As you might or might not know, I’m a life-long Aston Villa fan. It’s been a rocky road. In the early days, it was quite good fun: a flamboyant, attacking club that won things – albeit relatively minor things like the then Coca-Cola Cup – and reached finals on a regular enough basis to bring lots of excitement. I had a season ticket as a student, by which time the club was a lower mid/table Premier League struggler, but still boasted the flair of people like Juan Pablo Angel and Thomas Hitzelsberger (don’t laugh, they were both excellent to watch). I still make roughly a game a year, which is less than I’d like, but as much as is really fair in the context of having a young child and living in another country.
In the next two weeks, Villa have the chance to regain their status at the top table, so I’ve decided I’ll take the chance to write about it. For two games. Or three. However long it lasts. I won’t be there, in all likelihood, but as far as a small number of games go, there’s nothing bigger than the playoffs. Time to ramble…
And so to year two: the play offs (and so, the play off diaries) strike again.
It’s funny that it can feel like your football team has gone through a complete cycle of transition, and yet come the end of the year, you find yourself facing into the same old battle to re-join the elite. 2019 Villa are a different team to the one that faced Middlesbrough and then Fulham in 2018. They’re a better attacking outfit. Probably a better defensive outfit, too, though they’re certainly liable to concede more chances and far less likely to shut up shop if they go ahead. They’re also far less likely to find themselves up against a team they can’t unlock.
It has to be said, firstly, that this has been one of the most interesting season to be a Villa fan in living memory. I’m almost at the point, as I said last year, where there’s a tiny bit of me that would prefer to stay in the Championship simply for more of this. The Championship is an equal and fiercely competitive league compared to the Premier League, and has far more in common with what I remember the Premier League being like when I was growing up. There’s a lot to like, and that’s before you get to Villa’s particular drama. So I have mixed feelings.
This season has had some distinctive highlights. We’ve had the cabbage incident back in the Steve Bruce era. The longest run of consecutive wins in the club’s history. The absolute doldrums of the first few months of the season, and the blast through from peripheral playoff contenders to comfortably getting in.
There was Jack Grealish getting attacked on the pitch and then scoring the winner against them from up the road, and that wonder-goal from Hutton against… Sure, well you know, them from up the road again. There have been two absolutely brilliant loan signings, in Tammy Abraham and Tyrone Mings, and the football – whisper it – has been really exciting since February or so (who could forget that 5-5 draw with Forest). Having a new manager in Dean Smith who’s clearly a mad fan of the club has certainly helped, too.
The issue with more championship action for Villa next season, though, is obvious. The Championship is very much a breeding ground league, and while Villa have been a selling club for a generation, if we’re honest, the loss of those two loan signings and (almost certainly) Grealish would, in my opinion, be the loss of three of the four biggest stars of this season (the other is John McGinn, for me, in case you’re wondering). It seems likely a lot of what’s been great about this year would be gone with it.
So it comes down to three games, again…
And so, once again, we come to this: the cliched ‘lottery’. I don’t know how to call it. Villa are on form – especially if you’re willing to set aside the loss to Norwich on the last day of the season, which saw half the team rested. The record against West Brom isn’t great this season, though you do have to offset that somewhat with the draw at the Hawthorns being largely down to an injury time handball goal by Jay Rodriguez which quite definitely shouldn’t have stood. This team are so much better than anyone would have credited only a few months ago, but – given I’m giving little credit to any favourites tag – there’s still a three in four chance it hasn’t ultimately meant anything at all.
So what about Albion? The full-on local rivalry isn’t there for me, despite the clubs being so nearby. I quite like Albion. For years they had that kind of ‘upstarts’ thing going on, a team with little bits of quality dotted through them that was willing to attack even when it didn’t seem that well-advised. Those yo-yo years looked entertaining, and I’d imagine they were a lot of fun to watch. I want to beat them, of course, and I don’t think it’ll be easy.
They have a squad full of premier league-quality players (not that it’s always a positive – see Villa last year), and are capable of being extremely strong. They should probably have been closer to the automatic places, but have looked like they’re in a little bit of a tumultuous mess at various times this season. Hopefully, the indifferent lot turn up for at least one leg of the semi-final, as if they do, I suspect Villa would have enough to put them away.
But we shall see. Only an idiot would go into the play offs with any level of confidence. Besides, not long after the plays off last season, it looked very much the club might disappear completely, which kind of puts the whole thing into context, right?
Que sera sera? Try telling me that at half 12 on Saturday…