitutions, often throwing as many attackers on as possible with no thought about leaving a midfield on the pitch to create the supply.
And I think this is part of why Hourihane’s fantastic strike didn’t move me like it should’ve done. Because it wasn’t a stroke of genius in Bruce’s tactics and gameplan; it was a stroke of genius from Hourihane from a dead-ball situation. But it gives Bruce credibility that he doesn’t deserve.