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Aston Villa face task of keeping
Surely football’s gods would not deny Aston Villa this time: 26 May was the 36th anniversary of the club’s European Cup victory when the team in claret and blue, against all the odds, beat the bluebloods of Bayern Munich. The number 26 was on the back of Villa’s captain, John Terry, the warrior central defender who would pass his 38th birthday back in the Premier League, taking a couple of days off when his adopted club play Chelsea to whom he said goodbye a year ago in the 26th minute.
That was to be the narrative except that in the high-stakes Championship play-off final the numbers have been crunched
and it is Fulham who have triumphed in the game tagged last week as the £280m match, and who will be joining the high rollers of the Premier League. Terry will almost certainly leave the club for whom he has slogged away through an endless English winter and Aston Villa’s summer will be an anxious and long one.
Steve Bruce looked a shattered man on Saturday night as he tried to make sense of the club’s latest nightmare at Wembley. Bill Shankly’s old joke about football mattering more than life and death would ring hollow for a man who has lost both his
parents in the space of 12 weeks this year. It would take the hardest of hearts not to feel for Villa’s manager who in 18 months has transformed a broken club and helped forge a bond between the players and supporters that had seemed fractured after Villa
Jonathan Stewart Youth jersey
were relegated two years ago, swapping places in the Premier League with Bruce’s Hull City.
Bruce now has the task of keeping this squad together for another assault on the Premier League. Four of the players who took to the field on Saturday, including the goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, are on
Peyton Manning Youth jersey
loan. And if the departure of Terry is inevitable, keeping Jack Grealish at Villa Park, despite the young midfielder’s allegiance to the club, may be tricky.
Grealish ran himself into the ground on Saturday evening. Rarely can a player have been fouled as much and this was like watching George Best up against a whole team of Chopper Harrises. West Brom, Stoke City and Swansea, with their enormous parachute payments after their relegation, would all love a Grealish in their side next season. Either way they will be just three sizeable road blocks to Villa as they contemplate a third season in the Championship.
On Saturday Villa once more seemed a club weighed down by their history. There at Wembley were the familiar cast in the crowd: Prince William, their most high-profile fan looking worried behind his shades; Peter Withe, the scorer of that winning goal in Rotterdam 36 long years ago; even Sir Doug Ellis, the former chairman and president emeritus, now 94 and the man dubbed “Deadly Doug” by Jimmy Greaves for his penchant for sacking managers. There was another key supporter who will be crucial to the club’s future – Tony Xia, the billionaire Chinese businessman who bought Aston Villa when they were relegated after that last calamitous Premier League season two years ago.
Xia’s pockets are deep but his message to supporters was not exactly a vote of confidence in his manager: “Gutted. Sorry for all fans for this difficult moment.” Bruce himself acknowledged that the next couple of weeks were crucial for restoring morale at what he called “this big club with a proud history”. The circumstances are very different but Villa’s fans will be aware that Bruce walked away from Hull two years ago because he was not given the financial backing necessary for Premier League survival. Which is why the failure to win this play-off final, in which Villa competed until the very last seconds when the substitute Scott Hogan had half a chance to head an equaliser that may have saved them from calamity, is much more costly than Villa’s last Wembley appearance three years ago when they were steamrollered by Arsenal in the FA Cup final.
Fulham’s supporters were raising thousands of white flags on a muggy evening at Wembley but to Bruce and all their followers it was Villa who surrendered the initiative to a side who when it mattered showed more artistry. Tom Cairney’s well-taken goal midway through the first half may not have matched Gareth Bale’s in Kiev four hours later for style but in the £280m match it was just as priceless.
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