Just over a month on from the disaster that was the 2015-16 season, time is starting to allow the open wounds of last season to begin to at least scab over. Many supporters will look back on last season as being the very worst in their lifetimes and it’s unlikely that any of the negative feelings created by having to endure watching appalling performances week after week will ever be forgotten.
From such a low and desperate point, it seemed unlikely that any fan would be in any hurry for the new season to start. After all, what was there to look forward to except another season with Randy Lerner unable to sell the club and a league demotion which consigns us to a potential cold, wet Wednesday night at Burton Albion. The loss of our Premier League status for the very first time, which in turn meant a loss of a slice of the very luxurious television deal pie, left many thinking we would also be stuck with a bunch of players who had constantly alienated and embarrassed fans throughout the season.
However, at this point in time, I don’t think I am alone in feeling a strange surge of excitement regarding the forthcoming season. Obviously, the most significant factor in this is that we are no longer manacled to Lerner. Tony Xia’s takeover is rubber stamped and, on top of this, Roberto Di Matteo has arrived as manager. His appointment is one which the majority of the Villa faithful are pleased with for a change.
Xia in particular represents many of the things that we have been missing for a long time. He is an owner who promises to be more prevalent. He has plans which are dripping with ambition. He has pledged money to be spent on new signings. Whether his promises hold water remains to be seen of course. However, for me, just the thought that they are even possibilities is enough after being starved of anything to get remotely excited about for so long. For several years going into pre-season we virtually knew how things were going to plan out. The manager would have his hands tied and our spending would be minimal. Last season was perhaps an exception, with the money from the Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph deals allowing a flurry of seemingly decent signings. However, despite some optimism, deep down we knew even then that without Benteke in particular we were in big trouble. Previously, we had seen the likes of Joe Cole, Philippe Senderos and Kieran Richardson as our big summer arrivals, clearly highlighting the transfer policy which had switched completely from the previous years of buying cheap, untested, young talent and hoping to unearth gems who we could sell on for a big profit, naturally.
Whilst we shouldn’t expect any superstars to arrive at Villa Park this season, we should at least be able to compete for the pick of the best talent available at this level. The players linked with the club so far are perhaps not what we’re used to, and may seem underwhelming on the face of it, but the likes of Tommy Elphick and Costel Pantilimon are good, solid players who aren’t past it, aren’t in a slump in their careers and aren’t untested. We haven’t had that middle ground with our signings for quite some time.
I think the fact that the Villans have worn me down so much, last year especially, has actually made being relegated more bearable in a strange way. Once, the thought of playing in the Championship seemed like it would be the end of the world but the fact that we have not been competitive in the Premier League for the last five seasons actually makes me look forward to the new season. Truthfully, if we had scraped a way to stay in that league last season, I would have zero enthusiasm for the upcoming one. For a start, Lerner would probably still be in charge of the club, which would have meant minimal investment in the playing staff, which would have led to another year of struggle and winning a tiny percentage of our thirty-eight games once again.
At least now there is hope of having a somewhat successful season. I’ve never been one to look at Villa as having a right to beat other teams or to do well in general. We weren’t too big to go down but I honestly believe we will do well next season. There is decent talent in the squad which has been negated by a real lack of leadership and discipline. At the same time, Di Matteo has a real job on his hands weeding out the bad influences and those just not up to scratch and salvaging a team from the wreckage. Whilst there will be more new signings to follow Tommy Elphick to B6, it’s unrealistic to expect a whole new team to be assembled. Existing players are on contracts and, unless they can be shifted, they are likely to have their parts to play next season. Di Matteo must forge a team bond that has been non-existent and his early comments about players stepping out of line bode well.
Playing in the Championship is not ideal, although I think most of us have come to terms with it now. Let’s face it: realistically we’ve had several months to have done so. As with anything in life, it will be what we make of it. At present, I can see plenty of positives and things to look forward to. Visiting new grounds, for example, is a fresh and exciting aspect, and even revisiting some old, famous grounds such as Hillsborough and the City Ground will make a nice change. As I’ve already alluded to, the fact that we hopefully won’t be losing the majority of our games is a huge positive. More specifically, there won’t be that sense of foreboding that suggests certain games will be complete write offs before a ball is kicked. Manchester United may struggle without the yearly six-point yield from us.
Visiting or revisiting some of those grounds will also reignite some fantastic fixtures that we haven’t had for a while now. We will play Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and Leeds United – each of them huge, traditional football clubs. There are teams like Burton Albion and Barnsley in there also which will probably remind us of exactly the level we are now at but, with Birmingham City and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the mix too, we also have some tasty derbies on the cards too.
Results at Villa Park in particular have been dire for such a long time now. Over the last five seasons, out of ninety-five games, we have won just twenty-two. We have also barely averaged more than a goal a game, scoring just ninety-seven goals. It’s absolutely abysmal. Next season represents a real chance to make our home a fortress once again. God knows the fans deserve this at the very least. The hundreds of pounds splashed out every year by the loyal supporters has delivered an absolutely pathetic return for far too long now. For many, watching the Villa boys on a Saturday afternoon is an escape and a highlight after a week at work. I’m sure none of us expect to win every single game, but our record at home over the last five years is shambolic and totally unacceptable. It doesn’t matter that it won’t be Manchester United or Arsenal coming to Villa Park. We just need to make it worthwhile for the fans who do still turn up each and every week.
It may seem that I am too confident regarding our chances next season. I don’t want to become unrealistic or detract from the competitiveness of the Championship. We know it is notorious for its difficulty and ability to make teams whose players think they are entitled to win it look very silly indeed. It’s like quicksand – the longer you stay in it, the harder it is to escape. Plenty of teams will attest to that. At present, I believe that we at least have a firm footing going into the league. The next few weeks will begin to shape the squad that will be tasked with taking us back out of the Championship and that in itself will hopefully be an exciting process.
I find it hard to believe that I have a sense of enthusiasm building for next season. Last season was truly shambolic and it more often than not became a chore and a habit to keep watching. Perhaps this step backwards was needed for us to move forward and was the only way it could have happened. It forced a few hands and the future definitely seems brighter in spite of it. We could wallow in the fact that we’ve gone from Rotterdam to Rotherham, or, as I’m sure we will do, we can enjoy the ride. We haven’t really got a choice!