Play-Off Weekend, Part 3: Eight Years In The Wilderness

It’s the end of a decade that they’d sooner forget, but Aston Villa are finally back in the Premier League. They’ve been away for the last three seasons, but the torment of the club’s supporters begins somewhat earlier than that. Over the four seasons prior to relegation, the club finished in fifteenth place twice, sixteenth and seventeenth. When relegation finally came, at the end of the 2015/16 season, it did so with the sound of a falling man crashing through a plate glass roof. Seventeen points. Three wins, one of which came on the first weekend of the season, and three managers. Twenty-two points from safety. A disconnected ownership and a disengaging fan base.

Had Randy Lerner remained the owner of Aston Villa once relegated, it’s difficult to say where, exactly, the club might have ended up. In the summer of 2016, though, a Chinese consortium fronted by the businessman Tony Xia took ownership of the club. The new owners were aggressive in their ownership of the club, making an obvious power move in bringing John Terry into the club following his (over) emotional exit from Chelsea at the end of the previous season. That first season, however, taught the club a few tough lessons. Xia himself had to tone down his social media output after some pugnacious early exchanges on Twitter, whilst the team itself went on a peculiar run of drawn matches which ended with the team rather too close to the relegation places before reviving, then dipping again, and eventually settling in thirteenth place in the table.

As will inevitably befit any team of this stature playing in the Championship, Aston Villa started last season amongst the favourites for promotion, despite their near absolute lack of achievement the year before. Steve Bruce had been appointed manager the previous October and he was retained, but again the team had a poor start to the season, winning just one of their first seven matches and even briefly slipping into the relegation places. This time, however, when the revival came, it came emphatically, featuring a run of seven straight wins, the last of which came against Birmingham City and pushed them into second place in the table, before they faded to fourth place in the table. After a one-nil aggregate win against Middlesbrough in the semi-finals of the play-offs, a pair of matches as entertaining as that very brief precis makes them sound, Villa were upset at Wembley, beaten by a goal to nil by Fulham. It was a chastening moment for a club that seemed to have genuinely believed itself to have turned a corner on its post-Lerner route to recovery.

Steve Bruce was always unlikely to last the full season after this. Finishing in mid-table in his first season was about the minimum expected of him, but there was disappointment following the play-off final defeat which briefly metastised into outright fear when the full extent to which the club had gambled on promotion – their wage budget was seven times that of Burton Albion, who had the smallest in the division – became apparent. There were even suggestions that the club could be set to spiral financially out of control, before extra investment was brought in and the club could at least begin this season on an even keel. Bruce’s replacement was Dean Smith, who grew up a Villa supporter and seemed able to grab hold of something deep within the club to turn it around. Villa’s throughout the closing stages of the season was amongst the very best in the country, with a club record ten consecutive wins securing their playoff place with room to spare.

Going into this match at Wembley, though, there were signs of a small Aston Villa wobble. Their final two league matches saw them take just one point, despite the mitigating circumstances that these were matches were against Leeds United and Norwich City, but they weren’t especially impressive in their playoff semi-final first leg against West Bromwich Albion and lost the second, eventually going through after a penalty shootout. It was a run of just one win in four matches which hinted that there may yet be shortcomings in this team that could be exploited. But were Derby County the team to be able to unlock this? For all the hysteria surrounding their play-off semi-final win against Leeds United they’d been patchy throughout the season, of which they spent as much outside the play-off places as in them) and only crawled into the final play-off spot with four games of the season left to play.

With the entirety of the season resting on this one match, it was hardly surprising that neither side initially wished to throw caution to the wind much, but this had been something of a common theme throughout the entire weekend. There were no absurd goal-fests, and the football was at the absorbing rather an entralling end of the scale. Villa did, however, look considerably the better team, more incisive in their ability to work the ball creatively, whilst Derby played as though they’d used up their energy in beating Leeds in the semi-final, ponderous in midfield and blunt in attack. Villa’s early nerves were evident in their tendency to lose possession cheaply, but seldom did they have to worry about Derby’s attacking options. They didn’t often seem to have any.

The breakthrough, however, came at the perfect time. A minute before half-time, Ahmed Elmohamady’s cross to the far post was met by a diving header from Anwar El-Ghazi, and Villa led at the break. Thirteen minutes into the second half came the moment that would prove to be the truly decisive moment. El-Ghazi’s optimistic shot took a huge deflection, spiralling up into the sky, and the Derby goalkeeper Kelle Roos seemed to spill the ball under pressure from John McGinn, only for the ball spin up, over, and into the corner of the goal. Derby finally woke up, and with eleven minutes to play Jack Marriott turned the ball in from close range to give them a glimmer of hope that they’d be able to force the match into extra-time. As things, turned out, though, Derby ran out of time. There had been a few quizzical looks at their team selection prior to the match, and had they scored ten minutes earlier they may well have found something from somewhere to pull themselves back into the match, but eleven minutes plus stoppages simply wasn’t enough.

There’s little question that this Aston Villa team needs a little work, if it is to thrive in the Premier League. This, though, is a consideration that Dean Smith will have the summer to set straight, and there’s no doubt that this promotion grants the club the ability to make those changes. That’s all for another day, though. At the full-time whistle, the overwhelming emotion was one of release. For most of the previous eight seasons, Aston Villa have been living a form of footballing purgatory. Three years of absolute torpor in the Premier League were followed by a disastrous relegation, which saw a rudderless and leaderless club drift back into the Football League for the first time in almost three decades with little indication of how it would ever get back into the top flight.

The form team, though, are back. At the end of the match, the cameras panned across the peculiar list of characters that make up Aston Villa in 2019. Jack Grealish and Dean Smith, the local lads who’ve ended up in their dream scenario on the pitch at Wembley, taking their club back to the Premier League, Prince William, second in line to the throne but seemingly genuine in his celebration of the team’s promotion, John Terry, the divisive former player turned assistant manager, and, most importantly of all, the tens of thousands of supporters, who’ve seen so many indignities over the last few years but have stuck with their club, because that’s what you do. The club who, more than any other, gave birth to the Football League one hundred and thirty-one years ago, wave it goodbye again, hopefully with the lessons of the past having been learned. Because Aston Villa are too precious to be allowed to fall into the condition in which they found themselves before again.