Dave Woodhall on Villa’s first tentative steps into 2016-17.
There was a time when players started training again a fortnight before the season began. A couple of games against teams in the third division or a tour of the West Country (perm two from Plymouth, Exeter and Torquay) then if you were lucky a home match against ‘crack’ Eastern European opposition previously seen over here losing in the UEFA Cup, on the Saturday before the season proper.
Now there’s weeks of training camps and warm-up games that mean the new season starts before the old one has finished, after a break of what seems about a fortnight. Not that there’s been much of a break this summer – new owners and manager for a start, and the promise of a proper corporate structure to run the club properly.
Tony Xia’s arrival was surprisingly low-key for those of us used to the high dramas of the Villa boardroom. Whereas Doug Ellis battled his way for years amidst protests, controversy and reports of takeovers from every continent, Randy Lerner quietly set up a deal and the first anyone knew of it was when it was agreed. While Lerner arrived in a blaze of publicity and with a massive amount of goodwill, Xia just arrived. There was no great fanfare, no extravagant promises and, sadly, none of the certain belief that the good times are inevitably around the corner. We’re all a bit more realistic now.
Inevitably given Xia’s background there was plenty of speculation over the source of his funding and his motives. He and his associates have passed all the fit and proper tests, which admittedly aren’t difficult, so we can only wait and hope that they not only know what they’re doing but their aims are the same as ours, namely success on the pitch, and they can afford it.
As for Roberto di Matteo, he wasn’t my first choice, or that of many others, but he’s here now and from what we’re hearing he’s got a quick grip on the main cause of last season’s humiliation. Backsides are being kicked and heads banged together although it does seem he’s willing to give a second chance to most of his players. That’s fair enough – of the squad that got relegated there aren’t many I’d want to get rid of right away, although equally there aren’t many I’d be too upset about losing.
One thing that has impressed me has been the way di Matteo has made improving the spine of the team his first prioroty. Pierluigi Gollini, Tommy Elphick and Aaron Tshibola. Keeper, central defender, cemtral midfielder. Get that sorted, add a quality goalscorer (although again, we already have two or three options up front who should be given a chance at least in the pre-season games) and you won’t go far wrong. It should be obvious, but our last two or three managers didn’t seem to grasp that simple fact.
The first day of the new era saw an 8-0 win, admittedly against GAK of the Austrian sixth level, which is probably around the standard of Boldmere St Michael. But a win’s a win and what made the day even sweeter was the 45 minutes played by Stan Petrov. He might not be up to the standards of regular football at our level, but to do what he’s done already shows a level of determination that defies belief.
There are two games next Saturday, when Villa XIs travel to Telford for a 12 noon kick-off then play Worcester City at Stourport three hours later. Some of our more loyal/insane supporters will be at both games (you can just about do it with luck and a clear road) while the rest of us who fancy a day out will be trying to work out which one is likely to see the strongest line-up (no idea) and which ground has the best pubs nearby (Telford wins this one comfortably).