Summer fun

Dave Woodhall talks about Villa in 2017-18 and what’s to come.

In the aftermath of last Saturday’s Wembley defeat I said that we’d lost, and the season had ended in failure, because Steve Bruce hadn’t been adventurous enough, neither in that one match or during the season in general. I’ll stand by that statement but it wasn’t the only reason.

I’m equally convinced that had Jack Grealish played a full season and Jonathan Kodjia not broken down in November we’d have got promoted without breaking sweat. There are a few other ifs, buts and maybes as well – if John Terry hadn’t got injured just when he was on top form, if Robert Snodgrass hadn’t taken until Christmas to start playing, if Albert Adomah’s goalscoring run had lasted even another month. You can also add if we’d played QPR when we should have done, so that the boost to morale that came from beating Wolves and the warning it sent to the rest of the division might have lasted longer than three days

But none of these things happened, so we’re stuck here for at least another season, contemplating trips to Rotherham, Wigan and Bolton rather than Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and the Emirates. And if you find some minor consolation in that fact then please shout up, so that I realise I’m not the only one.

Yes, I know that the Villa have got to be in the Premier League. It’s the only place that matters and if you aren’t a part of it you might as well not exist. But, and here’s the thing, the selfish part of me, the small but significant part that’s more interested in enjoyment than achievement, would rather see the Villa win than watch the opposition get three points without getting out of third gear.

I like the idea that when the fixtures come out I can look at them and know we can win any game we’re going to play rather than mentally writing off at least a quarter of the league programme before a ball’s been kicked. Call me disloyal, call me lacking in ambition, but that’s what I feel right this moment. Then again, that part of me will probably be getting smaller if the Villa don’t win at least five-nil on the opening day of 2018-19 then do better than that as the season progresses.

It’s a sad fact of modern football that the biggest talking point since the final whistle against Fulham has been money, both the supposed loss of revenue that comes with failing to go up and the subsequent effect it might have in terms of FFP. The former is a bit of a red herring – the £140 million mooted as the price of success has to be balanced against the fact that Villa would need to commit themselves to something in the region of £100 million to stand a chance of staying up, and that’s without taking into account the automatic wage rises of the existing playing staff.

As for those magic letters FFP, I’m still a bit mystified how it is that they seem to have been a concern at Villa Park for years now, way before Tony Xia appeared on the scene, yet other clubs don’t seem particularly bothered about them.

Whatever the financial implications might prove to be, the reality so far is that John Terry’s left, and never have so many of us been proved wrong in so short a time. I’ll freely admit that I was sceptical about his arrival, but even leaving his performances aside, every indication is that he brought a mentality and a professionalism into the club that’s been missing for years. Good luck to him in whatever he does next.

Other futures are more uncertain. Selling Jack Grealish for the sort of money being bandied about would probably end all FFP worries, although I remain sceptical that when it came down to a Premier League club parting with hard cash we’d get £40 million or thereabouts for a player who looked promising three years ago and since then has delivered half a season in the Championship.

I know that transfer fees lost all connection with reality a long time ago and I’m convinced Jack will be an England international before too long, but it would still be an almighty large sum to spend on what is still largely potential – and it’s also a long time since Villa were able to cash in on their biggest asset and re-invest the money wisely. The spirit of Andy Gray, David Platt and Dwight Yorke has been replaced by the spectre of Gareth Barry, James Milner and Ashley Young.

Then there’s Steve Bruce. There were signs during 2017-18 that if we didn’t get promoted he’d be off before the ground had emptied but a week later and he’s still here. I’ve changed my mind at least a dozen times in the past seven days about whether or not he should go – does stability and (not enough) improvement outweigh ultimate failure?

Whatever I think about Bruce’s future, though, there’s something that strikes me as significant. If he does leave this will be the sixth time in the past nine summers (I’m including Tim Sherwood’s Moneyball farce) where we’ve gone off on another trajectory, ignoring what’s happened before and hoping that the new path will be the right one. None of these journeys have been successful so far and most have left us further away than where they started. It doesn’t say much for those responsible for plotting the club’s ultimate direction.

Whoever might be the manager when the season starts, indications are that he won’t have anywhere near as much money to spend as his predecessors have enjoyed. It’s not exactly words of wisdom to say that every penny spent between now and the close of the transfer window has got to be spent wisely and therefore the biggest talent any Villa manager must possess is the ability to play the transfer market a lot better than those he follows have done for most of this century. If we can get a better man than Bruce to do that job, let’s get him.