When Aston Villa found themselves seven points adrift with only four games left to play during Project Restart last season, mid-table mediocrity was a dream prospect with the club installed as relegation certainties.
Eight months on and as West Bromwich Albion travelled to Villa Park to play out an end of season dead rubber, the game was only one of five in the top-flight since the start of the 2010-11 season that Villa played while mathematically safe from relegation.
Aston Villa Football Club finds itself in a completely unnatural position. On the beach, coasting along, wanting the season to end – call it what you want but Villa Park is never quiet for long and if the past decade has reminded Villa fans about anything, a divine right gets you nowhere.
European football might have been a real possibility at one stage or two in the season but for a club that has tumbled from the heights of those top six places all the way down to 20th position where, only two seasons later, administration was a very real prospect, a little perspective can often go an awfully long way.
Villa fans are a part of a unique fanbase where on those matchdays that we all sorely miss, each one of us will be chanting side-by-side to a generation of supporter that has either seen the Rotterdam sun glisten off those big metal ears and stood to your left, a fan who’s only seen where bad ownership regimes can take a club.
But for what it’s worth, Villa are slowly climbing the ladder again. Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens are determined to put the club back on a European map that had forgotten about England’s second city altogether.
With an academy bursting at the seams with talent exciting enough to forget about which multimillion-pound Belgian might be next on Johan Lange’s hit list, and a level of investment across the club to wear the lion rampant with pride again, it begs the question, is all this end of season crisis talk really worth the palaver?
Yes, Aston Villa’s players have down tools and that’s never an excuse when those who have pulled on the famous claret and blue set the standards always expected by a certain set of supporters at Villa Park, but are our current crop deserved of being on the beach already?
It wasn’t even four months ago that Bodymoor Heath experienced a very serious coronavirus outbreak which forced the rearranging of Premier League fixtures and an FA Cup tie to Liverpool required the attendance of a few schoolboys to put up a fight against last season’s best in class.
That Louie Barry goal put a smile on so many faces across the country in desperate need of a pick-me-up after a third national lockdown loomed. We can’t simply skip over THAT 7-2 dismantling of Jürgen Klopp’s champions either at the start of the campaign, but while fans have been forced to watch from home, it’s not as if we’ve been peering from behind the sofa this time round.
One of four results that contributed to Villa’s record-breaking start to a Premier League season was that 7-2 win which became the first game for 68 years in which the current English Champion shipped seven goals in a league match.
From there, a double of the Arsenal and impressive wins against Wolves, West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace and others would follow. Villa were absolutely in contention for European football as the New Year came around only months after being written off in their bid for top-flight survival last season.
Leicester City were the last Premier League team to start the calendar year in the relegation places and end it in a European spot and credit to Villa when you really start to put the pieces together, it’s quite extraordinary how Dean Smith and Co have forged a harmonious group of young, talented footballers capable of reaching the goals asked of them.
Setting the foundations for an attack on those European positions
Since gaining promotion back to the Premier League in 2019, Villa haven’t had a full pre-season since the season before and even then, with a summer of complete and utter upheaval with the future of Jack Grealish, Tony Xia and more critically, the club as a whole was very much in the balance in 2018.
After winning the 2019 Championship play-off final at Wembley, Villa had little more than a few weeks to replace 13 players who were leaving the club through loan expiries or with their contracts up that summer. It became a summer in which outsiders would brand Villa as the new Fulham – ‘you’re doing a Fulham’ to quote them precisely.
When Fulham dropped out of the Premier League after spending over £100million, Villa seemingly followed suit if you wanted to lean on knee-jerk reactions as the club plotted their way through a tricky market. In truth, Villa would’ve had a similar rebuilding job on their hands if they’d experienced another play-off heartache two summers ago. It just so happened to be a costly re-build to stay more competitive in the Premier League unlike the likes of Norwich City who opted for a different approach.
Perhaps many were keen to see another Villa demise with a new multi-billionaire ownership party vowing to disrupt the league’s upper echelons. Remaining in the league was the immediate priority as Villa built their first Premier League squad since 2015.
Smith justified Villa’s summer spending before Villa kicked off their 2019-20 campaign.
“It was not a risk because it is what we had to do,” Smith told Birmingham Live.
“People can talk about risk because we brought in a number of players but we had to, otherwise we wouldn’t have had a squad.
“We would have had to pay £30m-plus for Premier League experience and it is a vicious circle.
“If you want to go and get Premier League experience as a newly-promoted team, with a short period in which to get these players in which we had after winning the play-offs, you just get priced out of the game.
“We did what we had to do. We knew we were signing a lot of players with potential. There was no other way to do it.”
In contrast to Shahid Khan and Fulham’s reckless spending a year before, Villa were looking to make cut-price deals with a number of positions requiring improvements. On average, Villa spent £11million per player, with Tyrone Mings returning after a loan deal and Wesley making up the two most expensive signings.
The following summer, as Villa secured Premier League survival on the last day against West Ham United, a more prudent approach was required, even if time was against Villa again. For a third successive pre-season disrupted by time constraints due to on or off the field issues, Villa did however gear up for this league campaign with a whole lot of momentum.
Inspired signings, Emiliano Martinez, Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash have all settled at Villa Park without a worry, while Bertrand Traoré is still finding his feet somewhat after showing what he can offer in fleeting displays. Ross Barkley had started the season like the player Villa had been crying out for to relieve the creative load from Grealish’s shoulders, but it hasn’t worked out in the end.
In terms of who has come in and out of the group, Villa have welcomed 31 players to Bodymoor Heath since the season in which Smith joined the club. As 31 players have also left the club during that time too, that’s a huge rate of player turnover.
Internal changes haven’t helped stability too. With Smith being the eighth manager Villa have appointed over the course of the past decade, the club have allowed the former Brentford manager to prove doubters wrong and actually build something at Villa Park like he did at Brentford.
Having joined the club with Jesús García Pitarch in the position as Sporting Director, Smith would soon be working with a new head of such footballing operations, as Johan Lange replaced the Spaniard last summer. Despite mass changes within departments across the club, results on the pitch haven’t necessarily been affected.
Since Smith took over as the club’s head coach in 2018, he surpassed expectations by achieving promotion within months of taking the reigns, before ensuring survival the season after while working with a totally new set of players, before this term again progressing by finishing around the middle of the Premier League pack.
The next hurdle is however a testing one and Smith will need to be backed again. European football is not easily attained even for the ‘super big six’ and it looks like NSWE will take their spending on transfer fees alone past the £300 million mark since they took control of the club in 2019.
For Villa fans there’s no shortage of reasons to be excited for what the future holds and so a limp end to Villa’s second season back in the top flight should be taken with a pinch of salt – the club will soon be mixing it with the big boys again with the right ingredients to ensure the future is one with plenty of exciting season endings for years to come.