Something For The Weekend (576)
There's no denying how daunting the prospect of the new season is, bearing in mind the gap between Villa's performance last season and what was required to get themselves somewhere near to promoted. The opening hapless twelve game run under Di Matteo proved a huge handicap and the invigorating arrival of Bruce only lasted until January. Then despite a spring revival, Villa stumbled to a bottom-half finish with a negative goal-difference, despite further investment by the owner. Bruce's catenaccio relied on Jedinak shielding the back-four in midfield and the goals of Johnny's gotta boom-boom Kodjia, and if either were absent Villa struggled. With Villa intent on shoring up the defence and being so reticent about getting forward, even the tardiest of opposition defences were given plenty of time to get their two banks of four in place, ready and waiting. Villa's much vaunted goal-scoring midfielders never got to surprise anyone. Overall, it proved to be an emotionally draining season.
With the clock ticking on the parachute payments and the Financial Fair Play regulations limiting options, the pressure is on for Villa but despite the daunting prospect, there are certainly grounds for optimism if not for getting too carried away.
Given the need to win more than half their games and score close to 50% more goals, the transformation needed is difficult to envisage but there is no doubt the club have been busy trying to increase the chances of it happening. Judging by the new recruits there seems to have been a change of plan and where before Xia's Villa concentrated on cherry-picking the best the Championship had to offer, which brought a few very big disappointments, the policy seems to have shifted towards recruiting high mileage Premier League quality players. Seeing both John Terry and Christopher Samba play together at Walsall was a bit of a revelation, in that they gave such a convincing demonstration of knowing what they were doing. Equally impressive against Watford was Glenn Whelan, whose timely and robust interventions combined with some quality passing, made him look like the real deal.
The plan is nothing new and last time it was implemented we all got burned, when too many of the formerly competent aged ones treated the club as a top-up scheme for their pensions. This time around there looks to be more grounds for optimism, in that the club is not being treated like some distasteful pestilential the owner wishes to keep his distance rom, and the personalities arriving seem more intent on preserving their reputations rather than just cashing them in.
It is very early days but John Terry shows every sign that he could be the man to provide the right influence to lead Villa back to the winning way, which relentlessly dissipated in the post-Martin O'Neil years. There was a false dawn under Sherwood and it could be argued that the arrival of Steve Bruce was the first step in the right direction for many a long year. Ageing Villa stalwarts never tire of telling their tale of how something clicked at the club when Peter Withe arrived and how the combination of his influence in the dressing-room and contribution on the pitch, took Villa to a whole new level. The combination of John Terry's emotional intelligence, superb physical condition, undoubted ability, and his aura of being a winner, could make him the man to re-establish the Dao of a winning club at Villa.
That's as maybe but according to the evidence of the Watford game Villa still seem to lack a bankable goal-scorer in the absence of Kodjia. Gabby looked sharp and is still pretty quick but never looked like scoring and the cameo by Scott Hogan didn't seem to promise much. Once Jack Grealish had crash-landed into hospital Villa didn't offer much of a threat. The good news was that Villa were probably better than a Premier League side who finished one place above the relegation places. Villa have a Saturday teatime rendezvous with the team which finished a place below Watford in May and the game will offer some insight into the seriousness of Hull's decline and whether Villa have progressed since last season. Predictably there has been a lot of talk about the Bruce connection but it seems unlikely to be much of a factor. I think Hull will keep it tight but Villa will control the game. I won't be expecting anything less than a victory and the sense that the whole club is now working together. Let's hope the Villa grannies have good reason to be dancing on Saturday night, like they did back in the 1970s.
Keep the faith!