A season that caused the exhibition of every emotional state possible came down to ninety-minutes of football, an occasion not many thought would ever arise, an opinion I shared until October. The first two months of the season justified my lack of faith in Steve Bruce, a conviction I held and been ridiculed about for quite a while. My cynicism, or realism as I like to think of it was formed out of a subjective sense of mediocrity, an opinion solidified by a lamentable brand of football. Results at times may have been great, but the football was never anything but. In hindsight, the decision to stick with a man, who became more irate at every examination of his methods by the fans was admittedly the only option. After facing administration and financial crisis, Bruce had to stay initially but my word was October a relief after some fucking woeful football, my opinions were proved right.
I had just finished my working day, unlock my phone to ring the girlfriend and tell her I’m on the way – that can wait, Dad phones and breaks the news, Bruce-ball is no more – the cabbage seemed to be the deciding factor. Sheer fucking elation – I knew this would be our turning point, I knew it!
As the trees shed their leaves, Autumn signified a shedding of our own – a new start. Welcome Mr Dean Smith. The impact wasn’t immediate, but it was noticeable. A high-press and intensity to match influenced a 1-0 home victory over Swansea – what the fuck was this? Pressing? Playing football on the front foot? Losses to Norwich City and QPR to follow surprisingly didn’t discourage – the intent was there and that was all I ever wanted – a direction which was previously absent. Attacking potency flourished with twenty-one goals finding the net in an unbeaten run of seven games before disaster. Grealish injured, it’s serious. Football is a team game and Dean Smith’s coaching had galvanised the squad to create an identity, but I don’t think either the fans nor Smith himself anticipated the impact the loss of Grealish would make. In the following months we don’t lose many, but we don’t win many either – however the lack of an attacking impetus was noticeable to say the least, even if Tammy was still bagging goals for fun.
The honeymoon period was over with a narrow loss to Leeds United from which confidence had depleted – pressing had become nostalgia and attacking patterns became habitual; even Tammy’s goalscoring exploits had dried up somewhat. Villa Park appeared resigned to a fourth season in the second-tier but not me – I had seen suspect performances in those dark winter months let it be known, but this wasn’t Bruce-ball – we still threatened at times and the evidence of a clear attacking philosophy beforehand retained hopes of a return to times that were by now a distant memory. I remained confident, a disposition my consciousness had become a stranger to over the years – my cynicism was no more in a remarkable turn of character and that is wholly down to Dean Smith. A Friday night affair with Sheffield United beckoned, a team that had slaughtered us 4-1 away from home – it had been the most humiliating loss I’ve ever had the displeasure of attending. I was a good eight to ten pints deep, I loathed Steve Bruce anyway, but that game signified the gulf in class, and I couldn’t take it any longer. If only he could hear me, a cabbage would have seemed like a term of endearment. February’s return match started as dismally; one nil, two nil, three fucking nil! Fuck this, we’re off. A 180-mile round trip for this? I’m not ashamed to say we left a couple minutes before Mings scored our first – consolation I thought. I deserved to miss the fightback but, in my suspicions, we won solely because our trio of Yorkshire Lions members decided enough was enough that night. I’ll accept your thanks later. Although it was followed by two losses and a stalemate, fighting back to draw 3-3 against the best team I had seen travel to Villa Park in three seasons showed the spirit and ability that a Steve Bruce side never would. For me, that was the specific moment where I truly believed playoffs weren’t such a crazy thought after all.
As a last act of dragging the club further into an un-climbable pit of despair, Steve Bruce’s summer conquest against our defence finally prevails for the man as he sits drinking Bloody Mary’s in the sweltering Caribbean sun. James Chester is forced to play through injury – I retract my criticism of the Welshman’s performances after learning he has put his career on the line for the club I love. The arrival of a mountainous centre-back in Tyrone Mings and recalling of Tommy Elphick from Hull City relieved Chester of his duties in order to seek treatment – Smith undoing Bruce’s mistakes one step at a time. Mings immediately showed his class – an ability to play football on the deck transplanted into a tall, powerful figure: thankfully for Aston Villa something AFC Bournemouth and Eddie Howe didn’t have the pleasure of witnessing due to an injury plagued spell at Dean Court. At centre-back, the 26-year-old quickly established himself as a major presence in the squad – a glimmer of light despite no win in his first five games. In 18 games played for the loanee, Aston Villa have conceded just 15 goals compared to 53 goals in 34 games without him – it may not seem a drastic difference conceding 0.83 goals per game with than 1.47 without, but over a 46 game season, the contrast equates to around 29 goals difference (38 with – 67 without Mings).
From relying on arguably just one out-and-out central defender at the beginning of the season with Mile Jedinak filling in from centre-midfield, by our trip to Sheffield Wednesday, the back-line had Mings, Kortney Hause who dusted the cobwebs off to become a solid if not very good left-back and centre-back after a perilous debut against Wigan Athletic, and Axel Tuanzebe. The influx of defensive reinforcements only helped the push for promotion which by now was in full swing – ‘offense wins games, defences win championships’ as NFL pundits like to say across the pond. Our defensive shape was taking shape, but our most important asset was made to wait.
A tide was turning, a rousing performance against Stoke City which should have ended with all three-points heading back to B6 gave encouragement after weeks of a Grealish-less midfield looked relatively stale and uninspired. John McGinn was the fulcrum in which our hopes rested but the opposition knew – we needed Jack. Our wish was granted, funnily enough where it left us just enough games to have the faintest possibility of reaching the playoff places and with Jack, anything seems possible. First game back for Jack and the impact is immediate – a 4-0 battering of eventual playoff opponents Derby County is led by Grealish himself with a thunderous volley and assist. Grealish’s true arrival came only a week later. Smith’s decision to give the boyhood fan the captaincy was a risky one, but ultimately a catalyst for better things to come. A newfound responsibility bestowed upon the 23-year-olds shoulders was tested to its threshold against Blues at St Andrews – all Paul Mitchell’s punch to the head seemed to do was galvanise Grealish’s yearning to prove his haters wrong and if it wasn’t already inevitable, our new captain would go on to send us, me, in the away end into delirium by nabbing the winner. Best day of my life. Well, for another two months anyway.
Our winning run stretches to five with wins against Forest, Boro and Blackburn. Quite routine in all honesty. John McGinn elevates his game to another level, arguably even past that of Grealish. His work-rate is unrivalled, tenacious in a challenge, slippery with the ball at his feet and considering his size, ‘Meatball’ is one of the strongest runners with the ball in the league. Now we all begin to believe and out come the Grim Reaper knocking on the door images, waiting for the door to be opened so another can meet their inescapable demise. A trip to Hillsborough beckons with Sheffield Wednesday fans and Alan Biggs trying to create a Steve Bruce derby out of some sense of wrongdoing from us fans, but by now most of our opinions were proved right and our team is on the march. A tense and scrappy affair, one in all honesty we’re lucky to be winning appears to be heading for a 1-1 draw. I don’t want to settle for this – after living in Sheffield for some time and growing up with many Owl mates (supporters not actual owls), this is my favourite away day. I’m fucking steaming once again, thinking I’m going to be heading back to town in disappointment – no wait! It’s Albert! The scenes are unreal, I’m well-oiled as we say in Yorkshire (drunk) but I’m sober enough to not want to fall twenty-feet to my impending death or else I would have gone straight over the top-tier, instead, some poor soul in front of me bears my full weight in celebration. I barely had enough time to catch a breath before Tammy makes it 3-1 and I’m going that nuts I’ve started to cough, and then bordering on throwing up. Nothing to do with my appalling physical fitness I swear, I’m just in pure delirium.
Rotherham United on the Wednesday is equally as nuts. Red card for Mings, Jimmy Danger claws one back before Grealish does what he does best, gliding past everyone before slotting the ball home. Seven wins become 8, all the while the Grim Reaper is having a good year and the image of him knocking on countless doors is just getting silly at this point. Bolton Wanderers, a club in disarray stand in the way of win number nine and although it seals their League One fate it also seals a playoff place for Dean Smith’s Villa. A record tenth straight win is sealed thanks to Kodjia in a 1-0 win over Millwall. Truly a historic season for Villa – who would have thought that this time last year?
The playoffs arrive after controversy at Elland Road and a complete dead rubber against Norwich. West Brom are our opponents and they sit back, perfect game-plan in all honesty; we have no space to play our expansive game – it still feels weird that I can describe our style of play as expansive. Pressure eventually takes its toll on the opposition. Over the course of two legs we aren’t great admittedly, but we do enough to pull through – McGinn and Grealish are somehow immobilised enough to make no great impact but remain a thought in the corner of the mind. We take a 2-1 lead to The Hawthorns but nothing seems comfortable; we haven’t been at our best for quite a few games and early exchanges show both teams are well up for it. Chris Brunt’s sending off gives Villa a break after mounting pressure and with West Brom 1-0 up and level on aggregate, everything gets thrown at the ten-man home side – Davis comes on, Kodjia too and we’re suddenly playing a formation not too dissimilar to an old skool 2-3-5. An unstoppable force meets ten immovable objects – the two sides show the extremes of footballing approach and inevitably, neither can gain the upper hand after the sending off. Villa descend upon the blockade of the Baggies like King Xerxes and his million strong Persian hordes on the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, but this is going the distance – penalties. Luck is not on our side and I haven’t worn my lucky trainers, boxers or jeans. I’ve got my new khaki shorts on, proud as punch that I’ve managed to find a pair that don’t rip under the strain of my gargantuan trunks of legs – my need to shed a superstition is going to be thrown right back in my face; fucking stupid shorts. But Jed Steer has other plans, as well as a team who I’d rather be 1-0 down with than 1-0 up going into the last ten minutes, the force is strong with this lot. Steer, a man scorned by Steve Bruce and brought back into the fold by Smith saw his chance to step up, he had already since his returning making miraculous save after save. We make it through thanks to Steer saving Albion’s first two penalties and the relief is indescribable.
Another date at Wembley and having witnessed three losses and one win in the National stadium, all week I am fucking bricking it, like properly nervous; so much so that I had about three and a half hours sleep the night before. The drinking, which started at 6:30am on the 22-seater from Barnsley does little to subdue the nerves – so much misery cannot be forgotten but strangely as the game starts and time passes, the worries dissipate. It’s not the alcohol, it’s Derby County, I don’t rate them quite frankly and a team that must rely on Martyn Waghorn, no offence to him, doesn’t frighten me in the slightest. Not to mention Frank Lampard’s weird obsession with a 4-4-2 diamond because who the fuck used a 4-4-2 diamond these days apart from shit teams who know full well, they’re out of their depth and want to stop their opposition just waltzing right on through them. Derby had their fair share of possession on the day, too much for my liking but noses started to bleed once they reached the final third. Had we gone 1-0 down, my heart rate would have stayed below 80bpm (my mates will know 80bpm is quite good for me) for I know we have the ability to play our way back into the game and that is a testament to the work Dean Smith has put in. We find ourselves 2-0 up and even as Derby pull one back, I can see the promised land. I said before the game that either way, I was going to cry. Full time whistle blows, ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ rings out and I fucking lose it, bent over the top tier, a ‘Yorkshire Lions’ flag draped over the tier and sobbing my fucking eyes out before sharing a big hug and kiss on the head with my dad.
The feeling of euphoria lingers but I still can’t quite believe we’re a Premier League side once again – I had known nothing else but Premier League football since I attended my first game back in 2000 at the time of relegation, and now here I was wondering what Premier League football is like only three years later. Three seasons felt like a lifetime, almost as though we’d never been a top-flight team and I doubt the feeling will sink in until we play our first game of our 106th season in the top-tier of English football. The EFL Championship provided many greats memories but it was never more than a short break from what should be normality for a club of our stature. I heard or saw someone say it was a sobering experience – one that will undoubtedly make every Aston Villa fan not take a place in the Premier League for granted. Overwhelming euphoria has made way to an abnormal state of serenity and a satisfying comprehension of achievement. Nerves are a thing of the past – anticipation circulates the body, but in a good way. An anticipation for what can be, not the challenges we face for our greatest challenges have been resoundingly conquered.
By Jack Cudworth
Check out Heart of The Holte’s podcast – the latest installment discusses our meteoric rise to the Premier League: https://youtu.be/es8UI7-t4qU