(Picture: Action Images via Reuters)
By Chris Dunlavy
DR Tony Xia had no sooner completed his £60m purchase of Aston Villa than he came out with a boast that would have embarrassed Floyd Mayweather.
“My ambition is to bring Villa to the top six in less than five years,” said the man not-so-affectionately dubbed ‘Tony Twitter’ by fans. “And I hope it can be one of the top three in the world, even the best well known in the world in less than ten years.”
How idiotic those words look now. After a season rarely better than abject, Villa are on course to become the most well-known club in League One.
An exaggeration? Not on current form. Since Robbie Williams warbled in the New Year, Steve Bruce’s highly-paid flops have won just a solitary point. With the exception of Leicester, no team in England has a more pitiful record.
No win in eight games. No clean sheets. Hostility from the stands. It’s all a far cry from the formative days of Bruce’s reign, when an unbeaten seven-match run reignited hope of a play-off push.
Now? That run looks more like an anomaly than the norm. Villa’s average position in the Championship this season is 14th, outrageous for a side with the second-highest wage bill in the division.
In a sense, that has been the problem all along. Under first Randy Lerner and then Xia, Villa paid Premier League wages to players who fell way below Premier League standards. That is why they got relegated in the first place. That is why they are struggling now. Bruce grasped the problem almost instantly after taking over from Roberto Di Matteo in October. His scathing assessment of Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat by Barnsley was one of several thinly-veiled swipes at the mentality of his players. “That’s why they get paid more than anyone else in this division,” he said. “They are paid to handle the expectation.”
Bruce knows the Championship and he knows how to win promotion. The look of terror on that battered face after a 1-1 draw with Wolves in his first game left nobody in doubt that Villa lacked it – and those early results didn’t sway his conviction. That is why January saw a flurry of activity, with £10m striker Scott Hogan joined by a whole new midfield trio of Henri Lansbury, Conor Hourihane and Birkir Bjarnason.
Chuck in full-backs Neil Taylor and James Bree, plus the controversial departure of Ross McCormack and Bruce has basically delivered a crystal clear vote of no confidence in the players he inherited.
And why shouldn’t he? None of them has done anything in the past 18 months to suggest they deserve to wear a Villa shirt. Some simply weren’t good enough, signed on the cheap by an owner who wanted out. Others, like the overweight Gabby Agbonlahor, lacked professionalism. None had much incentive to improve with seven figures rolling into the bank account every year.
Blame can be cast all over the shop, not least in the direction of Xia. By making such bold predictions, he betrayed a lack of respect for the Championship, burdened his players with expectation and naively suggested he could buy his way to success.
It is, though, way too early to blame Bruce. Yes, performances are poor. Yes, he seems to lack clear ideas, a firm formation.
But Villa have done enough chopping and changing. Bruce inherited a sub-standard mess and this season should be purely about avoiding relegation. That is the grim reality. Then, with a summer to clear out dead wood and mould his January signings, we can truly judge his work. For Villa, the next six months should basically be an extended pre-season.
Xia’s plaything will never be the best- known team in the world, but they could be one that plays for pride, not pounds. Who fight, not flop. For all Xia’s ambitions, that is all most fans want. Keeping faith in Bruce is the best way to achieve it.
*This article was originally featured in The FLP on Sunday 19th February.