Are we nearly there yet?

Dave Woodhall on Villa’s continued preparations for the forthcoming season.

The start of the season proper gets nearer and accordingly the friendly opposition is of a higher standard.

Villa played Bristol Rovers on Wednesday night, giving those who travelled a chance to revive the grand old Brummie custom of Heading Down the M5 at the End of July. Admittedly there weren’t the traditonal sideshows such as Stop the Car I Want to be Sick and If You Don’t Stop Asking If We’re Nearly There You’ll Feel the Back of My Hand, but it was good to know that our new owners have such empathy with the roots of the community they find themselves in.

The match itself owed much to last season, with Villa’s defence marginally improving but nothing of any great difference up front. The lack of a mobile striker and someone to provide him with a decent amount of service is a top priority and Roberto di Matteo must surely have seen that by now. Rovers’ late equaliser was scored by Matty Taylor, whose prodigious goalscoring feats for whatever his team’s nickname is (it’s a real bugbear of mine that teams must now be referred to in match reports in such a manner) have no doubt come to the attention of di Matteo and many other managers, but whether a 26 year old striker who was playing non-league just over twelve months ago is capable of the step up is a gamble that Villa can’t afford to take at this stage.

Then the team headed over the Channel to take on Jordan Veretout’s old club Nantes. Veretout didn’t do much against his former team-mates, which is a disappointment for those of us who were hoping he and the rest of last summer’s signings might flourish at a lower level and without the overwhelming air of defeatism that has got to be destroyed. By all accounts Villa started off lifelessly, improved during the game and Rudy Gestede marked an otherwise forgettable performance with a goal from a Jack Grealish corner. Once more there were signs that the will be harder to break down but not much in the way of attacking inspiration.

The evidence so far indicates that there’s still much work to be done, a fact di Matteo acknowledged earlier this week when he said that the club was like “a house that needed to be knocked down demolished and re-built” – shades of Graham Taylor’s “shambles” statement when he arived in similar circumstances 29 years ago and which has gone down in Astonian folklore.

Sadly, the rebuilding will have to be done without Stiliyan Petrov, on the pitch at least. It was too much to expect Stan to return to Championship standard aged 37 and after so long away, but it says everything about his character that he’s travelled so far along the road, and about Villa that they gave him the chance to see if he could complete the final steps. It wasn’t to be, although there was the offer of a job in some as-yet unspecified role. I’ve no doubt that Stan was in complete agreement with the decison and I’ve also no doubt that he will only work at Villa provided he feels he can do the job better than anyone else. He has never come across as a man looking for sympathy or special treatment.

There are two more games before the real stuff starts. Villa travel to Cambridge on Tuesday before the glamourous home fixture with Premier League giants Middlesbrough on Saturday. It might sound a bit small-time but we’ll probably learn more about how well-equipped the team are for the season ahead by playing Boro than if Barcelona were the visitors. That’s the theory, at least.