Something For The Weekend (581)
Autumn - season of rain wear and mellow hopefulness.
Leaves are falling all around and it's time we were on our way. But while we waited for something more meaningful to resume, another England manager has been required to defend his team of overhyped players this week, who mostly looked exhausted after too many games of Guess-What-I'm-Worth. As might be expected, England looked about as unconvincing as they did under the guidance of every other manager before this latest political appointment. Dutiful patriots sat through the arse-aching hours while the wise chose to mitigate the experience by watching the highlights. The results seemed to substantiate the FIFA ranking system, with England (13th) scoring a hatful against Malta (190th) but then only scraping the narrowest of victories against Slovakia (22nd). The pundits were disappointed. The manager feigned outrage. The rest of us chorused a big fat Meh. The tradition was fulfilled. But now the football is back.
What with Harry Kane et al doing enough over the two matches to make a very pleasant half-hour of edited frustration and rare delights, it turned out to be quite a good week for highlights, as I had time to binge-watch a load of videos of Villa's new loanee Robert Snodgrass, which brought me up to speed. I have to admit I knew very little about him but according to his highlights he was quite the player back in his Leeds days and from the evidence of his youth he should have been meant for greater things. Predominantly left-footed but very capable with his right, he is a dashing winger of the Scottish tradition, very much in the Willie Johnston mould but hopefully not with the same temperament, minor traffic offences not withstanding. His criticism of Slaven Bilic, the West Ham manager, suggests he was not much of a loss to the diplomatic corps. Bruce tells us he can play in any position across the park but the Snod himself complains that he was played out of position at West Ham. His partnership with Ross McCormack at Leeds was prolific. In his first season at Leeds he scored eleven goals and provided nineteen assists. At Norwich and Hull he never managed to get into double-figures. He was player-of-the-season at Norwich. He suffered long-term injury at Hull. A bit of a character by all reports and of some ability. He turned 30 this week, and Transfermarkt value him at £7.2m, which makes him the 3rd most valuable player in Bruce's squad. Definitely a useful acquisition for Villa but where Bruce will play him is anyone's guess. He usually plays on the right and being given the number 7 shirt suggests that that is what Bruce has in mind.
Player traffic out of Villa Park has been quite busy during the transfer window and names I had actually forgotten were still on the books were sold and to tidy Villa's books further, the names of Amavi, Toner and Gardner were added to the out-on-loan list. How much financial leeway this created in terms of the FFP rules only the bean-counters will know. But the squad which seemed as numerous as the terracotta army, at the start of the season, now looks about right, except for the odd cling-on.
The most significant story of the last few weeks which seemed to have been mostly ignored, was the headline that the Chinese government had issued a decree that Chinese investors should spend their cash in China rather than abroad and all four of the Chinese-owned Midland clubs were mentioned as being likely to be affected. Presumably it was this which prompted Keith Wyness's talk about expanding Villa Park's capacity to sixty-thousand, by way of hinting that Tony Xia's ambition for the club is still very much intact. The fact that this is totally dependent upon Villa getting promotion brought a predictable cynical response from the fans. The message being, let's get into the top-half of the table first before we start speculating about never-never land.
Back in the reality of the present Villa need to win two home games in four days if they are to fulfil the limited ambition of getting into the top-half of the table. Both games represent an opportunity to measure Villa's progress since last season. Brentford finished two points ahead of Villa and eleven goals better off, but were very much the beneficiaries of meeting Villa during their notorious bad patches, which produced an early season 1-1 at Villa Park and a 3-0 away thrashing at their gaff during Villa's January-February meltdown, when Villa racked up seven defeats in eight games. So definitely room for improvement there me thinks. Then it is Middlesbrough on Tuesday night. Relegated with 28 points as the lowest scorers in the Premier League (27), they have started their season well enough and their defence is meaner than their attack is productive. They have failed to score in 40% of their games so far. Villa and Middlesbrough have more significant shared history than with Brentford but I suspect it will be the less attractive game. So a win and a draw is the best I can hope for. Four points might get Villa into the top-half but doubts will remain. Two wins and we'll be running up that hill.
Keep the faith!