Chris Stanley looks at dates in history.
It’s hard to believe that in a few days time Villa will have completed our third successive season in the Premier League, not because we’ve been clinging on by our fingertips for all that time, but simply because personally, I refuse to believe that three years have passed at all. The Crystal Palace game was my first back at Villa Park since the play-off semi-final, when Conor Hourihane hit the sweetest shot since David pinged one off Goliath’s forehead. I hoped, but didn’t know, that Villa Park wouldn’t again play host to a Championship fixture, but little did I suspect that my subsequent absence wouldn’t only be caused by laziness.
May is the month where August’s cheques are cashed. There’s no hiding place: somebody gets the trophies, with others a rebuild or a lifetime away. It’s occurred to me that Villa haven’t had a straightforward May in about five years, not since a tepid play-off tilt ran out of energy in 2017. Since then, there’s always been something to settle, some conversation to have, and so I’ve picked five separate days in May, inclusive of this year, to chart Aston Villa’s recent fortunes.
26th May 2018 – Our second season in the Championship, when we were supposed to get it together. We’d got a specialist – Steve Bruce – pulling the strings, John Terry longed to move up in life and left Chelsea for Villa Park, and we’d polished up the indisputable best young player in the division in Jack Grealish. 2016-17 was a rude awakening that you couldn’t (or more accurately, we couldn’t) just waltz in and out of the Championship like the wind, and those people mentioned above blended skill and experience, with a little bit of the dark art of getting those decisions a starry-eyed lower-division official might give to a multiple trophy winner.
As it transpired, the season was more of a slog than it ought to have been, thanks to a start which wasn’t worthy of the name until eight games in and a stodgy scrap with a bunch of promotion contenders trying to hang onto the Concorde flight of Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves. Villa opened their sails in mid-season but were too often halted by boneheaded results, like following the glorious evisceration of Wolves with a tame home reverse to Queens Park Rangers three days later.
Ultimately, our squad was too talented to avoid the play-offs again, and we edged out Middlesbrough in the kind of tie antacids were created for. Not three years after our last visit, we were off to Wembley, facing a Fulham who had raced from nowhere to become the odds-on favourite for promotion. Ah, but wait! We had a captain who had probably relieved himself more times in those dressing rooms than he had in his own home, and a manager who knew how to get it done.
Inevitably, it was Villa who pissed down their own leg, and the only thing Bruce knew how to get done was put his order in at the chip shop. Villa played like the Fulham half was patrolled by sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their clappers, and with their one real chance, after an Alan Hutton brainfart, they scored and didn’t look like conceding, even when Denis Odoi got sent off for karate-kicking Grealish.
We’d arrived scared of our shadows, and maybe that was because behind the scenes the club was crumbling like Harold Shand’s firm around the Easter break. Our enigmatic owner, the here-to-remain-titleless Tony Xia, apparently had less money than Robert Maxwell after a morning in Greggs, and administrators were aching for a kickabout on the B6 turf. I felt strangely detached from it all, as if it couldn’t really happen, but we really were days away from being wound up. We’d flown close to the sun, albeit a weak early-evening one in north-west London, and on the lash of Tom Cairney’s boot, Aston Villa was about to disappear.
27th May 2019 – Like a Phoenix from the Flames written by somebody that follows a decent team, the resurrection of Aston Villa Football Club happened as if somebody had lit a metaphorical funeral pyre using a flamethrower. I think in years to come I will look back on the intervention of Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens like something out of a Marvel film, so heroic and fantastical does it seem.
More prosaically, NSWE bought the club when it was worth about ten pence, and like all good business people had the sense to recognise a bargain. One kick away from a Premier League side with a Premier League-standard ground, Aston Villa had decades of potential waiting to be tapped. It wouldn’t be cheap, but we weren’t that bad of a fixer-upper that we couldn’t be better than, say, Cardiff, who had inexplicably got automatic promotion and then spent the following season annoying everybody like a cyclist on the Tube.
However, the glorious claret dawn of our billionaire’s plaything (oh, God, those words!) had an Achilles stomach. Pity poor Steve Bruce, forced by his cruel new owners to best titans like Blackburn and Reading with barely a Tammy Abraham in the side. After narrowly avoiding some healthy food passed to him from the Trinity Road, our promotion specialist was demoted and Sawiris and Edens bought in some bloke you’ve never heard of.
So, then. Deano. Smigs. Don Smith. The Hamstead Houdini. The Scott Arms Shankly. Dean… Smith. No matter how you cut it, for nine weeks, it was dreamland. A wannabe Peaky Blinder inspiring his target to smash the winner in the Second City derby. A club record ten wins a row to get into the play-offs. Beating the Albion on penalties, at their place. Promotion under a manager and a captain who had cheered on the club as kids. Sweet Caroline. A script so dewy-eyed my fingers are soaked typing this out.
It’s easy to forget now that promotion was a remote possibility when Smith arrived: fourteenth and the distinct aroma of the drain before a 1-0 home win against Swansea. Some bonkers results – mainly draws – were not the stuff of promotion, and were it not for the exasperated bollocking Smith apparently offered away at Stoke, that late charge probably wouldn’t have happened. But happen it did, and we’re all the better for it.
I myself mirrored Villa’s period of flux by planning my wedding (or nodding politely, at least), meaning I not only missed the bad times but much of the incredible stuff too. The afternoon before I was wed, Villa all but confirmed the play-offs by relegating Bolton, and I set off for my honeymoon the day the winning run wrapped up against Millwall. Fortunately, I managed to get a couple of tickets for the home semi, thanks to which I will cherish the sound of Hourihane’s boot meeting ball until the day I die.
I watched the final in my local, now a married man with a nice little house and late-thirties knees. None of that stopped me falling onto said joints and exulting after the seven minutes of non-existent injury time confirmed our victory over Derby County. To have two undoubted high points in my life occur within five weeks was a blessing from another space, and seemed to confirm that me and the club might have closed one book and started to write an entirely new one.
9th May 2020 – We don’t yet know what the long-term ramifications of the pandemic are, or the trauma we may take from it, but from a couple of years’ remove, its finer details have started to become foggy due to the frightening speed at which it took hold. From literal Chinese whispers to panicked bulletins, society crumbled within the span of around four months, not one of them making any sense.
British football didn’t shut down until Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta came down with Covid, quickly followed by other top-flight personnel. Whether symptoms were like a mild form of flu or something more vicious seemed entirely down to chance, but as every stratum of modern life struggled in vain to contain the virus, it became increasingly pressing that mass entertainments be cancelled.
That cancellation came at an opportune time for Villa, stuck deep in a quagmire of certain relegation after a pasting at Leicester. Not all the poor results were of our own making (paging Kevin Friend) but enough of them were, due to a combination of a paper-thin midfield and nobody to put away the chances we did create. January saw our pencilled-in relegation sign permanently along with the anonymous Borja Baston and the hapless Ally Samatta, the latter to go down in football folklore as one of the worst strikers to score in a showpiece final.
Over the enforced break, Dean Smith worked with his squad, solidifying their defensive shape and fostering a togetherness that was mirrored, if only temporarily, by society at large. The hiatus undeniably aided Villa, as did a rusty Hawkeye system in the first game back, which helped secure a precious point.
The game originally scheduled for 9th May, home to Arsenal, was actually played in July. The real day probably passed anonymously like much of the early pandemic. You rationed out the toilet paper and cut your own hair and took your daily walk. Villa stayed up by that celebrated point, despite being seven points adrift with four games left. Though it took a tooth-pulling afternoon at the London Stadium to be sure, we really stayed up by beating Arsenal the week prior. Trezeguet, inspired in flashes, got the goal midway through the first half, leading to an afternoon as tense as I have ever known.
Without the facility to watch, I fell back on following it via a betting app. I roamed the back garden like a caged animal, aware that my world and everything in it essentially came down to that space, and nothing I did or wanted made any difference whatsoever. When it was over, I was exhausted and didn’t think I’d be able to do it one last time. But I did, as did we all. We survived, while others weren’t so lucky.
23rd May 2021 – In the dog-days of 2015-16, around the time Eric Black was choosing matchday squads using William Burroughs’ cut-up technique, I looked at teams like Stoke and Swansea and wanted us to be them. Not like them, but actually them. They were safe. Mid-table. It sounded great: a season where nothing happened, like the second series of The Wire.
The reason relegation is such a horrible thing is not because of the future but because of the past. Even if you’ve never won anything, there will always be a successful period in a club’s history that remains as a yardstick, which a failing group will be beaten with. For Aston Villa, who have won everything, the abjectness of these weekly embarrassments was a drag through stinking mud. Even after it was confirmed, at Old Trafford, we lost three of the last four and finished bottom by 17 points.
So, mid-table in our second season back in the Premier League ought to have been a cause for celebration. This was what we all wanted, right? Well, yes, had the neighbour not been using the grounds of Aston Hall to graze his oxen. Clunky metaphors aside, the late start to the season and the lack of crowds did wonders for the stuttering summertime side, augmented by a world-class goalkeeper and a striker of genuine promise. What Emi Martinez calmed at the back reappeared up front with Ollie Watkins, who thrived in a lone role in front of a peerless Grealish and a revelatory Ross Barkley. Four wins in a row, including an inconceivable 7-2 win against champions Liverpool, were a world away from nervy games against Norwich, and Villa seemed fair set to grab hold of the European places and slap them about a bit.
Only, it all seemed to turn back into a pumpkin around midnight on New Year’s Eve, because a stonking December was tripped in a way Paul Pogba wasn’t, and inconsistency killed our momentum. Whatever Barkley did during his long injury lay-off clearly haunts him still, as his certain transfer vanished before his eyes, and delicious wins over the likes of Arsenal came with unpalatable side orders of losing to Sheffield United.
Mid-table, on balance, was a fine achievement but bittersweet, given the lack of crowd interaction and the failure to consolidate gains. This particular May Sunday, drab and largely pointless, was remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, it was the first time Villa fans had been allowed back into the ground since the previous March, on an extremely limited and medically-restrictive basis. Ten thousand masked spectators celebrated our emergence into a post-Covid world with a victory over Chelsea (a delicious Bertrand Traore goal which defied physical science only helping the atmosphere of incredulity). Secondly, that win meant we finished eleventh, annoyingly in the lower half. Chelsea made the Champions League spots and went on to win the European Cup again, showing us that we may have pretensions but the only thing which really mattered at this level was the unashamed spending of somebody else’s money.
12th May 2022 – We knew we were truly back to normal when England lost on penalties and we lost our best player because somebody had some shirts to sell. Villa spent the £100 million we were obliged to accept for Jack Grealish on players of varying potential, a new trinity for a full Trinity, and it was soon apparent that these trades suited none of the clubs involved, unless you’re Bayer Leverkusen, who lost no sleep over losing Leon Bailey.
This season has generally been about lacking something, waiting for partnerships to fire or players to reach fitness, of tactical tweaks needing to be made or people rested. The trouble with the good times is the preparation is usually boring and the events themselves pass in a blink. Even when you’re in them you don’t truly know you are, so nights like Rotherham away or afternoons with your goalie dancing in front of the Stretford End might turn out to be the start or the end, depending on where you’re standing.
I think most, if not all, Villa fans would now agree Dean Smith left just before it became harsh on everybody. His fortunes were tied to Grealish, and he’s too nice a man to dictate in a system headed by a Sporting Director, hence the clouded thinking over transfer policy. In came Steven Gerrard, an undoubted high-level winner and of Papal importance to our CEO Christian Purslow. He’s a different voice, ambitious but callow; when it’s good, it’s great, but only being sure of safety eleven days before season’s end tells a tale of his first months back in the good leagues.
On the Tuesday before the Aston Villa End of Season Awards Dinner, the club played Liverpool, finishing as slightly more than plucky losers. The visitors were not the hungover side of October 2020 and had a quadruple in mind, and had too much quality for it not to tell. Virgil van Dijk and Alisson had been brought with the proceeds of Philippe Coutinho’s record move to Barcelona, and these were the rocks on which their title and ongoing brilliance was built.
Coutinho, on loan to Aston Villa with an option, had last played in this fixture in 2016, providing two assists as Liverpool put six on us. In the intervening years, he’d become brilliant, signed for Barca, become not so brilliant, been loaned to Bayern and then practically disappeared. Gerrard, Coutinho and Villa neatly intersected in the 2015 FA Cup semi-final, the Brazilian scoring in our gaffer’s ruined Wembley swansong, but our wildly differing journeys unexpectedly narrowed in January, when his former captain’s call was enough to tempt him from the Barcelona bench and put him in a Villa shirt.
While Coutinho’s amazing form has puttered since winter, leading to a debate about whether we exercise our option, break our wage structure and piss off Emiliano Buendia in a single stroke, it says a lot about Aston Villa in May 2022 that there’s even a debate to be had. When the news of Coutinho’s permanent capture was announced on stage by Purslow, for an astonishing £17 million, it was followed by a typhoon of amazement on social media. For all of the opinion, the fact was that Aston Villa, recently of the lower end of the Championship, had signed a man who had once cost £142 million and probably had more natural footballing talent than anybody in the club’s entire history.
Of course, in a definite sense, these five dates tell a story of money, and the stark difference between having lots of it and none. But it’s also a story of hope, loss, expectation, unity, disappointment, confusion, frustration and joy. It’s been quite the five years for the diary, but if this last entry is anything to go by, the next five could be more exciting than any of us would ever dare hope.