With the disaster of the past week or so over… for now, but with the punishments of FFP still very much looming ominously overhead, Villa fans have become depressingly accepting of the likelihood of a lot of our main first team players moving on.
The loan players who became integral to our promotion push will not be staying on, Terry’s leadership will be gone (albeit expected), and the increasing likelihood of losing our key players, principally Jack Grealish has fed a sense of depression around the place. But every cloud has a silver lining so they say, even if you have to look very hard for that lining in stormy clouds.
If there is a silver lining here then it is likely to be found in the talent coming through our youth ranks. A very successful season for the under 23s saw them lifting the Premier League Cup and, in sadly portentous fashion, missing out on divisional promotion. Nevertheless, there are really bright sparks raring to go in that team, and our current financial concerns could prove the window of opportunity for their individual and collective breakthroughs.
There are certainly players that can offer us good options moving forward: Mitchell Clark, Easah Suliman and Corey Blackett-Taylor all show bright raw talent that can provide competitive strength in depth in key positions. Elsewhere, we’ve seen glimpses in the first team of the promise that the direct, tenacious and pacey attacking options provided by Callum O’Hare and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy can provide and the difficulty they’d cause for defences. Add in the effortless passing range of Jake Doyle-Hayes and there is a potential deep lying assist maker the likes of which we haven’t possessed for a while.
The point is there’s talent in positions all over the pitch and if utilised correctly there’s no reason for us not to still have a talented, competitive team. Of course, they will need to be counter-balanced with at least some experienced heads, ideally Chester and Jedinak, but dependent on the degree of the firesale, both of those may yet leave. This latter aspect may prove to be a sticking point; we can’t rely wholly on youth, but if we’re forced to sell our experienced assets then that could be a difficulty we’re forced to face.
The further hindrance to the youth talents offering potentially exciting additions to the first team, may be the retaining of Steve Bruce as manager. More specifically in his tactical approach and the playing style he primarily opts for. The youth team have worked on keeping the ball down, pressing with energy and attacking teams with pace and direct running and in general that’s not Bruce’s approach.
In attacking aspects we have often resorted to slower, more defensive minded philosophies building attacks slowly from the back, and a philosophy like this would likely negatively impact on these players fulfilling their promise and playing to their collective strengths.
Something would have to give, either Bruce adapts and seeks to change our style of play, which seems unlikely given his seeming reluctance to do so. Or players will be shoehorned into roles that don’t play to their strengths and will subsequently lose some of the natural spark that makes them such exciting talents. Sadly the latter outcome seems the more likely of the two.
This is a youth team of players set up to attack teams and play on the front foot, and that hasn’t been our ideology under Bruce for the most part. But after paying the price for our affinity for being overly cautious this season – never more so than in the Playoff final – we should be rethinking our approach and seeking to develop a more offensive style to become a greater attacking threat. The youth can certainly lead the way in that regard, if we can channel their energy into the first team set-up.
There are many difficulties to face and overcome over the coming months and it’s likely to be a long Summer of watching players leave, so it’s worthwhile to begin the challenging forward planning. If Steve Bruce does stay on as manager then for me, the ideal scenario would be to promote a member of the coaching staff from the under 23s into the first team set-up as a fresh advisor. It would certainly help in the youth players’ integration and improving our footballing philosophy to better suit their strengths, a necessity if we are to make greater use of them going forwards.
The future may not be ours to see, but we can get to preparing for it. There’s a greater urgency to the planning now than is ideal, but it’s the situation we have found ourselves in. A lot has already been written on the topic of the whys and wherefores of our predicament, but time isn’t standing still and failure to start effectively planning alternatives with the squad we have could be more troublesome. There are plenty of teams in the division that will be stealing marches on us, and that divide will continue apace, with other sides strengthening their squads while watching ours dwindle in power.
It’s undoubtedly difficult to be a Villa fan right now; to get so close to the promised land and to fall agonisingly short, only for the club to almost tumble completely into the abyss. A more stark contrast between success and failure could rarely have been drawn out, but we are where we are, so we can’t lie down and feel sorry for ourselves now, we have to dust down and prepare for one of our toughest fights to date. This is where a new generation of players given guidance and our collective support could truly put the pride back in the pride, at the very least it’s an aspect we can feel positively about in otherwise difficult times.