As the 2015/16 Premier League season came to a close, even the most optimistic of Aston Villa fans could not deny that the future looked bleak for our football club. Finishing on a mere 17 points, the 4th lowest accumulated by a Premier League team, it was clear to see that something was very wrong, and the club was heading for an alarming spiral if not rectified quickly.
With the clubs relegation confirmed, focus immediately had to shift to preparing for a cut-throat season in the EFL Championship, a league-best known for its extreme competitiveness with games coming thick and fast. The enormity of the task ahead was evident from the get-go with the club under no illusions as to what the supporters expected, an immediate return to the Premier League. Let’s take a look at the meteoric rise of Aston Villa Football Club and how the club has progressed in the 5 years since its relegation.
Work began immediately behind the scenes following the club’s relegation with then-owner, Randy Lerner, who is widely considered to be the overarching cause of the club’s rapid descent, selling the club to a Chinese businessman and former CEO of Recon Group, Dr Tony Xia for a reported £76 million on June 14th 2016. This would come to be one of, if not the, worst decision to be made in the club’s recent history, which wouldn’t take long to be proven true.
Xia’s tenure began promisingly with heavy investment into the squad in an attempt to bounce back at the first time of asking. A substantial budget for transfers was set, with high profile championship players such as Mile Jedinak, Jonathan Kodjia and Ross McCormack arriving on big wages and costing the club hefty fees. Their sole aim was to fire Villa back into the Premier League.
Under the direction of former Chelsea manager and Champions League winner, Roberto Di Matteo, the season got off to a rocky start, with Villa drawing 7 of their first 10 games, which was not part of the script. On October 3rd, Di Matteo was sacked following a 2-0 defeat to Preston North End and was replaced by Championship expert, Steve Bruce. The season remained relatively uneventful, apart from a rather busy January which saw the club sign 8 players including the likes of Conor Hourihane, Sam Johnstone and Scott Hogan. The club finished their campaign in 13th place, 32 points behind fellow relegated side Newcastle who emerged as league winners.
With the club looking to emulate the success achieved by Newcastle in the previous season, the club’s summer recruitment drive began to accelerate. A total of 8 new players would arrive through the door over the course of the season with the most notable addition being that of former Chelsea captain, John Terry.
To obtain a player of Terry’s pedigree was a huge coup for Villa at the time as it provided the team with a platform to build on following the previously uninspiring season. The 5-times Premier League winner claimed the captain’s armband as he looked to propel the team towards the top of the table right from the start. The club was in desperate need of a strong captain to lead the team on and off the pitch as instability was still evident behind the scenes.
It had only been 6 months earlier that the £12 million signing, Ross McCormack, had shown his true colours by not showing up to training due to a gate malfunction, with then-manager Steve Bruce branding him “nowhere near fit enough to play and be involved.” He was subsequently loaned out to Melbourne City at the beginning of the 2017/18 season.
A combination of John Terry’s leadership, Jack Grealish’s brilliance and a massive team effort saw the club finish in 4th place with Middlesbrough the team standing in the way of a play-off final place.
Villa came out victorious in the first leg, with a 1-0 win at the Riverside followed by a 0-0 draw at Villa Park, securing the club a place at Wembley. It was Fulham who would battle Villa for a place in the Premier League. A 23rd minute Tom Cairney goal would ensure that Fulham emerged victorious, with another year in the Championship beckoning for Aston Villa. The club had failed to achieve its goal and it wouldn’t be long until it became clear how costly that result would be for one of England’s oldest and most successful football clubs.
In the weeks following the disappointment of the play-off final defeat, the club would experience its darkest day in recent history. On June 5th 2018 it was made public that Villa had missed the deadline on a £4 million tax bill, with the club facing a winding-up order and the distinct possibility of being expunged.
Xia’s struggle to get money out of China was taking its toll on our much-loved club. In the days following, club CEO, Keith Wyness, was suspended by Xia with the then-owner agreeing on a deal with HM Revenue and Customs to pay £500,000 of the tax bill while promising to pay the rest at a later date. However, the club was only safe from immediate danger, and it looked likely that, under pressure from fans and elsewhere, Xia would have to sell the club.
A month later, in July 2018, Xia’s control of the club was relinquished when a 55% stake was purchased by NSWE, a company jointly operated by Egyptian businessman Nassef Sawiris and American billionaire and Milwaukee Bucks owner, Wesley Edens. It looked as though, finally, the football gods were smiling down on Aston Villa once again. With the club out of immediate financial danger, it was time to look ahead to the new season.
Chairman, Sawiris, and his partner Wes Edens showed their faith in Bruce by sticking with him despite reported interest in former Arsenal legend, Thierry Henry. Heavy backing in both transfer windows saw the arrivals of Tyrone Mings, Axel Tuanzebe and Tammy Abraham on loan and John McGinn on a permanent and Anwar El Ghazi loan with option to buy transfer. In the months to follow, another 2 key appointments would be made with Christian Purslow coming in as Chief Executive and Jesus Garcia Pitarch filling in as the clubs Sporting Director.
The season began well with the team claiming 6 points from their first 2 games however things turned sour very quickly. Bruce was eventually given his marching orders in October 2018 due to the clubs 1 win in 9 matches. This came off the back of a 3-3 draw with 10-man Preston North End at Villa Park. He was replaced by former Brentford manager, Dean Smith. Smith, an avid Villa supporter from a young age, set to work right away and turned the clubs form around. He galvanised the team, with the help of star-man Jack Grealish, to a 10-game winning run. This run was crucial in ensuring the club secured a 5th place finish.
Local rivals West Bromwich Albion stood in the way of a return to Wembley for Villa and the first game at Villa Park saw the team emerge victorious with a 2-1 win. A nail-biting second leg saw the game end 1-0 to West Brom with a penalty shoot-out due to decide each teams fate. An outstanding pair of saves from the hero of the night Jed Steer and a calmly dispatched winning penalty by Tammy Abraham saw the Claret and Blue faithful erupt with joy as the Villans headed to Wembley for the 2nd time in 12 months.
May 27th 2019. The day that would shape the future of Aston Villa. 85,000 people packed in to watch Aston Villa play Derby County at Wembley Stadium. Villa dominated the opening proceedings with their reward coming on the stroke of half-time when an Anwar El Ghazi header (or shoulder) put Villa into the lead. Shortly after the break Villa doubled their advantage courtesy of John McGinn and it looked as though the team would hold on.
A late Jack Marriott goal for Derby would ensure a nervy finish to the game but after 96 minutes the final whistle blew. Villa had done it. The fallen giants were back on their feet.
As the dust settled, the realisation was setting in; Villa would be playing Premier League football again for the first time in 3 years, something that was long overdue. The club’s hierarchy got to work immediately, bringing in a total of 10 new players combined with the permanent signings of centre-halves Tyrone Mings and Kourtney Hause and winger Anwar El Ghazi. The club also smashed their transfer record on Brazilian striker, Wesley, from Club Brugge for a reported £22 million.
The season began slowly for the lions with the team losing 4 of their opening 5 Premier League games. Little did fans know that this would be a recurring theme throughout the course of the season. The club did, however, enjoy a spirited run in the Carabao Cup dispatching the likes of Brighton, Wolves and Liverpool to reach the semi-final. A late Trezeguet goal at Villa Park in the 2nd leg secured Villa a place in the final against Manchester City at Wembley, their 3rd Visit in 3 seasons. Unfortunately, City ran out 2-1 winners on the day, but the boys pushed hard and did their club proudly.
Despite their spectacular run in the Carabao Cup, the team continued to struggle in the Premier League. Towards the end of the season, it looked as though the club would be heading straight back down to the championship again. It would have been a catastrophic failure. Was the team about to let that happen again? Not at all. The COVID-19 pandemic gave the players the opportunity to regroup and re-focus on the task ahead.
As project restart got up and running, the team took 10 points from their final 10 games and against all odds and having only been given a 7% survival chance at one stage, the club stayed up on the final day thanks to a 1-1 draw with West Ham courtesy of a Jack Grealish rocket on 84 minutes. While being considered one of the greatest Premier League survival stories by the Villa faithful, the team played a massive part in ensuring the club did not throw away all the progress that had been made in the previous 3 seasons. Nevertheless, we were safe once again.
Once the relief had subsided, it was noted that changes need to be made for the following season to ensure that such a situation did not happen again. Sporting Director Pitarch found himself relieved of his duties as CEO Christian Purslow looked to appoint someone new. Shortly afterwards, Johan Lange was appointed as Sporting Director after switching FC Copenhagen for Villa Park.
The Villa hierarchy splashed the cash once again, bringing in statement signings such as Ollie Watkins for a reported £33 million and goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez from Arsenal for a fee believed to be in the region of £20 million. Winger Bertrand Traore, right-back Matty Cash and Chelsea attacking-midfielder Ross Barkley also arrived through the door in what turned out to be a very astute summer.
The season started extremely well with Villa recording 4 wins out of 4 to begin the campaign which also included the 7-2 demolition of Liverpool at Villa Park in October. Grealish, Watkins and Barkley were all on target that night to ensure a memorable win for the Villans. The season would continue with several impressive results such as the 3-0 dismantling of Arsenal at the Emirates and the 3-0 defeat of Crystal Palace at Villa Park on boxing day despite playing 45 minutes with 10 men.
The team suffered a massive COVID outbreak in January, putting their FA Cup game against Liverpool in doubt. It was established that the game would go ahead so Villa were forced to field a squad of youth prospects and it was in this game that many came to shine. The likes of Louie Barry, Carney Chukwuemeka, Brad Young and many more played their socks off and, despite a 4-1 defeat, they did themselves and their club proud.
The COVID outbreak, coupled with an injury to captain Jack Grealish, heavily derailed Villa’s form in the final months of the season with results not going as planned. Despite this, the club still had reason to be optimistic as many of the young lions involved in the FA Cup game against Liverpool also beat Liverpool’s under 18’s in the FA Youth Cup final thanks to goals from Ben Crisene and Brad Young.
The senior squad also rounded off the campaign with a 2-1 win against Tottenham Hotspur and a 2-1 win against Chelsea to ensure an 11th place finish. Not a bad way to end the season at all.
With pre-season upon us, it is important to look forward to the upcoming season. With the arrivals of Emiliano Buendia and Ashley Young, it is clear to see that the club is looking to strengthen areas of the squad that require more depth.
With another season under their belt at Premier League level, coupled with the buzz of new arrivals and a sprinkling of youth, the team looks set to push on towards the European places next season. The importance of assistant head coaches John Terry, Richard O’Kelly and Craig Shakespeare should not be underestimated in the club’s drive for success.
It is not known whether Villa will reach their goals next season or the season after, but what is known is that we are in good hands thanks to NSWE. So, sit back and enjoy the ride!