Steve Bruce has said that Villa’s season will be defined by events in April. Much of what the gaffer has said this season, and throughout his tenure at Villa Park, has been spot on, but I have to take issue with that statement. I feel that automatic promotion is no longer a realistic possibility, and we are all but assured of a top six position. Therefore, it is the events that take place in May that will define, not only the season but also this club’s future.
By the time June comes around, and England (who are 5/4 to win the group) are in Russia, we will know whether Bruce will be looking to strengthen his squad for another assault on the Championship, or if he will be putting together a team to stay in the EPL. If it is to be the latter, it is almost certainly going to be a result of negotiating the playoffs. That will be a new experience for Villa fans. We are in a select club of less than a dozen who have never been in the playoffs.
Fortunately, we have in Steve Bruce a manager who has been involved in the play-off rollercoaster three times, losing out in the semis with Wigan, but gaining promotion with Hull and Birmingham. Opinion is divided (as is the evidence that backs it up) on whether it is better to be a team that goes on a run and breaks into the playoffs in the final game or two of the season or one that has sat in the top six for months. It can certainly be morale-damaging for clubs who go from being a shoe-in for an automatic place to one suddenly having to prepare for the drama of a playoff fight.
Villa doesn’t really fit into either category, but we borrow characteristics from both. Apart from that brief period in February, we were never in the automatic spots. Our form generally has shown an upward trend over the season and barring a meltdown, we should enter the final games and the playoffs with form and belief. However, those final games are likely to be strange affairs. We will need to garner enough points to ensure a top-six finish, but we will not want to pick up injuries or suspensions. Playing at anything less than 100% is difficult, and it is even harder to subsequently increase gears to attain previous levels of play.
If you take a look at Villa’s last six fixtures, it is a mixed bag. Norwich, Leeds and Ipswich will be on the beach. Cardiff will be hoping to capitalise on any slip-up by Wolves. The last two games will be against a Derby side looking to secure a top-six place and a Millwall team that will be hoping to gate-crash the party. Anything less than total commitment could see us limping to the end of the season proper, and Bruce will then be tasked with lifting the players back into the form of the earlier part of the campaign. It also has to be said that Villa’s results against those we are likely to face in May are far from convincing.
There is no doubting that the drama of the playoffs has been one of the best additions to the beautiful game in this country. Having said that, experiencing what is essentially an entire season boiled down to a game, a half, or even a penalty, is decidedly better for neutrals than for the supporters of those clubs. Being a Villa fan often feels like we have seen everything that the game has to offer. By the end of May, we might have actually done so.