By Kevin Hughes
Losing the EFL Championship play-off final is a new and miserable experience for Villa, yet it also feels gloomily familiar. Villa and big occasions at Wembley have tended to end badly in recent years, with defeats in the 2015 FA Cup Final and 2010 League Cup Final, and, further back, the 2000 FA Cup Final defeat to Chelsea. That defeat still haunts me to a certain extent, lurking deep in my consciousness. Attending the game that day in a professional capacity, I’ll never forget interviewing celebrating Chelsea players – including a beaming goalscorer Roberto Di Matteo – in the mixed zone afterwards as Villa’s dejected squad trooped by.
Villa were nearly but not quite again at Wembley on Saturday. Just like that May day in 2000, and 2015 – in 2010 at least we gave it a good go – the team didn’t really turn up. Most of Villa’s big players were poor, save for Jack Grealish, who was far from flawless but was involved in pretty every positive moment the team delivered.
No real complaints about the outcome. Fulham were sharper, and cooler, and more clinical. They were rewarded for a bright start. Just as we’d seen in the FA Cup Final a week before, if one team allows the other to impose themselves on the game and take the initiative in the first half, you’ve put yourself in a weak situation. Villa allowed Fulham to take control, score the decisive goal and the Londoners were organised and disciplined enough to manage the game in the second half.
Tactically, two elements frustrated me during the game. One, that sloppy, sluggish first half. When you face an opponent renowned for ball retention and possession, surely the worst thing you can do is let them have the ball for long periods?
Secondly, the substitutions in the last third of the game. Not for the first time this season, throwing on two strikers – Jonathan Kodija and Scott Hogan – but keeping Lewis Grabban on just made Villa top heavy. It might have looked bold but it was naive. All sense of team shape was lost, and it left Villa with so little presence in the middle of midfield that we just couldn’t get hold of the ball – Grealish, our most creative attacking player, forced to step deeper to help support the only recognised central midfielder left on the field, Josh Onomah. When Conor Hourihane limped off, the smarter move would have been to bring Glenn Whelan (or Birkir Bjarnason) on to at least help win the ball and supply the front players. As it was, the last 15-20 mins was probably Fulham’s most comfortable period of the second half.
Still, it’s gone now. Villa lost. The sooner the club shakes off its play-off hangover the better, because now there’s some serious discussions to be had, and decisions to be made. A third season in the Championship will almost certainly be a game changer. The parachute payments awarded to relegated Premier League clubs will still be there, but vastly reduced – down to £15m – and that’s the third and final payment. The club’s finances will come under heavy pressure, particularly with the threat of FFP restrictions. Having missed out on promotion, there’s now the very real and genuine prospect of Villa’s stay in the Championship being a long-term one.
The summer will be an intense period of departures, soul-searching and rebuilding. It’s been a refreshing change to see stability at Villa for the last year but now it’s back to tearing it all up again. Let’s hope the club’s management planned specifically for this outcome and know exactly what needs to be done.
Another Squad Overhaul
A massive squad overhaul is inevitable. Straight away, a number of players will leave. The four players on loan this season – Grabban, Sam Johnstone, Robert Snograss and Onomah – will return to parent clubs. The contracts of Alan Hutton, John Terry, Chris Samba and Mark Bunn will all expire and they should all leave, too. For a club which needs to significantly slash its wage budget, these are all open goal opportunities that Villa should take.
Yes, Terry would be a loss. There’s a footballing case for keeping him another year but two things. One, would he be up for another year in the Championship? And two, with a reported weekly salary of £80k, he’d be a massive saving on the wage bill (also, he turns 38 at the end of this year).
There are players who have been loaned out to come back – notably goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini, Carles Gil and Tommy Elphick, and still, the issues with Micah Richards and Ross McCormack. Huge earners who each contributed zero to the club this past season.
Then there are the players Villa have signed since being in the Championship, who are partway through contracts that, presumably, pay pretty well and certainly way higher than the average at this level. Mile Jedinak and Glenn Whelan, both solid performers and good pros during their time at the club but heading towards their mid-30s. Neil Taylor and Henri Lansbury, neither in the Wembley squad and not worth retaining. Those two might have some sell-on value, albeit slight.
The trouble is, it’s never as simple as getting rid of the average, the overpaid, the ageing, the overrated. There will be pressure to sell players Villa really want to keep. I’d dearly love Villa to keep four players beyond all others for next season, a core of James Chester, Hourihane, Grealish and Hogan. But Chester is under 30 and, in my opinion, good enough to play in the Premier League for anyone outside the usual top six and Grealish is clearly capable of thriving at the higher level. We might be fortunate and get another season out of them but if Villa receive good offers for either, they might be tough to turn down.
Hourihane is perhaps currently happy at this level. Hogan has been in and out of the team – I’m personally disappointed he saw limited game time over the final two months of the season – but his age (26) and goalscoring record makes him a sellable asset (although, it’s unlikely Villa could make close to their money back). I’d prefer Villa to sacrifice Albert Adomah (31 in December) and/or Kodija, who turns 30 next year and has a question mark over his fitness post injury over any of the four I’ve mentioned.
Any recruitment has to be shrewd and clever. We need a leaner, meaner and hungrier Villa next season. There is a decent depth of U23 talent for Villa to tap into, at least, and there should be larger roles for James Bree, Andre Green and Keinan Davis.
Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, Calum O’Hare, Jake Doyle-Hayes, Mitch Clark, Matija Sarkic and Corey Blackett-Taylor all deserve opportunities to become regulars in the first team squad. Certainly in preference to Villa signing fringe players to bulk out the squad – a luxury the club will no longer have.
The Big Decision
All of which leads back to the manager. Steve Bruce’s future is perhaps the first, and most telling, decision, the club has to make. And soon. I’m not going to get involved in any knee-jerk clamour to move Bruce on. But my thoughts are this – it needs a clear-headed discussion by Villa’s senior management. I have a lot of time for him. Bruce is an affable, likeable man and I don’t doubt for a second that he’s poured everything into this past season. We know the personal tragedies he’s had to bear, in 2018; he’s worn his heart on his sleeve and his emotions all over his face. I’m sure the Wembley defeat will have left him absolutely shattered.
What I will say is this. Bruce has a good track record at achieving promotion from the Championship – and he nearly pulled it off again – but I’m not sure he’s done it with pared-back resources and the environment Villa will be in next season. Plus, the tactical doubts I’ve held about him since he took over have never been completely eased; the cautious-first approach that ceded initiative to opponents on too many occasions has been his default too often for my liking.
He was probably the right fit for the squad last season, but I’m not convinced he’ll be the right fit for next season’s squad. As Villa gather themselves together, shake off bitter disappointment and prepare for what will be the club’s toughest challenge for decades, the managerial position is surely the first of many difficult decisions.
Follow Kev on Twitter here – @KevHughesie
These supporter opinion pieces are not necessarily the views of My Old Man Said