A week after the battling draw at Stoke, Jack Grealish returned and whilst we told ourselves not to get too carried away, we knew things could now improve and they did in astonishing fashion.
Frank Lampard’s playoff chasing Derby were the first in line for a resurgent, hungry Villa and were blown away in one of the most dominant first half performances ever seen at Villa Park – a 4-0 win and a Grealish wondergoal marked the return of the good times.
A week later and Grealish lived the Villa dream, scoring the winning goal at St Andrew’s in a 1-0 win which had seen him assaulted by a particularly cretinous Blues fan. After that things just kept getting better and better; Forest, Middlesbrough, Blackburn, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham, Bristol City, Bolton and Millwall were all dispatched in a record breaking run of 10 consecutve victories, as Villa climbed from 14th to 5th in a couple of astonishing months.
The bizarre battle of Elland Road, which saw Bielsa’s side allow us to walk in an equaliser after their contentious opener, was just another piece of drama to add to an already crazy 12 months.
Whilst defeat to champions Norwich City would end our unbeaten run of 12 games, we once again found ourselves facing the headache of playoff football. First up was our old foe West Brom, just to add to the tension – as if we needed more of it. Off the field they’d been our prime tormentors, taunting us throughout the campaign, never more so than following their 2-0 victory in February which they’d inexplicably broadcast live at The Hawthorns.
This was our chance for revenge but also our date with destiny. In the year since the defeat to Fulham and our narrow escape from going out of business, this marked our chance at redemption and banishing those painful memories. Across two nerve-shredding games, Villa and Baggies went toe to toe with Villa gaining a narrow first leg victory to take back to the scene of the December’s crime.
Whilst a Craig Dawson header gave them the goal they needed to level things up, the tie had to be settled by the dreaded penalty shoot-out – of course it did. Step up the perennial understudy, Jed Steer. A largely forgotten and periphery figure at Villa over the years, he’d grasped his long awaited opportunity gleefully and, in doing so, became the hero, saving both of West Brom’s first two penalties on the way to shoot out victory and ecstasy in the away end.
Somehow we were back at Wembley and facing the team against whom we had kickstarted our season’s unlikely renaissance – Derby County. There was to be no repeat of the previous year’s heartbreak for Villa this time and despite an excruciating final ten minutes, plus seven minutes of injury time, Villa held on.
The explosion of joy and relief shared by fans, players, owners and even Prince William was a fair encapsulation of the emotions built up from not just the extraordinary 12 months prior, but also the 3 tumultuous years since the despondency of relegation.
We could have been forgiven for celebrating our return to the top flight as job done, and it was worthy of rejoicing, but as has been proven time and again, promotion is merely step one of the process. True success would be measured by our ability to re-establish ourselves in the division. The hard work would be for nothing if it wound up in instant relegation.
With Villa being Villa, and following the general trend of the previous few seasons, the transition to Premier League life wasn’t straightforward. With a few too many elder statesmen and loan signings departing, Villa had just over two months to completely overhaul the squad, in preparation for competing in one of the hardest leagues in world football.
At least this time we could go into the market with an incredibly healthy financial situation and with a sense of excited anticipation and optimism. It’s not a mentality we’ve been familiar with recently and was the diametric opposite to our standing just 12 months earlier.
Whilst Grealish and co went into party mode, the recruitment team convened for a hectic and crucial couple of months of work. And get to work they did. Whilst the ITK accounts and transfer discussions went into overdrive, Suso and his team went about pursuing targets in the areas that needed strengthening.
While accusations of “Doing a Fulham” were hurled in our direction our strategy seemed more structured than previous scatter gun approaches. Hindsight may subsequently have proven that some signings were more astute than others but at the time the approach seemed refreshingly organised, certainly when compared to similar mass signing drives of the relegation season and our first Championship campaign.
After three tumultuous years of change, the Villa fanbase had rarely felt a more optimistic place than it did going into the opening game of the season. The excitement going into the trip to the brand new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was palpable. Anything seemed possible and when John McGinn raced in to put Villa 1-0 up against the previous season’s Champions League finalists, we began to dream of what this campaign could be.
We continued to play well too, with Trézéguet missing an opportunity to make it 2-0 and early in the 2nd half the referee and VAR somehow overlooking a pretty blatant penalty. Sadly our inability to build on our advantage crumbled into a 3-1 defeat in the final 15 minutes, but we’d been unlucky and were anything from disgraced.
The opening 10 minutes of our first home game against Bournemouth however gave us pause for thought. 1-0 down inside two minutes, after Heaton had a lapse of judgment and gave away a penalty and Douglas Luiz demonstrating the issues of a language barrier by dummying straight to Harry Wilson to put Bournemouth 2-0 up.
Whilst he showcased his ability by curling in a wondergoal later in that game, we were learning that this was a jump in quality and errors didn’t go unpunished very often.
A balmy evening under the Friday night lights was where we announced our return meaningfully, both in performance and in atmosphere. The return of the top flight’s most played fixture against Everton was met with a thunderous atmosphere, the likes of which Villa Park hadn’t experienced too often in the intervening years.
A 2-0 victory, a battling performance and the Holte at its loud and proud, cacophonous best, added up to a feeling that we were finally back where we belonged.
Our adventure had begun but we were quickly to fall foul of the new technology, as we became reluctant guinea pigs for the combination of VAR and poor officiating, which stifled our performances and started to take a negative toll on our results.
We were doing ok and we were a goal threat going forwards but we always seemed to have an error in us that almost without fail led to goals conceded. This, combined with our well publicised VAR issues, meant that we seemed unable to mount a concerted run up the table, with back to back victories away at Norwich and Brighton bringing us our brightest moments of the tough season.
As Summer became Autumn became Winter, our mood and form began to mirror the changing weather. An all too familiar gloom began to descend following stoppage time heartbreak against Liverpool. An insipid display against Wolves led to a growing feeling that maybe we were destined to play the strugglers, as we began to slide into familiar Premier League territory at the wrong end of the table.
December became a month of misery. Key players had gone off the boil, with McGinn and Mings becoming increasingly error prone, and our new signings failed to light up games with any regularity.
A run of poor defeats to Chelsea, Sheffield United, Leicester and most demoralizingly Southampton, left us looking at an unwanted relegation campaign once more. A laboured victory over Norwich was followed by a humiliation at the hands of Watford and the toxicity began to find its way back into the fanbase, as the Summer’s giddy excitement seemed an all too distant memory.
The uninspired signing of Danny Drinkwater – who had gone from weakness to weakness since lifting the Premier League title with Leicester – and an embarrassing mauling at the hands of Manchester City did little to soothe fears that our years of effort might ultimately be for nothing.
A surprise Carabao Cup semi-final victory over high flying Leicester, followed by a dramatic victory over resurgent relegation rivals Watford however, raised hopes that maybe we did have some fight left in us.
Double toothless defeats on the south coast to Southampton and Bournemouth, either side of an error-strewn stoppage time defeat to Spurs, soon burst that bubble and after a brave effort in our League Cup final defeat to Manchester City, we found ourselves on the receiving end of another trouncing at the hands of Leicester.
With games against the likes of Chelsea, Man United and Liverpool still to come, fans began planning trips to Championship grounds once again. The despair, the anger and the disappointment had firmly set back in and amongst increasingly vociferous rumblings against Smith’s management, it was starting to look very difficult to envisage our escape route.
And then Covid-19 sent the world into lockdown.
It was another dramatic turn of events to add to the preceding years, and whilst a global pandemic is an horrific scenario to face, quarantine did afford the staff, players and fans an opportunity to reassess what was important in life.
It also presented an opportunity to analyse where things had gone wrong and, following the decision to restart the season behind closed doors, strategise how we might go about making our escape.
For the first time though, we, as fans, found ourselves distanced from the process, confined as we were to our homes with no ability to roar on the team. As our destiny hung tentatively in the balance, we were told to “stay at home” – a silent twelfth man.
Initial performances suggested some notable improvements, certainly defensively, and the fortunate, malfunctioning Hawkeye seemed to suggest even our fortunes with football’s technology were changing.
Watching from home became the norm and social media became an evermore prevalent place for fans to vent their frustrations, now that we were unable do it in the stands.
As the games passed, we became an increasingly barren attacking force, slipping to frustrating draws, and even more frustrating defeats, whilst our rivals – Brighton, West Ham and Watford – turned respective corners. It all meant that, whilst we’d shown improvements, we were still slipping further and further adrift. We were entering the desperate phase and all we could do was watch on from afar.
A Trézéguet inspired 2-0 victory against an apathetic Crystal Palace gave us a ray of hope; a committed but ultimately agonising draw at Everton kept us in the fight… just. But time and belief were running out when Arsenal arrived at Villa Park. It was win or bust.
But perhaps channeling our Playoff heroics, and further building the miracle narrative, Trézéguet arrived as the unlikely hero once again. His brilliant half volley gave us the 3 points and against all odds, put us in the safe zone going into the final day.
We’re probably still just about recovering from the stress of our trip to West Ham and the high of achieving safety when with 4 games remaining we were 7 points adrift. It was a truly astonishing turnaround and – despite creating a new enemy in Bournemouth’s fanbase – it’s quite incredible that we find ourselves planning for another season of Premier League football.
With Championship football on the immediate horizon this is instead our chance to learn from our errors and begin to build for a much more promising future.
During our relegation campaign, fans protested with signs stating “Proud history. What future?”. As we begin our concerted plan to re-establish ourselves into the proud Premier League outfit we once were, it seems that our dramatic recent odyssey has led us to an answer to that question.
The dust has now settled on what we’ve achieved and I couldn’t help but think back to that lowest ebb at Old Trafford in 2016 and ponder the meandering journey we’ve all been on in the four years since.
It is often to be heard amongst Villa fans that we don’t do things the easy way and I’m sure more than a few people have the grey hairs to show for that, but our last 4 years have been a truly extraordinary experience.
The vast turnover of players, the managerial merry-go-round, the ownership changes, the near liquidation, the playoff heartbreak and the playoff joy all leading to us snatching safety from the jaws of relegation with the unlikeliest of great escapes. Looking back now, it’s been quite the ride.
It’s been far from boring in that time, but I’d happily take a few steadier, quieter years in the immediate future as we seek to re-establish ourselves. But, as we know all too well, that’s just not the Villa way. Here’s to what comes next. “Football. Bloody Hell.”
By Jamie Yapp