There’s familiar territory for Aston Villa fans travelling to Wembley for the Play-Off Final next Monday – but this time, everything seems different.
Words by Mark Jirobe | @VillaMarkPGH
Football has a funny way of smacking you in the face as soon as you put your guard down. It happens to players and it happens to coaches. It happens to back-room staff and it happens to supporters. The proverbial slap seems to be waiting, hiding around every corner, just waiting for an opportune moment to strike.
For Aston Villa, that slap in the face came at the full-time whistle last season in the Championship Finals at Wembley Stadium. The team would fall at the last hurdle and miss their chance to get promoted to the Premier League. Villa lost to Fulham 1-0, even after Fulham went down to ten-men in the 70th minute. No one, barring then AVFC owner Tony Xia, was ready for the upcoming summer that saw Villa under the constraints of wind-up orders and financial uncertainty. It was not a good summer to be an Aston Villa supporter by any stretch of the imagination.
We all know by now that the winning club in that Play-Off Final, Fulham, would go on to get promoted and then relegated in a years time and back into the Championship
Getting promoted to the Premier League is a wonderful thing for any club. The sums of money that clubs are guaranteed to be given is enough to make any football club owner rub their hands together like a Marvel Universe bad-guy. It pulled at the heartstrings of a few mindful Aston Villa supporters when Fulham were mathematically relegated this season in the Premier League.
No, it wasn’t the strings of sadness that were yanked. It was the strings of ‘what if’ and ‘we could have done better’. It’s not an easy memory for many Villa supporters, losing at Wembley. In a way, losing that Final last season may have been important for the longevity and structure at Aston Villa. It was actually a blessing in disguise.
In some way, this current seasons finale at Wembley seems much, much more important if you look at things from that perspective.
There is something special going on at Aston Villa right now with their new head coach, their core group of players, new owners and with the supporters of the Claret & Blue. Aston Villa manager Dean Smith has to take a ton of credit for turning around what was quickly becoming a throw-away season for Villa. Smith wants his players to play a specific way and that specific way is worlds apart from the football seen under previous manager Steve Bruce. The Dean Smith style on the pitch mirrors the strong points of his players: defensive tenacity, quick counter attacks and trusting in his players skills and abilities. This style of play can only be solidified and made better with new majority ownership at Aston Villa in Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris, who seem ready to heavily invest in the club once Villa reaches the top tier of English football.
It means a hell of a lot more in the long run for Villa to be led to the Premier League by people like Smith, Edens and Sawiris than it ever would with Tony Xia and Steve Bruce. It’s a raw fact but a fact nonetheless. Villa are in a much, much better situation this season than they were even a mere year ago as a football club. The future looks brighter, the supporters seem elated and players seem more determined and happier – even the ones that are playing for Aston Villa on loan – for now. If Villa are in fact to be promoted, it isn’t nonsense to think the club will spend some money to make some current loan players into permanent stays for life in the Premier League.
Villa aren’t just arriving at a chance to be promoted at Wembley out of luck. They worked their socks off to get to this point. It was a wild and frantic ten game winning run that catapulted Villa into the playoff picture, and let’s be honest, that was probably the only way Villa were getting there in reality. But, Villa aren’t looking back this time. They have no plans of going that way. Dean Smith does not seem like a person who would let his team rest on their laurels.
There is something tangible happening in front of every Aston Villa supporter. You cannot say the same thing under the previous ownership, previous coaching staff or previous squad of last season. It’s not even close in terms of camaraderie, passion and togetherness. Couple that with the current core group of players that now have the experience of losing at Wembley. That could be a recipe for a football club that can be very, very dangerous.
Yet here we are again – one game to decide the short-term and long-term success of Aston Villa Football Club at Wembley Stadium. The wicked ways of football are always in striking distance to those who aren’t ready for it.
Villa seem to be up for the fight this time.