As Aston Villa begin their third season in the Championship, it really is win or bust for Steve Bruce and his side this year.
Dr Tony Xia’s deep pockets and renewed hope offered Villa optimism after they were relegated from the Premier League for the first time.
With the apparent impression that they were too big for the Championship, Villa paid for overpriced players and handed out inflated wages without batting an eyelid. Surely they would bounce back straightaway, right?
Almost £80m has been spent on transfer fees alone by the midlands club since relegation, not to mention the Premier League wages of Mile Jedinak and John Terry. This carelessness and not achieving promotion forced Villa into an uncomfortable corner as Dr Xia struggled to handle cash flows and the club slumped into financial crisis.
The expensive gamble backfired and Villa now find themselves in an uncomfortable position where they have one season with their better players before becoming another big club wallowing in the mires of Football League mediocrity, watching on as others around them gain promotion using new and inventive ideas, like rivals Wolves for example.
The Championship has a track record of swallowing top-flight sides who presume money is the answer – remember QPR?
Granted, Steve Bruce did get them very close last season. Tom Cairney’s goal was enough for Fulham to win the play-off final, but it could have been a different story had decisions gone Villa’s way, or if their players had actually turned up, as is the case with any post-match inquest.
Despite new owners, Villa are still struggling to stump up fees to sign available players. Robert Snodgrass, one of Villa’s stand out players in the 2017-18 season while on loan from West Ham, is out of their price range, while they will look to replace Terry and Sam Johnstone in the loan market, or with players from their excellent academy.
Success this term will largely be down to whether they keep Jack Grealish. Tottenham remain interested in the 22-year-old who would be willing to move from his boyhood club, and Villa will not stand in his way if the price is right.
What is clear is that Villa have no idea how to do well in this division. Take one look at Bruce’s team last year and it is evident there was an over-reliance on individuals, whether it was Grealish, Snodgrass or Albert Adomah providing a moment of inspiration. This approach fell short against sides Villa were expected to comfortably beat too often and cost them promotion.
A return to the Premier League will once against be the minimum target, and while the door back to the big time is far from closed, it will not be pretty. Bruce is going to have to develop a system that gets the best out of the team if they are to stand a chance in a league which has no obvious favourite despite the number of big clubs.
The campaign starts at Hull, where Bruce achieved two promotions, and will be the perfect test to see if Villa have developed an inventive way of playing as a team. Managed by Nigel Atkins, Hull will be strong at the back and a difficult team to break down, the kind of side that Villa usually hope that an individual can unlock.
“We’re short on what we had last season but we still have a strong squad,” said Bruce. “We’re Aston Villa so we need to be challenging.”
One look at Villa Park or Bodymoor Heath will tell you that this is a side which belong in the big time, and the same could perhaps be said of their manager and a handful of players.
There’s a fork in the road to Villa’s future. One way is a return to the Premier League, the other is what may feel like a lifetime slumped in the second tier.
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