Opening day is done and dusted. A hugely encouraging opening spell, during which Villa stunned their hosts by taking the lead and then holding on (often uncomfortably and occasionally through sheer luck) for a long time, was followed a relentless Tottenham assault, where we eventually showed our Premier League ring-rustiness and couldn’t stem the Christian Eriksen-led and Harry Kane-finished tsunami of pressure.
I don’t think it’s not being wise after the event to suggest that we were never going to get much from our visit to The Lane (sorry, the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium). Top four regulars and European Cup finalists in the previous season at home to skin-of-their-teeth playoff winners (albeit among the top six spenders in Europe in the summer transfer window)? No contest. Except it was, at least for 45, maybe even 60, minutes.
The apparently frenzied and scattergun summer recruitment at Villa Park was not meant to yield anything worthwhile – comparisons with the disastrous transfer window and subsequent campaign conducted by Fulham last season were widely touted by lazy fans, journalists and pundits alike.
But more considered and thoughtful observers realised the need to recruit fresh talent, with key loanees from last season brought in permanently, augmented by some of the better-rated talent available in our particular marketplace from across Europe. And on the limited evidence of Saturday, it hasn’t been as bad as some would have us believe.
As the fallout from Saturday’s opening fixture continues, I think that the result, and performance, puts the past few months into perspective.
In my heart-of-hearts, I was gobsmacked that we got promoted. Although I had no doubt at Wembley and fancied us even against Sandwell in the semi-final, I couldn’t shake the niggling earworm which kept saying that the record-breaking winning streak, which lurched us over the finishing line and into the playoffs, was masking a flimsiness in the squad which few of us could honestly deny.
That we were promoted was borderline miraculous, with Dean Smith and the coaches (and Jack Grealish’s Hollywood-esque return from injury) instilling fresh belief and improbable strength of character in the squad which, ultimately, nobody could withstand.
But make it we did, and with all due respect to realists everywhere, we are back where we belong. A (perhaps THE) founder member of the English football league, regularly among the best-attended clubs home and away, we were born to be élite.
But being a realist myself, and on the evidence from The Lane Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday, it’s abundantly clear how far behind the top six or seven we find ourselves. Our history and reputation count for little in the cold light of modern football.
I think we all accept how far behind Villa have fallen and that for this season, survival realistically remains the target. But if we have any ambitions to truly compete, to challenge for cups, to aim for European football and beyond, we must expect more.
Such expectations must be tempered by an acceptance of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, three years down the line. As a newly-promoted club (words, post-1988, I would never have expected to use) we should initially look to secure our Premier League status and build from there.
I totally agree, but it has to be said, WE ARE ASTON VILLA. We are the ‘biggest’ club in the country’s second city. We have owners rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, a Villa fan as Head Coach. A Villa fan as the captain.
Although the prize money on offer and the Sky TV squillions put mere survival into much sharper focus, finishing 17th is, in truth, not enough. It should NEVER be enough for a club of our stature and reputation.
The next few games will begin to define our season, where (and how) we fit back in to the ‘Greed League’. Bournemouth, Everton, Crystal Palace, West Ham. Clubs, Everton aside, which barely deserve a mention in the same breath.
I am not self-confident by nature, but to my pessimistic mind, Villa have made huge strides since Wembley. An opening day match away at Tottenham Hotspur, on paper the second-best team in Europe, was always going to be a hiding to nothing. For 86 minutes, actually it wasn’t.
Many (myself included) questioned Dean Smith’s team selection – Elmo? Taylor? But all things considered, it worked. Continuity and experience were instrumental, but the newbies warmed to their tasks: Tom Heaton, Tyrone Mings and Neil Taylor were outstanding. Elmohamady played well. Bjorn Engels played like he’d been here for years, and Trezeguet made an impact. Encouragement for the weeks and months to come? Definitely.
We may have been knocked down a peg or two on Saturday, but it’s how we respond that will decide our season. I am pretty confident that we will have nothing to worry about.
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