Saturday 16th April 2016. A painful date etched into the minds of all Villa fans; the day that a solitary Marcus Rashford goal confirmed Aston Villa’s relegation from the top flight for the first time in 28 years leading Joleon Lescott to infamously describe it as a “weight off our shoulders”.
Combined with Randy Lerner’s increasingly remote, seemingly apathetic ownership, a succession of failed managers and a scattergun mass recruitment drive of players that never gelled into a team (many of whom have since built successful careers elsewhere) and Villa’s once touted “bright future” looked like a distant, crumbling memory.
Casting our eyes back on that scar after last Sunday’s dramatic survival antics is a reminder of the remarkable, meandering road we’ve navigated since that dark day in Manchester. As the final whistle blew at the London Stadium (and equally crucially at the Emirates Stadium), it was difficult not to feel both immense relief as well as a sprinkling of reflection about where we’d been and how we’d got to this momentous moment of redemption.
The contrast between the dejected players trudging off at Old Trafford four years earlier to the chorus of boos and vitriol from irate fans as well as the image of Blues’ fans carrying a Villa emblazoned coffin could not have been starker to the on-pitch celebrations mirrored in homes across the world as Villans everywhere rejoiced in their Premier League survival.
We’ve never done things the easy way at Villa and our descent into the Championship followed along with that sentiment. A vast squad rebuild for a second consecutive summer followed that relegation, bankrolled by a new owner in Dr. Tony Xia and under the management of Roberto Di Matteo.
But despite hefty investment, we largely blew our parachute payments in two windows on overpriced transfer fees and sizable wages for older players which only led to largely expensive disappointments such as Ross McCormack and Scott Hogan.
After initial disappointments the management was swiftly changed from Di Matteo to the veteran presence of Steve Bruce as the continued state of flux rumbled on whilst we continued to flounder in our search for a new identity. But for the goals of the most successful new signing Jonathan Kodjia, our 13th placed Championship finish could have been considerably worse.
The new ownership, instead of offering a fresh start, was more naïve and our investment seemed increasingly unstructured and hopeful rather than strategic and the early dreams of a change of fortunes instead just became a new chapter of our cycle of disappointments and persevering frustrations.
The first season battling it out in the Championship proved how chaotic things had become behind the scenes and shone a light on our failings. We needed to show vast improvements and a more committed fight if we were ever going to get back up to the promised land.
Having effectively blown our spending capabilities in our reckless first season splurge, our second season became about consolidating what we had and adding cheap and available experienced leaders like Glenn Whelan, as well as hard working loan additions like Robert Snodgrass alongside the legendary presence and leadership of John Terry.
Despite an initially slow start to the campaign which hinted at a continuation of familiar disappointment, Villa slowly started to find their feet and began to show themselves as the kind of force that their stature suggested they should have in the Championship.
In a campaign largely made up of the positives of a concerted push for promotion we found ourselves hitting too many potholes, whether it was long term injuries to Grealish or the key loss of Terry around Christmas, we were just never able to quite match the pace setters of Wolves and Cardiff.
In the end, our season would ultimately be defined by the dreaded playoffs and despite narrowly overcoming Middlesbrough in a tense two-leg affair, we booked ourselves what is now a regular place at Wembley to face down in-form Fulham.
It was a feisty game in which they had one player sent off (and should have had Ryan Fredericks sent off too), but ultimately had enough quality to inflict heartbreak upon us. As the final whistle blew and our 1-0 defeat was confirmed, we were left to contemplate a third season in the Championship.
Of course, as we know now, much worse was to follow. Not that any of us we were really aware of just how much worse our plight would become. We knew our financial situation was fragile upon missing out on the riches of the Premier League, but very few knew just how dire they truly were.
With parachute payments drying up and with Tony Xia’s apparent wealth appearing increasingly dubious, his haphazard overspending of the first season was coming home to roost and for Villa, the very real possibility of winding-up petitions and even complete liquidation became a very realistic outcome.
Unsurprisingly the vultures began circling our star asset Jack Grealish with Spurs most notably putting in a derisory offer akin to spitting in our faces. Whilst our rivals mocked our plight, Villa’s fans faced down the worst pain possible. Two summers prior seemed a low unsurpassable and now here we were wondering if our club even had a future or if we’d be facing at best a hefty points deductions, or the worst; expulsion from the League.
As that long summer dragged on interminably we resigned ourselves to saying our goodbyes to Jack Grealish and we waited to see our fate play out whilst hoping for an unlikely saviour to be found.
Enter the partnership of Wes Edens and Naseef Sawiris, a billionaire super team who saw opportunity where few fans had any hope that there was one. The takeover came in swiftly and just in time. With that, the disastrous, chaotic tenure of the Doctor, which had almost impossibly, ended in Premier League football, was brought to an end.
Hope was restored, but with a pre-season of loss and no strengthening having been possible, suddenly we entered a desperate flurry of activity in hopes of being even remotely ready for a season that could go in any direction.
In came the shaky presences of Ørjan Nyland and the bizarre loan signing of model/goalkeeper André Moreira to continue our modern recent obsession with goalkeepers, there was a second loan spell for the hugely popular Axel Tuanzebe, the arrivals of mercurial talents of Anwar El Ghazi and “Happy Feet” Yannick Bolasie.
Most crucially of all it also heralded the almost criminally cheap signing of instant club legend John McGinn and the loan signing of the man whose goals would help define our season, Tammy Abraham.
As the old adage says, “it’s always darkest before the dawn”, and so it was for Villa. A summer spent preparing for our collective worst fears, ended with more than a healthy dose of hope. Early performances added to that with dramatic and entertaining victories over Hull and Wigan before the old weaknesses came tumbling back in on us.
Late goals conceded, a mauling at the hands of upwardly mobile Sheffield United and insipid displays in league and cup, meant that by early October we were looking for another new manager to attempt to take us back to the Premier League after a crazy draw against strugglers Preston on a night where Bruce lost his job and a cabbage found fame.
In came the man to unite the fans and change our fortunes, the fan in the dugout, Dean Smith. Smith’s Brentford side had consistently given us footballing lessons in the previous two campaigns and his arrival heralded a much needed injection of optimism. In a few months Villa had gone from on the brink to wealthy and ambitious; we were now managed by a Villa fan, captained by a Villa fan and even our kits were manufactured by a Villa fan.
The groundwork was complete, now we just needed on the pitch to match off the pitch. Initially Smith’s more entertaining brand of football yielded results, winning on his debut, before narrow, harsh defeats to both Norwich and QPR. Smith’s brand started to manifest in impressive results and entertaining performances against Bolton, Derby, Middlesbrough and of course the Blues (Scottish Cafu inspired to end their “9 minutes in dreamland”) followed by the bonkers 5-5 goal-fest against Forest.
Then came the Baggies and the 2-2 draw that wasn’t. A brilliant El Ghazi masterclass had Villa on course for a 2nd derby win in as many weeks, before Jay Rodriguez was allowed to punch in a stoppage time equaliser but most costly of all was the seemingly innocuous injury that put Grealish out for the next 3 months.
The season went barren, the flair departed and a familiar Villa of previous seasons began to manifest itself once more. We brought in another goalkeeper – with the disastrous acquisition of Lovre Kalinić – laboured to uninspired draws with Stoke, Hull and QPR and squeezed past a woeful Ipswich side. It was a frankly horrific display in defeat at Wigan however, that suggested the balloon of optimism had well and truly burst.
Following on from this, we brought in Tyrone Mings to relatively little fanfare, and slowly things began to improve. Results were still initially unspectacular but a memorable 3-3 draw against high flying Sheffield United in which we were 3-0 down with 82 minutes on the clock could be seen as a mini catalyst before the catalyst. A 2-0 defeat at home to Baggies however, seemed to add the depressing, perfunctory note to the season that had at one point seemed optimistic.
An injury to Kalinić led to the fateful call-up of ever present back-up keeper Jed Steer and the following 1-1 draw at Stoke was, unbeknownst to us all, the moment that the door of history opened on something truly remarkable.
To be continued.
By Jamie Yapp