What a journey. The 2018-2019 season is sure to live long in the memory of a generation of Villa supporters. Most sports betting sites would have written Villa off just after the festive period.
Since the departure of Martin O’Neill and Randy Lerner’s tightening of the purse strings, the club has been in a sorry state of decline.
An inevitable relegation led to Championship football and after three years, Aston Villa will return to the Premier League.
This season has been dramatic from start to finish, for contrasting reasons. New owners came in in the faces of NSWE. Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens stepped in to save Villa from a seemingly impending administration.
Steve Bruce was sacked after a poor start to the season.
Dean Smith was appointed and heady ambitions were realised on Monday with the playoff final win over Derby County.
As a teacher in my day to day life, I’ve tried to summarise my thoughts ‘report’ style on 2018-2019 with a look to next season and beyond whilst remaining realistic.
TOP OF THE CLASS
The team have collectively achieved the goal of promotion. Albeit when a few months ago it seemed an impossible task.
Despite originally thinking of choosing one or two players that have stood out for me personally, it ended up being five (I know … hear me out!)
1) John McGinn
Signed from Hibernian for a mere £2.75 million last summer, McGinn has become a fan favourite for his tenacity, energy and passion week after week.
At times he has seemed like an endless source of energy, running the ball the length of the pitch from the first minute to the last and making numerous challenges to fight for every scrap of possession.
The Scotsman won both the Players and Supporters Player of the Year awards as well as the EFL Goal of the Season for his stunning volley vs Sheffield Wednesday.
McGinn is exactly the kind of player we have craved, needed and should be looking at in the future.
In regards to statistics, 7 goals and 9 assists have been down to McGinn and numerous Man of the Match performances.
Work ethic, ambition and a drive to succeed are attributes that come second to none when analysing his performances across the season.
2) Tyrone Mings
When Tyrone Mings arrived on loan from Bournemouth the defensive element of Aston Villa wasn’t in a great place. A long term injury to James Chester and problems for Axel Tuanzebe didn’t help matters.
In fact, Villa had conceded 46 goals in 29 games (1.59 goals per game) from the start of the season up until his debut. In the same period, Villa kept 6/29 possible clean sheets (20.7%).
Since then, only 15 goals have been in the 18 games including the playoffs (0.83 goals per game), with 6/18 possible clean sheets (33%).
His leadership and authority on the pitch have been instrumental in Villa’s progress and he’s firmly a fans favourite.
For me, he’d be the first signing for next season.
3) Jack Grealish
After defeat to Fulham 12 months ago in the Playoff Final, it felt like it was the end of Jack Grealish at his boyhood club.
Reports suggested he was set to sign for Tottenham Hotspur and if it wasn’t for the new owners, I think it’s clear that it was a done deal.
Grealish put in several top performances, especially after the appointment of Dean Smith, until an injury away to West Bromwich Albion saw him miss out on the middle third of the season.
His return to the side finally came at home to Derby County, where he looked like he hadn’t been away. His performance in that game was capped with a fine solo effort, volleying home from the edge of the box off of a Glenn Whelan corner.
He continues to be the local hero and promotion couldn’t have been sweeter for him.
The statistics when he has played are outstanding and show exactly why he is valued as highly as he is.
34 games including the playoffs, 19 wins plus one on penalties, 9 draws and 5 defeats.
If these games were all for points as opposed to the playoffs, it would work out at 2.02 points per game. That’s 93 points over the course of a 46 game season.
His individual statistics are also incredible, leading the league in a number of attacking figures.
He will be instrumental in how Aston Villa do next season in the Premier League and will surely be looking for a chance to shine on the international stage.
4) Tammy Abraham
Without stating the obvious, Tammy makes the list primarily for the number of goals scored.
The first player in 42 years since Andy Gray to score 25 league goals, is some feat. He went on to score the winning penalty against West Bromwich Albion to secure a place in the Playoff Final and carried Villa at times, including the hat trick in a 5-5 thriller with Nottingham Forest back in November.
Despite the goals, there have been a lot of missed chances too, but I would rather focus on the work the Chelsea loanee has put in off the ball in supporting the midfield and chasing down lost causes. A rare attribute in many strikers.
It appears that Abraham will return to Chelsea to fight for a first-team place and if that happens to be the case he will be wished all the best from Villa supporters after his exploits in helping to gain promotion.
5) Anwar El Ghazi
Perhaps some would say this is a slightly less obvious choice but I personally feel the Dutchman has been a superb loan signing.
In 28 appearances, the winger has scored 6 and assisted 6 and at times has an unpredictability about his play.
He’s the kind of player that can pull off a run or move that no other player on the pitch would see or even think of.
Eye-catching goals such as those at West Bromwich Albion away and Nottingham Forest at home show his ability to find the net from range, whilst his opener in the playoff final shows a willingness to support the front line and attack crosses.
It is also important to remember that he is only 24 years old and has played top flight football in the Netherlands and France for Ajax and Lille respectively.
There have been rumours that he will be allowed to leave Lille on a free due to their financial difficulties and if so, he is a steal for nothing.
STAR PIECES OF WORK
I’ve also tried to think of three huge moments that have been instrumental in our season and I tried to keep these to on the pitch as opposed to off it as the owners and management will be mentioned later.
Aston Villa went into this game on the back of a five-game winning run.
It also saw previous manager Steve Bruce take on Villa, with his new side still in with an outside shot at the playoffs themselves.
Despite Villa going behind early on to a Gary Hooper goal, the team rallied to win 3-1 with goals from John McGinn, Albert Adomah and Tammy Abraham.
The scenes in the away end signalled just how big a win it was but it was still only half of the story.
Jed Steer made a string of saves during the game, including a penalty save when the score was at 1-1.
It’s hard to predict what would have happened had that penalty been converted both in regards to the result on the day and the ending to the season.
Four days after the win away to Sheffield Wednesday came a midweek game at Rotherham.
In all honesty, it felt like a game that Villa would cruise through and this was perhaps due to the confidence built up from a continued winning streak.
Villa won a penalty early on which Tammy Abraham took and unusually the resulting strike was saved.
Then came a huge point in the game when Tyrone Mings was adjudged to have handballed in the box and having already been booked, was subsequently given his marching orders.
Rotherham dispatched the penalty and Villa looked like they were losing their heads.
An inspiring half time team talk seemed to have sorted out the ten men who came flying out of blocks to put on a fine second-half performance.
Another penalty was awarded and Jonathan Kodjia was given the opportunity to do what Tammy Abraham couldn’t previously.
The penalty was fired confidently into the top right corner and the game was more than on.
Then came one of the goals of the year.
Jack Grealish’s fine footwork and a neat one-two saw him advance at pace past several opposing players towards the edge of the penalty box.
Shaping up to shoot, he laid the ball to Ahmed Elmohamady who first time, returned the ball back to Grealish and he calmly struck the ball into the bottom right.
The win felt like another challenge that had been overcome and Dean Smith’s men were finding consistent yet varying ways to win.
After coming from behind in the first leg at Villa Park, the Villans held a slender 2-1 advantage going into the midweek return at The Hawthorns.
Albion took the lead through a Craig Dawson header and continued to frustrate Villa whilst having some good chances of their own.
Chris Brunt was sent off leaving Villa with a chance to kill the game off, but they couldn’t break down a stubborn and organised defence.
Albert Adomah looked like he had won the game with a rasping strike in extra time but was denied by a superb save from former Villa keeper, Sam Johnstone.
When the game went to penalties it felt like the Baggies were in the ascendancy after managing to see out the game with 10 men with many lacking experiences.
However, Villa was inspired in the shootout.
Jed Steer saved the first two penalties and will be remembered for his walk alongside Mason Holgate where he got in his face in an attempt to psyche him out which appeared to work moments later.
Other than a miss from Albert Adomah, Conor Hourihane, Mile Jedinak, Jack Grealish and Tammy Abraham all scored to send Villa to Wembley.
The reason I chose this was the admission of practising penalties from Dean Smith and the entrance of Mile Jedinak with seconds left of extra time.
The Australian hasn’t featured much throughout 2018-19 but known for his penalty taking exploits for his country, he came on and with his one and only touch of the game, calmly slotted the ball the opposite side to Johnstone and subsequently stared out his own fans in the away end.
It was an iconic moment for me and it signalled how everyone has contributed in some way this season. Jedinak is the same man who sent Villa to the playoff final last season with the only goal in a two-legged tie against Middlesbrough.
Again, several people came to mind for a variety of reasons, some I know will surprise some and it doesn’t necessarily mean I would keep them all going into the Premier League. But it’s important to remember the message from earlier, than everyone has contributed in some way or other.
1) Jed Steer
Despite being mentioned several times already, I have chosen him as we have had a lot of problems within the goalkeeping department for some time.
Many Villa fans criticised the treatment of Steer when Steve Bruce loaned him out to Charlton, but he remained professional and seized his opportunity in fine style.
Steer played 17 full games after coming on at half time in the 2-0 defeat at home to West Bromwich Albion when the team were already two down.
In that period, Villa only lost once to Norwich City and to West Bromwich Albion in the playoff second leg over 90 minutes, although his heroics in the shootout sent Villa through.
He saved the penalty at Sheffield Wednesday and gained 5 clean sheets in 17 games (29%).
We owe a huge sense of gratitude to a man who couldn’t get a game previously other than in the season-opening 3-1 win away to Hull City.
2) Neil Taylor
Sometimes made a scapegoat for when times haven’t been great, Taylor has really improved as the season has gone on.
Despite spells where he has looked out of sorts, again he has never once complained and he has also formed a strong partnership on the left-hand side with the winger, Anwar El Ghazi.
He was an ever-present in the ten-game winning streak as well as the playoffs and deserves credit.
His celebrations when Villa have scored also show a passion and hunger to win.
3) Ahmed Elmohamady
Another player given unfair criticism at times is the Egyptian right-back.
In 35 appearances this season, he has scored twice and assisted 8 times. Only Conor Hourihane (11) and John McGinn (9) have more.
Another one for celebrating with the fans and showing a desire to win, I feel he has been grossly underrated by many fans, especially when you think of the money wasted on many other players.
Elmohamady only cost the club £1 million.
4) Glenn Whelan
Yet another player scrutinised in the past, ‘Whelo’ has been hardworking and a focal point in breaking up opposition attacks in the CDM role.
At 35, he is one of the older players yet has shown energy to close down and make important interceptions.
I would have thought he will be moving on but he has played a vital role at times this season, whilst also keeping the likes of Birkir Bjarnason out of the side.
5) Axel Tuanzebe
I decided to include the Manchester United loanee due to his injury last season which prevented him from a consistent and prolonged spell in the team.
Despite a further injury this season, he has perhaps grown more in stature than any other player in the side.
For a young centre half, he has looked incredibly composed on the ball and a colossus at the back for Villa.
His partnership with Tyrone Mings and other defenders has led to the fans taking a real shine to him and it’s clear to see why Manchester United think so highly of him.
It will be difficult to prise him away but he would be welcomed back with open arms.
MANAGING THE CLASS
When Dean Smith was appointed following the departure of Steve Bruce, it felt like the perfect fit. Sports online didn’t approve much of Bruce’s departure despite Villa fans being happy to move on.
The fans were falling out and the performances were dwindling leaving Villa looking like a side that would remain stranded in the middle region of the Championship.
A local man with claret and blue coursing through his veins, it immediately appeared to bring about a sense of unity and togetherness.
Smith was allowed to bring in his own coaching staff of Richard O’Kelly and goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler, as well as former Villa captain John Terry who would assist Smith in his first season since retirement.
‘Deano’ has become loved by the fans and is regularly referred to as “One of our own” and it couldn’t have been a better story than to see a Villa fan lead his team to its goal after years of heartache and misery.
Aside from the bond between the players, the staff and the fans, he has instilled an inner belief and a will to win. Most importantly finding a way to win.
It shouldn’t be underestimated the size of the job too. Villa fans are notorious for their expectations and speed at which some will turn should things not go to plan.
Smith also managed much smaller clubs in comparison in Walsall and Brentford respectively.
He brought in an attacking ‘aim to win’ philosophy which he has continued at Villa and it’s been a breath of fresh air.
Despite the difficult middle to the season and having to pick up a side struggling after a poor start, he has written his name into Aston Villa folklore and will be forever appreciated for the job he has done so far.
THE GOVERNING BODY
Off the pitch, the owners have set about establishing a strong framework with high profile figures renowned for their experience and success within key roles to ensure the club is run effectively and in line with modern football.
I was fortunate enough to meet both the new owners as well as Christian Purslow at two Fans Group Committee meetings earlier in the season and they made it clear that the club needed an awful lot of work off the pitch.
Bringing in Jesus Garcia Pitarch to support player recruitment after roles at Atletico Madrid and Valencia was an important call too in managing the aspects of identification and attraction of players as well as the resulting transition between clubs.
I have also gone on to meet Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Paul Tyrrell and Chief Commercial Officer, Nicola Ibbetson who have both impressed with their background and their understanding of listening to us as fans.
After the fallout of the Xia regime and the Wyness stories, we needed the professionalism of the highest order and I firmly believe we have that in the team of people assembled.
Sawiris and Edens were quick to sack Steve Bruce after initially supporting him and ultimately made the right choice as verified by promotion. By their own admissions, probably a year ahead of schedule.
It was great to see them all at Wembley and their obvious passion for the club.
Although it is easy to coin phrases, “Sky is the limit” shows what they truly believe they can do. Initially, it may seem impossible but with the wealth and quick turn around, who is to judge them based on so far?
Having CEO and Director, Christian Purslow at the heart of day to day operations, it shows the importance placed on consistency and expectation.
Both crucially lacking in previous years. Purslow’s previous Managing Director roles at Liverpool and Chelsea will be a key to developing a Villa structure that has been way behind the times.
WISHES FOR THE FUTURE
To conclude, I have four wishes for next season and beyond that will hopefully benefit the future of our club after the darkest years of my generation and those younger than myself.
1) The club needs to employ the right type of players both for on and off the pitch.
Smith and Purslow outlined this in a recent interview but we need grafters who inspire and lead others. I don’t want to see any more signings like those of Micah Richards and Ross McCormack who are happy to sit on big contracts and do nothing for the cause.
2) Keep the club affordable for the returning fans should success continue.
I totally understand the money in the Premier League is like nothing else when it comes to sponsorship and media rights and many clubs push tickets and other merchandise to astronomical figures.
Whilst some increase will inevitably be expected, it needs to be realistic in order to continue to attract big crowds week by week and to inspire children, the next generation of supporters.
In my own job, it’s the reason I went into teaching but children need inspiring and a sense of belonging. Aston Villa can be a powerful advocate of this whilst growing as a club.
3) Attracting a greater variety within our fan base and supporting the local region.
Aside from the idea of encapsulating young fans, we need to remember that we are the biggest club in the city of Birmingham.
We need to show our stature within the city and the surrounding areas to show the two-way relationship the club and the supporters have.
Our city boasts over 180 nationalities and yet our demographic groups when it comes to supporters could be greatly improved.
We also need to continue to take a lead in showing support for Women’s football, female supporters, disabled fans and teams as well as the ongoing foundation work in supporting LGBT groups.
We need to take a lead as a lead club.
4) As fans, we are ambassadors for our club. We need to show that.
Too often I see fans slating other fans for their opinions or their own sense of stature when it comes to areas such as tickets.
Granted, as a season ticket holder for 25 years, since the age of 5, I understand the respect element to elders who have seen and been through a lot more than myself. However, we are at risk of becoming an embarrassment at times in how some fans conduct themselves towards others.
Support the club! It’s okay to have different opinions too!
Behaviour wise, I, unfortunately, witnessed the Derby County supporters coach attacked near Wembley Stadium.
It hasn’t made for good news and hopefully those responsible are found out and dealt with accordingly. The unfortunate thing for the ‘real’ supporters is these appalling and disgusting actions could conceivably have a negative impact on ourselves in the future.
Now we are back where we wanted to be and have an opportunity to rebuild, we need to be leading on all fronts and I’m confident in some exciting times being just around the corner.