The highs and lows of a rollercoaster five years at Aston Villa

Anthony Taylor glanced at his watch, raised his whistle to his mouth and so scenes of euphoria poured from Wembley’s sun soaked East End, Tom Cairney lapped up the jubilation – it was desolation for those of a claret and blue persuasion.

Aston Villa had barely acclimatised to the intensity of Championship football before enduring the cruelties of a play-off final under the Wembley arch two summers ago, but this football club has gone through the wringer in a five year spell that has encapsulated every emotion that supporting a football club can.

Each season bitterly twisted with heartache and ecstasy alike, Aston Villa’s play-off defeat in May 2018 would not only mark 36 years since European Cup glory, but the start of a new era that would write more chapters in a journey that’s seen cup final despair, both sides of play-off drama and a boyhood manager and hero come to the fore – it’s been a demi-decade like no other.

Feet dragging with backs turned to Wembley Way, leaving the capital empty-handed isn’t an unfamiliar feeling for Villans, seldom have heroes wearing claret and blue scaled the steps to lift a silverware, and in 2015 Tim Sherwood’s Villa came the closest to lifting the FA Cup since John Gregory this millennium.

Optimism has rarely been traded in these parts over the past five years with negligent ownerships, relegation scraps and second tier football all customary in that time.

Soon the fallen giants would get back to their feet, Premier League football would return to Villa Park, and in the midst of Villa’s most tumultuous five years, Wembley became Villa’s second home, with fond memories and misery attached to each visit.


2015: Tim breathes life into Randy Lerner’s poisoned chalice

Stand still in the Premier League and you’ll drop like a stone, there’s no league more punishing in world football than the league Villa were ever present in, until 2016. Whilst Randy Lerner had dreamt of taking Villa back to the European podium, the club would pay the price for years of mismanagement and degradation.

Paul Lambert’s Villa side were winless in ten league games, during a run that stretched back for two months as the club slipped into the bottom three with an international break looming. Former Tottenham assistant Tim Sherwood, well remembered for getting a tune out of Emmanuel Adebayor, was the suitable candidate to get the best out misfiring Christian Benteke, without a goal in eight.

Villa knew Benteke was the key to survival, his goals were gold dust for Villa who had a player on a different level to any other battling to stay in the top-flight – sounds like a familiar story to Villa’s most recent great escape.

Sherwood had an interesting spell as Aston Villa bossAn FA Cup tie against fellow league strugglers Leicester City was Sherwood’s first chance to ruffle some feathers and galvanise a squad bereft of confidence with three goals in the ten league games. 0-0 at half time and the same deficiencies were showing again, Sherwood raced down from the directors box and introduced himself to the home dressing room.

That was enough to secure a quarter final place for Villa whose journey in the FA Cup was only getting started. In between the hurling of gilets, crucial late, late wins, and the introduction of a certain Jack Grealish – Aston Villa’s pulse was beating again.

Sherwood would help Benteke rediscover his goal scoring touch, as he netted 11 times, failing to score in only four of Sherwood’s final 11 Premier League games. Top-flight survival was secured but Villa were also juggling the possibility of FA Cup glory after finding the best run of form Villa had managed for a few seasons.

Scott Sinclair’s double at Villa Park punished West Brom twice in the space of a week as Villa’s Midlands rivals fell to successive defeats to Sherwood’s side. Benteke’s late penalty winner in the league perhaps more crucial, but both wins set scenes of jubilation as fans flooded onto the pitch when Villa booked their place at Wembley for the first time since 2010. It wouldn’t be the last time Villa fans would make the journey down the M1, but tasting sweet victory at Wembley was a rarity for those donning claret and blue.

The 2015 FA Cup final was perfectly set up on Steven Gerrard’s birthday, but Benteke, Fabian Delph and co would be the party poopers, with Jack Grealish playing the magician, pulling yellow shirts left to right, taking the game at the grandest of stages by the scruff of the neck. Liverpool would fall to a 2-1 loss to Sherwood’s Villa in a game that has, and will be remembered for years to come.

It was the birth of Villa’s new prodigy, with bare calfs flashing, his slicked back undercut and number 40 on the back, a unique style that would soon become iconic with Aston Villa.

2015-16: Worst season in a generation but the city will always be ours

Villa hadn’t shaken off their 4-0 FA Cup final drubbing against Arsenal, neither their 6-1 battering at St Mary’s with both results setting the tone for a summer of upheaval at Villa Park. Sherwood would remain in the hot seat but that’s as far as any continuity went for Villa.

Kicking open Bodymoor Heath’s doors with a cup of coffee in hand, Sherwood would soon welcome players recruited through a scatter-gun and reckless approach following the sales of key figures Christian Benteke, Fabian Delph and the release of captain Ron Vlaar.

American billionaire Lerner ultimately gave up on the club’s chances of survival five games into the 2015/16 campaign after blowing a 2-0 lead at the King Power Stadium.

Lerner described a “nagging sense of inevitability” as he was resigned to losing a premier bill of £100million – then the cost of relegation.

Lerner gave upLerner hadn’t attended Villa Park all season as he put the club up for sale. He appointed Tom Fox as the chief executive, Hendrik Almstadt as the director of football, and Paddy Reilly took the director of recruitment role.

Between the three, the ‘Moneyball’ system – an objective statistical approach to player recruitment – was adopted to spend within the realms of Lerner’s financial restraints.

Sherwood would later lose his job as Villa were cut a drift, rock bottom of the Premier League – dropping a 2-0 lead at the King Power was the writing on the wall, Villa had sunk to a new low. But no matter how disastrous the situation is, a second city grudge match will always have one winner.

A Capital One Cup tie against Birmingham City was not the ideal draw for Villa who hadn’t won since the opening day of the season, but a second win in six was on the cards when Rudy Gestede wrote his name into Villa folklore, planting a header into a Holte End ready to erupt for the first time that season.

An infamous pocket tweet of his brand new Merc and the thought of relegation being a weight off his shoulders, vice-captain and supposed ‘boyhood fan’ Joleon Lescott will be remembered for all the wrong reasons at Villa Park, as too Leandro Bacuna for his Champions League aspirations.

Villa had even lost 3-0 to the academy side that season. Relegation was an inevitability, yet Championship football would prove to be no gap year.

2016-2017: Just for one season, we fancied a change

Any thoughts of bouncing straight back to the top-flight were not only mocked by supporters of league veterans Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday, but after winning just once against Rotherham in the first 13 games, Villa found themselves in dire straits once again.

Lerner passing over control of the club was about as exciting as it got for Villa fans off the back of the worst Premier League season in the club’s history, but a first in the Championship wasn’t much to shout about either.

Roberto Di Matteo was elected manager by virtue of his Champions League winning success as interim Chelsea gaffer in 2012, but the job at hand was far too complex for a manager of his experience.

Bruce was appointed by Keith WynessSteve Bruce was swiftly drafted in by Keith Wyness who’s business with Tony Xia was not finished after two unsuccessful stabs at promotion. Xia had immediately won over Villa fans who’d had to put up with the mismanagement of Lerner for so many years – his parting letter ‘to whom it may concern’ simply didn’t wash.

Equations and emojis may have seemed playful at the time, but spending up to £30m on Ross McCormack, Scott Hogan and Aaron Tshibola, the club was hardly being run more effectively than those who came before. Now regimes may chop and change, the club may well have sunk to new lows as Villa finished in their lowest position for 43 years, but jeers of ‘mind the gap’ were eventually put to bed as the second city’s natural order was restored come the end of the season.

Gabby Agbonlahor, without a goal in 14 months, his longest goal drought of his career, just had to win the derby day spoils for Villa once again – one last time. Wheeling off in celebration, his derby day successor and local lad Grealish would tease new Blues boss Harry Redknapp in the dug-out.

To score and then run the length of the pitch to celebrate with the Villa fans is a dream come true.” Those the honest words of Gary Gardner who kick-started a three season Championship battle with Blues with a stunning header in front of the Tilton.

After spending big in the summer and January windows, Villa had little show for their expensive outlay. Jonathan Kodjia ended the season with 19 goals, and Conor Hourihane would soon become a cult hero in his own right. Though Steve Bruce knew Villa had to cut back on expenditure with FFP a threat.

2017-2018: Xia rolls the dice as John Terry becomes a Villan

Villa fans were keen to sweep another season of misery behind them and concentrate on promotion in what would be Steve Bruce’s first full season at Villa Park. Before pre-season preparations got underway, a game or two of golf was the tonic for some timely transfer negotiations.

Bruce's convinced Terry to signBruce loves a trip to the Algarve, getting some rounds under his belt and flirting with Champions League and multiple time Premier League winners. John Terry was the talk of the town as pics circled social media with the former England centre-half keen to strike a deal with Bruce and Villa. It was the transfer Xia needed to get Villans believing in his project again.

No sooner had Terry touched down in Birmingham, he’d he won silverware with the club – albeit the Cup of Traditions…

Fan favourites Robert Snodgrass and Albert Adomah were also recruited alongside the loan captures of Axel Tuanzebe and later Lewis Grabban who played his part following an injury blow to main man Kodjia.

Villa, for the first time in a long time, were going places. Away end limbs were frequent and the automatic promotion places were being hunted down. Snoddy’s effort at Bramall Lane will live long in the memory, too the impressive debut for Keinan Davis against Norwich City who’s fleet-footed yet bullish performance at 19 years of age set the tone for a successful league campaign.

Bruce was handed a cruel blow as pre-season ramped up, Villa faced Watford and a freak injury to Jack Grealish ruled out the youngster for the foreseeable future. We didn’t know it at the time, but Jack’s maturing faze was fast-tracked and his Villa career was at the benefit of an early season blow in Villa’s second Championship season.

Villa had found a way to blow teams away let alone simply winning them. First Burton Albion took a good schooling before Lee Johnson’s Bristol City left Villa Park wounded by a five goal deficit. Play-offs seemed a certainty after the turn of the year with a seven match winning run key to Villa’s promotion chances.

At the league’s summit, Nuno Espirito Santo’s new look Wolves side weren’t showing any signs of slowing up until, with 11 games remaining that season, Villa Park welcomed the wolf pack to a lions den thirsty to disrupt a run of form that had yielded 47 points from 21 games since November. Villa turned over their Midlands rivals with a 4-1 win that dared to catapult Villa up the league standings.

In typical Villa fashion, losing to QPR only days after taking the biggest scalp in the league was a sign that whilst Villa had wiped away the cobwebs of former seasons, old habits die hard. And so after years of watching this interesting, second division debacle, called the play-offs, Villa were flung right into the heart of the promotion mix, with 270 minutes of football separating them and Premier League football once again.

Mile Jedinak’s early header at the Riverside handed Villa the advantage in the away leg, but as Middlesbrough flustered in home and away ties, Villa held on to set up a third Wembley appearance in as many years – a play-off final was to be a totally eye opening experience, one Aston Villa wasn’t too au fait with.

When those with clappers, armed with sunscreen and bathed in sunshine celebrated Fulham’s return to the Premier League after a four year exile, the other half of Wembley, solemn in claret and blue capes hadn’t the wildest about what devastation a single Tom Cairney goal could do to Xia’s five year plan to get Villa competing with Barcelona in no time.

He put it all on red, it came up black. Xia’s spell at Villa was over before it even began. The club had amassed huge debts and quickly money became a huge issue with another Championship campaign looming.

2018-2019: The beginning of a new era

Purslow arrived with the new ownersHours from administration, Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris and American business partner Wes Edens swooped in to save Villa from ruin. Christian Purslow joined as CEO whilst Bruce’s role at the club was under scrutiny.

Villa’s new ownership group, who are now one of the wealthiest in the Premier League, set their stall out, rejecting Daniel Levy’s approach for prized asset Grealish whose future was in serious doubt. Boyhood fan Jack reluctantly waved goodbye and bowed his head as Villa opened their campaign with a win at the KCOM in August 2018.

“Let’s get to work”. The simple message from soon to be Villa superstar Grealish as he committed his immediate future to the club, but there was only one aim for Villa’s talisman from thereon – getting Villa promoted for good.

Jack was even the instigator to getting Tammy Abraham on loan. His goals would prove vital to Villa’s promotion but with only three wins in the first 11 games of the new season, Bruce would be replaced even if Glenn Whelan’s missed penalty in the dying embers against Preston seemed calamitous.

Bruce helped steady the ship, spent savvy and effectively. John McGinn’s capture from Hibernian will no doubt remain the best piece of business Villa will do for some years. The Scot was an unknown quantity before arriving on B6 with a spring in his step and turn with his bum. Shifting the ball in an awkward yet brilliant fashion, McGinn won the hearts of Villa fans even before crashing a goal of the season volley past Sheffield Wednesday in Bruce’s penultimate game at Villa Park.

Purslow was quick to act on the Geordies’ departure and offering Dean Smith the chance to take the reigns of his boyhood club was no question, instead his interview turned into a masterclass in football coaching and player development as taught by Smith, soon to be the man to guide Villa back to the promised land.

Grealish and SmithAfter securing a win on his opening game against Swansea, Smith’s side would win away at Frank Lampard’s Derby 3-0 and Middlesborough by the same, convincing margin. Most satisfying of all was a 4-2 victory over bitter rivals Birmingham despite their nine minutes in dreamland threatening to spoil Smith’s first game in charge of a second city derby. In reality it couldn’t have been further from the truth, Villa turned on the style, Jack scored his first against Blues and Alan Hutton was half way to Mosley before he netted one of the most memorable of derby goals you’re likely to witness.

Hurling himself to the admiring Holte End, the Scottish Cafu would live up to his Brazilian counterpart for one day and one day only when it truly mattered.

In the turbulent manner Villa likes to operate, Villa’s progress under Smith would all but undo after winning only two of the 14 fixtures that preceded Villa’s 3-0 win on Teesside and Jack Grealish’s shin injury had sidelined, head and shoulders the best player in the league indefinitely.

Villa’s season was in tatters and the play-off picture had forgotten about Villa who’d failed to beat Stoke, Reading, Hull and QPR, before losing 3-0 to Wigan at the height of their mid season slump.

‘Please welcome back number 10 Jack Grealish!’ Waking out with a captain’s armband strapped to his bicep, the returning Grealish would inspire Villa to a first league win in over a month, dictating proceedings and ending a 4-0 half-time rout against Derby by planting a volley into Scott Carson’s top right corner.

That wouldn’t be the last of Grealish’ memorable strikes that season.

Handing Grealish the captains armband would be a master stroke from Smith as Villa embarked on a club record ten-match winning run that propelled a Villa side that was languishing in mid table back into the play-off picture. Emulating a young Gabby Agbonlahor at St Andrews was the poetic justice Grealish deserved after being assaulted on the pitch, we’ll always have the last laugh and in what turned out to be the final grudge match with Birmingham during Villa’s prolonged spell in the second division.

Grealish became a force with the armbandEight wins later and Villa had consolidated their play-off place, netted 18 goals and before contesting a play-off final place for the second year in a row, scored one of the Championship’s more bizarre goals at Elland Road – not only would Villa have seen the back of Patrick Bamford but Leeds United too following play-off capitulation at the hands of Frank’s Rams.

Villa hit the play-offs in form, and despite West Brom comfortably sitting inside the top six for the duration of the season, it was Villa who were installed as favourites. Conor Hourihane’s introduction in the second half of the first leg could not have been more effective. Striking the ball away from Sam Johnstone from distance, the Irishman got Villa back on level terms having fallen behind to a Dwight Gayle opener.

Villa went on to win the first leg, but after faltering at The Hawthorns, only a penalty shoot-out win could test the bottle of Villa players and fans alike, all so desperate to make use of some handy back-end of season form.

Jed Steer was the hero on the night, Villa were off to Wembley to put some wrongs right.

Banishing the Wembley hoodoo was the aim, but as kick off approached in the sweltering capital, focus on the task in hand was key and momentum was rife. Smith had taken Lampard’s Derby side apart in the two previous league encounters by 7-0 aggregate score.

After the two previous Wembley heartbreaks, Villa would step up to the fore, win promotion and claim the all important final Premier League space for the 2019-2020 campaign. The 40,000 Villans packed into Wembley’s West End had to trade with a wee faith and rely on some Scottish vigour. John McGinn put the game beyond Derby and so it was Villa’s time to light up the Wembley arch claret and blue – good times never felt so good!

Smith devoted Premier League promotion to his father, Ron Smith who had been struggling with dementia for six years.

He said after the game, “I went to see my old man on Friday and he kept his eyes open for two minutes and I said ‘the next time I come to see you I’ll be a Premier League manager’. And he smiled and nodded, so for me, that’s enough.”

2019-2020: Longest season on record

Dean would embark on his first season as a Premier League manager having earned his stripes at Walsall and Brentford in lower leagues, and whilst the top-flight would be a learning experience, Villa would still throw up last minute goals, a cup final escapade and the odd thriller at the Villa.

Villa would plot their assault on the Premier League with club owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens keen to quite literally prove their worth, and provide Dean Smith with the players necessary to not only make up the numbers in the Premier League but compete on all fronts.

Knee-jerk presumptions were made when Villa splashed over £100m on new talent, but look closer and following the loss of 13 players from the previous Championship campaign, Villa had to not only add quality, but add enough players to field a team altogether. ‘Doing a Fulham’ was both lazy and far from the truth.

On the pitch, Villa enjoyed some early season success, with a 2-0 home win over Everton and a 5-1 victory at Carrow Road the outstanding results. An atmosphere like no other at Villa Park celebrated the first top-flight win at home for over three years, whilst the five goals scored at Norwich, well, that sort of result has been few and far between for some years now.

One win in nine followed as Steve Bruce returned to Villa Park for the first time since leaving the club, but an agonising loss at the very death against the league’s runaway leaders Liverpool was a tough one to take.

Villa would from thereon take wins only when they absolutely had to, against Burnley on New Year’s Day and Norwich on Boxing Day. It was however, hardly a Christmas to remember for Villa, not only had they dropped further into the relegation places but heavy losses to Leicester, Watford and Manchester City exposed defensive frailties that had to be ironed out if survival was to be achieved.

Relegation was quickly becoming a serious reality and six pointers were key to survival, so when Troy Deeney scored his customary goal at the Holte End – Villa were plunged into deep trouble on a cold night in January.

Luiz looked more comfortable after the breakDouglas Luiz sparked a revival all before a fifth, 90th minute goal of the season won Villa a crucial three points by virtue of Tyrone Mings’ soleplate. Flicking the ball on from Ezri Konsa’s optimistic shot on goal, Villa Park was thrown into delirium – not for the final time that week.

Whilst battling to remain in the Premier League, Villa were also keen to make the most of a 5-0 win over champions Liverpool in the quarter final stage of the Carabao Cup. Ok, it may have been overshadowed somewhat when 16 year olds lined up in the Villa Park tunnel, but you can allow us to get giddy after far too many a weekend ruined through a tough season.

Frederic Guilbert capped a solid first season at Villa by netting his second for the club at the King Power as Villa took a valuable draw away from a tricky first leg semi-final against the high-flying Foxes. Like London buses, Villa went on to book their place in the 60th League Cup final in the final stages of the second leg at Villa Park when Trezeguet came up with the goods so late on.

London buses you say? Well Villa fans would again travel down to the capital to contest a major final, their fifth Wembley outing in as many years. Manchester City would prove a bridge too far for Smith’s side looking to replicate Wigan Athletic’s cup final exploits against the three time Premier League champions.

Bjorn Engels gave City a scare late on, but ultimately, despite Villa’s valiant efforts a 2-1 loss at Wembley would re-inflict the harsh realities of Villa’s misfortunes at Wembley.

Attentions would soon turn to top-flight survival, but not for long. Leicester avenged their semi-final defeat to Villa by handing out a 4-0 loss and a major blow in Premier League survival as Villa looked doomed with games quickly running out.

Unprecedented times were ahead, and football paled into little significance when the world woke up to the Coronavirus pandemic that soon swept the UK with exponential rates of infection and whilst a football club’s responsibility to serve the wider community remained more prevalent than ever, Aston Villa took the lead in providing support to those most in need.

Lockdown provided the chance for Smith to evaluate Villa’s shortcomings this season, where players can improve and how on earth Villa could escape what was before lockdown a desperate, lowly position in the Premier League.

Douglas Luiz, Ezri Konsa and Conor Hourihane all adapted well to the new normal that prohibited fans congregating on the stands of Villa Park, up and down the country as the Premier League got to grips with behind closed doors atmospheres.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for Villa after football’s restart, Smith’s side were without a win in six, and were on course to set new club records for all the wrong reasons. Smith however remained the eternal optimist, he never backed down nor shirked responsibility even if only the most confident of Villa fans were left dreaming of top-flight survival.

Seven points separated Villa and Watford who sat above the dotted line come July 12 and only a win against a bang out of form Palace side would do for Villa side so desperate for the three points that could alter a whole season’s fortunes.

A vital win over Arsenal followed a late blow at Goodison Park before Jack Grealish chose the perfect time to notch his first goal in 14 Premier League games at the London Stadium to seal Villa’s top-flight status on a dramatic final day.

Grealish was bound to play his part, but perhaps he was too involved for his own liking. He seemingly clinched Villa’s final day survival by striking past Łukasz Fabiański with six minutes left on the clock, all before playing a huge part in West Ham’s equaliser.

Villa knew a win was all it took to remain in the top-flight but as news trickled through that Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth stretched their lead over Everton to 3-1, Villa would have been forgiven for showing some nerves. Andriy Yarmolenko’s effort at goal was given a huge helping hand by Grealish’s right boot, his shot spinning and looping over a hapless Pepe Reina.

Aston Villa secure their Premier League statusGathering in a huddle after the game, Villa had done their job as Watford were 3-2 down at the Emirates. Neil Cutler with his finger firmly pressed to his earpiece was the bearer of good news, and not often have those words been banded around these parts in the past decade.

You won’t find too many football clubs go through the turmoil Aston Villa have been through in five years that began with the club’s worst top-flight campaign in a generation, then almost prematurely ending with administration but now, after answering those who dared to bet against us, Villa are back in the saddle and ready to disrupt the upper echelons of English football once more.

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By: John Townley
Title: The highs and lows of a rollercoaster five years at Aston Villa
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Published Date: Thu, 06 Aug 2020 06:55:30 +0000