As the sun set on that glorious day at Wembley and the weeks passed by, I admit that like many fellow Villa fans I allowed myself to dream of what we might be able to achieve as signing after signing was coming through the front door at Bodymoor Heath, and the optimism swirled around Villa Park.
Although we achieved our end goal of survival, there were a lot of flaws within our season that must be rectified for next year.
The amount of key loan players not returning and players whom contract had expired meant a massive rebuild of the squad was a necessity not a luxury. The lack of fire power though up front was a concern shared by many; was the failure to address it naïve?
So as Villa rocked up to the new White Hart Lane for the first time on the opening day of the season, with 12 new signings in tow, against Champions League finalists sSpurs the optimism was clear to see. An early John McGinn goal to put us 1-0 up did nothing to swell the good feeling. Villa played some great football during that first half and it was clear the players were full of confidence; a style I hope we continue to employ.
However, game management and naïvety in the 2nd half allowed Spurs back into the gamem, and from 1-1 there was only ever going to be one winner; Villa collapsed, and Tottenham triumphed 3-1.
A good performance against a top Spurs team, though, left many positive signs.
A home tie with Bournemouth was next for the first Premier League game at Villa Park for 3 seasons. Unable to get tickets for Spurs away I was so looking forward to this. You could feel the excitement pre-match around Villa Park.
That excitement could have transferred on to the pitch as Tom Heaton uncharacteristically rushed out and conceded a penalty after 2 minutes, quickly followed by another naïve individual error by Douglas Luiz and Villa were 2-0 down in the blink of an eye.
Luiz pulled the rabbit out of the hat with a worldie, but it wasn’t enough, as Villa fell 2-1 on the day.
The common theme occurring here? Naivety. Warning signs were clearly there.
Before we fast forward a few months, it would be amiss of me not to discuss the Everton home game. On the back of two defeats, a Friday night game awaited. I was due to go to Edgbaston that night and was gutted when it was moved for TV purposes.
However, I still travelled as planned into the city of Birmingham that day and enjoyed a few afternoon beers in the sun with the lads before they headed off to the cricket and I proceeded to Villa Park.
This night and game has to be my favourite of the season. The atmosphere was spine tingling and a performance to match. The end of game scenes was unreal. It felt like villa had really arrived back in the Premier League.
After the game I ended up back in the pub with my dad and his mates. I can clearly remember (surprisingly!) during conversation saying I would absolutely take 17th place if it was offered right now.
More naïve performances proceeded against Palace (won’t talk about THAT refereeing decision), a dull 0-0 vs the 10 men of West Ham, a crumbling at the Emirates (also against 10 men) and taking the lead twice vs Burnley before failing to win; overall, we secured only 2 points from those games.
October brought back-to-back wins with Norwich thrashed 5-1 and a last-minute winner against Brighton. Villa found themselves in 12th; the highest position of the season.
With Christmas approaching Villa were in the more familiar position of hovering above the bottom 3. I recall it was at the Southampton home game that I really started to worry, not only getting easily beat 3-1 by a team we should be competing against, but the key injury sustained to John McGinn. Concerns weren’t eased by a 3-0 loss to Watford shortly afterwards; a shocking display.
Needless to say, 2019 ended on a low note for Villa.
The boys in claret and blue kicked off 2020 with an emphatic performance and important win away to Burnley; but at what cost? Wesley and Heaton joined McGinn on the sidelines, and the two wouldn’t feature again for the rest of the season.
The injury to Wesley meant Villa were forced to play with no recognised striker for many a match, including a 6-1 demolition by Man City.
Spurs visit Villa Park in February and a good performance ends in a 3-2 defeat following poor game management and naïve defending. Amazingly Villa are still in 17th after this game.
Into March we go and following a spirited display against Man City at Wembley we head to Leicester for a 4-0 thumping. I was at this game; it wasn’t so much the display but the body language and lack of cohesion rang alarm bells for me as it had traits of the 15/16 team. I left Leicester that night thinking we were going down and our 19th position did little to convince me otherwise.
Then came COVID-19, and as the world around us stopped, so did the football (until it returned in mid-June).
Football resumed with our game in hand against Sheffield United, and although we should have lost 1-0 to the ghost goal, I actually thought we played well. Coupled with an impressive showing from Keinan Davis on his first Premier League start, I felt more optimistic.
An expected loss to Chelsea followed by a draw against Newcastle and a loss against Wolves saw Villa sit in 18th a point from safety but with other teams in reach. Defeats though to Liverpool and Man Utd meant Villa were 7 points adrift with only 4 games to play before kickoff against Crystal Palace.
A vital win with 2 goals from the much-maligned Trezeguet cut the gap to 4 points. A good display against Everton but a frustrating draw meant Villa slipped to 19th, and the light at the end of tunnel was fading; Villa sat 19th in the table, 3 points from safety, with 6 points to play for.
An in-form Arsenal team arrive at Villa Park on the back of wins against Man City and Liverpool, in what was a must-win game for the Villa.
I’ve missed being at Villa Park for all the games since the Restart, but this game would have ranked right up there with the home game against Everton all the way back in August. You just know it would have been one of those memorable games that stick in the mind for years to come had we been present.
So a trip to already-safe West Ham on the final day would determine Villa’s fate. Another good display despite the familiar lack of cutting-edge sees Villa enter the final 10 minutes level at 0-0. Goals elsewhere could see Villa relegated.
Step up Jack Grealish, I think he would be the first to admit he wasn’t himself early on into the Restart but cometh of the hour cometh the man. As so often this season Jack takes it upon himself to produce the magic to put us 1-0 in-front, cueing delirium in my dad’s lounge. An own goal would have seen jubilant scenes but the fact it was our Jack , Mr Aston Villa, felt like it was written in the script.
No sooner though I had sat back down we find ourselves level due to a cruel deflected shot. Anguish! Well this is Aston Villa isn’t it? We were never going to be allowed the luxury of sitting with our feet up smoking a cigar as the clock ticked towards 90.
Thankfully Arsenal were able to see off a spirted fight back from Watford and Villa were safe!
So, Villa take the 17th spot I would have gladly taken nearly 12 months ago following the Everton win.
On reflection, survival and a cup final must be seen as a good season. When you analyse the stats of survival amongst promoted teams and then the clubs promoted via the play-offs this season was always going to hard, to think otherwise is naïve in my opinion.
It’s ironic I describe that as naive, when naivety is the word that instantly comes to mind when reviewing our season.
- We failed to recruit enough Premier League experience into the squad
- Our tactics were gung-ho at times, and left us open to be torn apart by strong teams
- We started the season with Wesley, Davis, and Jonathan Kodjia up-front; we needed more.
- Dean Smith’s poor game management lost us many points; whether it was ill-fated tactical adjustments or late substitutions.
Ultimately though, our summer transfer window was a gamble that paid off. As we look forward to next season, the manager and the players will have a year’s premier league experience in the bank. The squad will be strengthened and hopefully lessons will have been learned.
Here’s hoping to another successful Premier League campaign for 20/21.