Entering the unknown: Aston Villa Season Preview

aston villaNew division. New owner. New manager… maybe, just maybe, a new start. Indeed, anything new after the kind of season Aston Villa had last year cannot necessarily be a bad thing. Second tier football for the first time in 28 years is an alien prospect, but will relegation lead to a Leeds-esque decline? Or will the club bounce back with renewed fire and ambition? Sharing his views is supporter Richard Dalton. You can follow him on Twitter @ContactCounts and read his blog ‘Just Let Them Play Football’, on kids football.

Last season, Aston Villa had what must be one of their worst teams since the 1960s. Is it fair to say that the task of re-building that squad will be a long-term process?

I attended my first Villa game in 1985 and there is no doubt that last season was the worst and most depressing I’ve ever seen and we’ve had some bad ones recently. The natural assumption would be that it will take time to completely rebuild the squad. I remember Graham Taylor coming in and completely revamping the side for the 1986/87 season but times have changed considerably since then and player power and the money around the game make such a drastic change more difficult. We have players such as Richards, Gabby, Lescott, Bacuna and Guzan that are earning decent money on decent contracts; their relationship with the fans is toxic but how do we get rid of them? I would have to seriously question any club interested in signing such players after last seasons shambles. The big advantage we potentially have is the wealth of the new owner which lets be right nobody really knows what his clout is at this time and only time will tell. Hopefully we can shift the deadwood quickly and then the re building is potentially a much shorter term project.

You’ll be playing more local teams this season, renewing the rivalry with Birmingham and Wolves. After 28 years in the top flight, are there certain aspects of the Championship that appeal to some fans?

As a club you always want to be in the top division and a club of Villa’s stature should be challenging in the top half of the top division no doubt. However the club became so stale under Lerner that I think many fans are looking forward to a fresh challenge under new owners. Clearly there are examples of clubs that have fallen and as yet never returned but lets not forget many sides have fallen and returned within 1-2 years which I’m positive Villa will do. I am personally looking forward to a few away days at new grounds and obviously coming up again local rivals always adds some spice.

Tony Xia has said he wants Aston Villa to become as prestigious as Real Madrid and Barcelona, which is clearly unrealistic. Was that a naïve comment to make?

I thought we were already as prestigious as those two? In all seriousness I find the new owners approach quite refreshing, he’s prepared to engage with the fans and he has plenty of ambition; if he can achieve 25% of what he’s aiming for then Villa will be a great club once again. For us Villa fans to have constant communication from the owner is great especially given the old regime. I very much doubt that comment will come back to bite him given it was so extreme.

Since Martin O’Neill left in 2010, none of the managers you’ve had have done a good job, which suggests the problems at the club extend further than the dugout. Following the exit of Randy Lerner, will Roberto Di Matteo be given the right support?

Clearly under Lerner the club was poorly run pretty much from day one. Huge investment in the early years managed to mask the very poor structure in place at the club and ultimately a real lack of leadership. Last summer and into the season was farcical, tactics Tim hated the recruitment team and wanted his own players, so much so that he was prepared to ruin team morale and ethic to save his own skin, a clear sign of the club lacking leadership from the top. I remember Tim going through a stage of refusing to select certain players because they weren’t his signings, for example he was leaving out Amavri and Ayew despite them being the best players. Remi Garde also had similar issues. it was just a complete shambles built up over many years. I am sure under the new owner that the structure will be much more professional and in terms of the management team the Di Matteo and Clarke pairing looks strong. there are already noises been made that spirit in pre season is good.

The common perception of Di Matteo is that he is quite hands-off. Will he need to change that at Villa Park, or will Steve Clarke play a prominent role in terms of coaching and motivation?

I think Clarke has a huge role to play in coaching as well as motivation. I cannot remember the last time Villa had a really strong management team, it might even go back as far as the Brian Little days. I see this team as very strong and experienced and I cannot see fools of previous years been suffered. Di Matteo strikes me as a very intelligent guy and although it’s often rubbished he deserves some credit for turning Chelsea around and winning the Champions league and FA cup. He also performed very well at MK Dons and WBA.

Rudy Gestede seems brilliant with his head but awful with his feet, meaning his effectiveness depends on whether he gets the right service. Should Villa tailor their game to accommodate the target man, or employ a more patient approach?

Gestede is excellent in the air, in the box but is a one trick pony and for the benefit of the team I would like to see us sign a better all round number 9 rather than simply rely on crosses into the box. There are plenty of rumors flying around and it is clear that we require a striker (possibly 2), money should not be a problem but as ever making a good decision when spending 10-15 million is vital. I like Dwight Gayle and think he will potentially score 20-30 goals at Newcastle but we have missed the boat there. I would also like us to look at a loan signing possibly Bamford, Solanke or Wilson would fit the bill and with retaining Ayew (can play variety of roles) and emergence of Hepburn-Murphy that would look a strong set of strikers at Championship level.

Brad Guzan has had a bad few years. Can he rediscover his 12/13 form in the Championship, or would you prefer to shift him from the wage bill?

Simple!! He’s got to go and it looks clear that he will be on his way out with the recent signing.

Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott have clearly been negative influences on the club. Is there an opportunity for younger defenders like Joe Bennett and Nathan Baker, who have thrived in recent Championship loan spells?

Richards was simply horrendous last season; his game intelligence whilst at centre back was up there with the worst I’ve ever witnessed. He then started playing right back and simply could not get up and down the pitch his fitness was awful and he looked more like a bodybuilder than footballer. Lescott actual performances on the pitch were slightly better (but still poor) however his behavior off it was disgraceful and shows how far out of touch the modern players are with the fans. I really hope both play no part next season and can be somehow shipped out although i cannot see how any club will want to take them. In terms of Bennett and Baker; Bennett is good going forward but lacks a little defensively and he will have to get past Amavi who looks a top player. As for Baker he’s certainly well below premier league standard, he might do okay in the Championship but I would have Elphick and Okore ahead of him.

Other players who were out on loan in the Championship last season include goalkeeper Jed Steer at Huddersfield and midfielder Gary Gardner at Forest. Which of those do you think could nail down a place?

I think Steer will be number 2 next season. Gardner always impressed me when he broke through into the first team but unfortunately had a rotten spell with injuries. His loans into the Championship have always proved successful with great feedback and I expect he will be a valued member of the squad this season.

Left-back Jordan Amavi impressed at the beginning of last season, before his long-term injury. With Aly Cissokho and Kieran Richardson not looking up to the job, do you look forward to his return?

As touched on previously Amavi looked a very good player early last season an the stand out performer until his injury. I expect if we can retain him he will really shine this season. Richardson was another awful Lambert addition (there were plenty of those) and has now left the club. Cissokho always gives 100% which should be a given but in the Villa team last season that was far from the case for many; however i expect he will be sold if we can find a buyer and Bennett will provide cover on the left.

Jordan Veretout strikes me as a player that can pick up the ball in his own half and create something out of nothing. Could he do well in the Championship?

Veretout showed in flashes that he’s got some ability but he did struggle to settle last season. I am not convinced that the Championship will be the place for him to thrive. There have been recent rumors linking him with a loan move back to France which I think could work out well for him and possibly the club long term. I would be surprised if we see him as a first team regular in the coming months.

Another Jordan… Ayew, was arguably your best attacking player last season. Are you pleased he hasn’t been sold?

I would be delighted if we could retain him and that looks likely given recent communication from the owner. He was by far our best attacking player last season (not much competition) and I would expect him to do very well in the Championship. He’s not an out and out centre forward but can play off a main front player or play off either flank.

Gabby Agbonlahor has long been a favourite at Villa Park and reconciliation seems unlikely. Do you feel some sadness about the way his time there is ending?

Gabby has made his own choices and in a similar manner to Lescott he has shown serious disrespect to the fans of the team he allegedly supported as a boy. Gabby has been off the rails for years and nobody within the club has dealt with his poor approach to the game and that speaks volumes for the lack of leadership at the club. Gabby’s time at the club should really be up both need to move on, hopefully the new management team will be able to control his negative influence on the dressing room if he remains around the club.

What are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? How do you see fellow relegated sides Norwich and Newcastle faring?

It’s a very tough league and it would be a fantastic achievement to get back up at the first attempt. I think both Norwich and Newcastle will be strong; Norwich have recent experience of bouncing back and that will benefit them. Newcastle on paper look the stand out side but there must be some question marks over Rafa managing in the championship and the group of players look talented on paper but will they adapt to life in the Championship? There are other strong sides in the division such as Brighton and Sheffield Wednesday to name just two.

Where will you finish?

Without wishing to sit on the fence I have no really strong view as to how we will progress and winning the league or finishing 14th seem of equal chance in my mind at this stage. I am going to be glass half full as always and predict a 2nd place finish.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

After last season, Aston Villa must respond. They have the right man in Di Matteo to lead the fight-back and Ayew, the line. Expect them to challenge. 4th

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