Dave Collett looks back to a not exactly forgotten hero.
In the largely dark years of the 2010s, if you were a Villa fan the summer of 2018 was probably the bleakest of those times. Watching Villa play for much of this period was a trial of serial relegation-battling seasons, until we were finally flushed down the hole in 2016. In October of that year, Steve Bruce became the latest manager to halt the crisis and at least stabilised a team that, in its first season at the second level, was threatening to fall all the way down to the third division for the first time since the start of the Seventies.
Bruce’s predecessor was Roberto di Matteo, who splurged large amounts of cash on a series of signings. Some of this was clawed back through sales and we also enjoyed the privilege of parachute payments which obviously helped to balance things up. In the January transfer window, several strikers left the club while Scott Hogan arrived at the cost of an estimated nine million pounds (sigh). After this, Bruce spent very little on new players with Bjarnasson, Whelan and Elmohamady all linking up for fees in the region of £1 mmillion. Rumours persisted, however, that while Wolves had paid enormous amounts of money to bring top Portuguese players into the club, it was in fact Villa that boasted (if that’s the right word) the biggest wage-bill in the division. With high-earners like Terry and Premier League loanees Snodgrass and Johnstone, it was possible to believe it was true.
Of course, we expect the people running our club to be responsible for laying out the pennies and trying to balance the club’s finances accordingly. We soon found out that the play-off defeat against Fulham was the least of our worries that summer. It soon became apparent that Villa had bet everything on getting promotion and that the money for the club’s tax bills and transfer payments had simply run out. Fans’ discussions were now about the nature of Villa’s fall. Would we now cease to exist at a high level or could we perhaps go into administration, with all our best players being sold by some appointed faceless official? Had anyone pleaded for calm on the basis that we were about to be taken over by not one, but two billionaires, who had some actual experience of running sports institutions and that everything was going to be fine, they might well have been asked what exactly it was they had been drinking. This was all terrible news for those Albion fans and their improvised Villa Park ‘tick-tock’ banner but football life has often been a disappointment for such as them.
The new owners decided that giving Bruce a chance to see what he could do would be the fairest way to operate. With much of the summer window now gone, Villa were looking at the left-overs when it came to new signings (with the exception of one John McGinn, of course). Players like Snodgrass and Johnstone, who would no doubt have favoured a return to Villa Park, had gone elsewhere, as Villa had nothing to pay them with. The photo-shoot of Sam at the Hawthorns really is one for the archives. If ever a new signing looked like he had had to consume a shit sandwich before penning his contract, then this was it. All the other loans had gone home, leaving us wondering what shape the team would take.
John Terry’s retirement from playing left another gap at the back which became more like a chasm when players who could fill that role -Tommy Elphick, Richie der Laet and even the England youth international Easah Suliman were sent out on loan. Midfield and attack seemed pretty well stocked, with rumours of Bruce trying to bring Tammy Abraham in on loan from Chelsea. At the back, Johnstone’s departure meant that it looked like Jed Steer, seemingly permanently injured or out on loan for years, would be picking up the gloves. So it proved in the season opener at Hull, where Villa picked up an encouraging victory after falling behind early. Steer may have attracted minor criticism for not getting enough on his punch that preceded the Hull goal but he more than made up for this in the subsequent action. It looked like Jed had earned the right to keep his place.
How wrong can you be? Before the month was out, Bruce had brought in two new goalkeepers and sent Steer out on loan to third division Charlton. The Portuguese stopper was Andre Moreira from Athletico Madrid, no stranger to the loan market. The other one cost about a million pounds from FC Ingolstadt. His name was Orjan Nyland, a current Norwegian international. Signing a player who has represented his country is often reassuring for fans of the new club (though Robin Olsen has since disabused this notion). We awaited his debut against Wigan Athletic before forming our own judgements. It’s fair to say the reception was mixed. The farcical goal conceded on half-time was really down to Mile Jedinak’s short back-pass (but don’t tell him I said this), though Nyland could have been a little sharper off his line. He also looked a bit on the short side and didn’t look that well-built for a position where a fair amount of buffeting is the norm. His ball-distribution was sharp and accurate. Still, Villa won the game, and along with Grealish signing a new contract, thus rebuffing Levy’s attempts to sign him for fifty quid and a bag of doughnuts, the atmosphere around Villa Park that day was one of relief and quiet exultation. The debut of one John McGinn was a big boost, too.
Sadly for us and Bruce this was as good as it got for him, as the team won only one more league game under his management. It was obvious as the transfer window closed that Villa were very short, in more ways than one, at centre-back. This was compounded by the form of the new ‘keeper. A soft concession at Ipswich denied us what should have been a straightforward victory against a poor side with ten men. No-one pointed the finger solely at Orjan but the dropped points were accumulating as once again Villa looked to be succumbing to the Bruce Slow Start Syndrome. Discontent became widespread after the game at Bramall Lane where Villa received a 4-1 schooling and knew that the only consolation was that it could have been even worse. The team performance was awful but the focus of supporter’s wrath was Nyland. He may have escaped some of the blame for sticking to his line for the first goal, hoping his central defenders would deal with the free-kick cross, but his weak attempt at keeping out Duffy’s twenty-five yarder was all on him. It got even worse when another dead-ball from out on the right found its way into the net on the near-post. It gives a flavour of just how bad Villa were that day that some may have felt that Orjan was in credit, certainly keeping the score within bounds with several other saves of distinction. Few took this to be much of a consolation.
For the next game at Blackburn, Bruce at last picked loanee centre-back Axel Tuanzebe at, er, centre-back, having played him in the right-back slot since the start of the season. This was despite the fact that Villa were overloaded with right-backs while only having two centre-backs on the books. No, me neither. Villa got a late draw at Ewood Park and Nyland was in no way to blame for the goal conceded but his handling inside his six-yard box was the sort that keeps strikers interested. His first clean sheet came against Rotherham, Villa’s only win since the opening two games of the season. Normal service then resumed and we remained without a further victory. Nyland was struggling to come to terms with the physical side of championship football and continued to cut a dodgy, confidence-draining figure at the back. Finally, things got so bad that Bruce dropped him for the home game against Preston North End, replacing him with Mark Bunn. Only Villa fans who were around at the time will grasp the depth of this insult. Bunn played to form, let in three goals and the owners, having seen enough, moved Bruce out and set about appointing a new boss.
They settled on Dean Smith, Villa fan, experienced Championship manager and coach, who had certainly earned the right to manage the biggest club he had ever been at. It didn’t take long for Dean to discover the answer to Villa’s defensive ills -he got his team to attack more, reasoning that not many teams were good enough to get to Villa’s penalty area when Villa were pressurising them seventy yards up the pitch. As Villa went on a long run of wins and goals, it was almost possible to forget the issue of defensive frailties. The 5-5 draw at home to Nottingham Forest was a reminder that there was still plenty of room for improvement, especially as far as the ‘keeper was concerned; Forest’s last two goals -a long-range blast and a near-post sneaker- really should have been kept out by a good stopper. The roller-coaster ride continued. A brilliant reaction save at Middlesbrough was easy to forget as Villa powered to a 3-0 away win against promotion rivals. Against that, the Hand of Rod goal at the Hawthorns, featuring a rare double hand-ball from the eponymous ne’er-do-well, would have been prevented at source by a physically stronger no.1.
It was about this time that a January transfer rumour came to the public’s attention. Villa were, according to the press, about to sign Lovre Kalinic, the goalkeeper of Hadjuk Split. The fee was reported to be in the region of seven million pounds, quite a layout for a club that had been on the verge of bankruptcy just a few months earlier. It eventually leaked out that this signing had been agreed under the previous manager, meaning that Bruce had been responsible for bringing in no fewer than three new ‘keepers in his last few weeks, clearly implying that he didn’t have much faith in the first two he’d bought!
What Nyland thought of this mess is not known but as the man in possession of the gloves, he would have no doubt been determined to keep hold of them. This was complicated by several factors. The loss of Grealish for over three months would have seriously weakened any side at this level. Compounding that was an injury, with a similar timescale, to Axel Tuanzebe who had just established a promisingly solid partnership with the worthy James Chester. This left Villa completely bare at the back, with occasional full-back James Bree being one of the candidates to fill in. On top of this, Elmo, the epitome of the reliable professional, suddenly found his radar readings were getting a bit confused and he was at fault for several of the goals we conceded in December.
Still, Orjan stuck to his task, even making a vital late penalty save to secure a Boxing Day win at Swansea. This kept us bubbling under nicely, and with the promise of some activity in the January window, fans still kept some hope that a challenge for the play-offs might be possible. Alas for poor Orjan, he was to take no part in the proceedings. A training incident left him with a damaged cruciate ligament injury that brought a sudden end to his season. What he thought as he began his recovery, with new ‘keeper Kalinic being far from impressive in his first run-outs for the club might have matched the opinions of many fans who felt that the seven million could have been a lot better spent. Then Kalinic in turn was sidelined by a concussion injury and the recalled Jed Steer, the recipient of highly positive reviews from Charlton fans from his loan spell, set about making the spot his own, while helping to make some club history along the way. A great day at Wembley went some way to healing the deep wounds of the previous decade and we were back at the top level.
For Orjan, the celebrations may have been muted. After all, he was now third choice between Steer and Kalinic. The news got worse, as Dean Smith decided that an experienced top-level goalkeeper was needed for what looked like being a difficult first season back with a hastily-compiled, depleted squad. He brought in Tom Heaton, an England squad regular who would know what was needed on matchday. Tom did well, missing only one game at Wolves where Steer once again stepped in, though only for a matter of minutes. Jed damaged his knee going for a high ball so Nyland was pressed into service for the first time in almost a year. He did little to distinguish himself in either sense in a 2-1 defeat and went back to the bench. Still, he was able to get some game time in the League Cup, as Villa moved into the semi-finals. He was then presented with other opportunities when Heaton banged his knee against a post at Burnley and Nyland had to face up to Dyche’s Arseholes and Elbows Battalion. He came through it okay, even grabbing a cross under pressure as the home side pressed for a late equaliser.
It soon became apparent that we wouldn’t be seeing Tom for a long while. Orjan was the man with the gloves and looked like he would be keeping them. One result shouldn’t count for too much but a six-one home defeat to the Manchester Oil Corps may have raised the issue of what was going to happen next. Veteran ‘keeper Pepe Reina was brought in on loan from Lazio, whether as cover or first choice wasn’t clear. In the meantime, Orjan carved out some happy memories in his performances in both legs of the semi-final against Leicester. His saves in the second leg were especially memorable; if not for him, the tie might have been over after twenty minutes. Right at the end, Villa snatched it with a well-taken winner from Trezeguet but it was no contest as far as the man of the match award was concerned.
Reina had already bagged the shirt as far as league games was concerned, despite a blunder at Leicester where the home side took full revenge for the cup upset. He came so far out of his goal that he almost needed to buy a ticket to get back in the ground as Barnes slotted their first goal. By then, Nyland had rightly kept his place for the final where he did well enough, only beaten twice and one of those was from a corner which should never have been given.
When Covid-19 hit the world shortly after, some wondered when ‘normal’ life might resume, if ever, and football came very much second, third and last. When the numbers began to come down, the season resumed in eerily empty stadia. Villa had very much to play for as they had a game in hand which was at home to Sheffield United. It’s fair to say that the major event in this game was so unusual that Orjan Nyland is connected with a little bit of history. Yes, the free-kick that Orjan carried over his line should have counted as the opening goal for Sheffield United. The fact that the goal area was so packed with players from both teams meant that the goalline technology wasn’t able to perform its function and Villa got away with one, as indeed did the Blades after the break when Tyrone Mings missed a simple tap-in due to being yanked off the ball by his arm. No malfunctioning tech there, no sirree.
After the fuss over this incident had settled down (anticipated to be about 2050 in the Small Heath region), Orjan, having kept a clean sheet, also kept his place and made some good saves along the way, including a spectacular diving one from a Mason Mount left-foot blast in the home reverse to Chelsea. After a couple more games, though, Deano backed his more experienced and vocally dominant ‘keeper to see Villa through to the end, which they did thanks to a late never-say-die rally which lasted up to the very last kick of the season.
When the celebrations were done, Pepe Reina returned to his parent club which might have allowed Orjan some optimistic thoughts regarding the new season. However, once the announcement was made of the signing of the impressive Arsenal ‘reserve’ Emi Martinez and it became apparent that fit-again Jed Steer would be the back-up, there didn’t seem much point in hanging around and in October Villa released Orjan. In January, he signed a short-term contract for Norwich City. That summer he went to Bournemouth, for whom he only played three games. One, alas, was against Norwich, where he conceded six goals. Later, he picked up an injury which led to his contract being cancelled. Having recovered, he joined Reading for the rest of the season. His next chance was with RB Leipzig, as cover for two injured ‘keepers. Now, he’s at Sevilla on a full deal, working to get a regular start.
All in all, it seems like a career of decline marked with more than his share of bad luck. Still, in his position he can count as a ‘young’ player with years ahead of him. Villa fans will hope his luck changes, even if he never quite approaches the heights of his early career promise in Norway.
PS. And with the article finished, along came a recent champions’ league game where one Orjan Nyland played for Sevilla in their 2-2 draw with PSV Eindhoven. The goals conceded were little to do with him -a penalty and a close-range shot. So, far from having been left behind by the great Villa revival, he’s managed to reach the level that we’re still supposed to be aiming for, ahead of us. Well done to him. Who knows, there could even be a cheeky bid in the offing if Unai fancies strengthening the back-up position this January…