Winning the first three games of the season gave Villa their best start since 1962 - how can you sum up the opening couple of weeks of the 2018/19 season for Steve Bruce’s men?
It’s been really pleasing for Villa. The performances haven’t been great, the fans know that and Steve Bruce knows that as he’s made a clear point that they haven’t performed well yet, and there is some serious room for improvement. At the same time, Villa have been in this situation before where they haven’t played well and haven’t picked up any points but they fact that they’ve won the first two games in the league and are through to the next round of the cup is very pleasing.
As we saw in 2016, they struggled at the start and they struggled at the start of last season as well in terms of results and they were always playing catch-up for the last two seasons. It’s very early days but they are already five points ahead of Stoke who are promotion favourites for example – that can only bode well for the future, I think.
Has that created a feeling of relief after the club’s turbulent summer in which they lost to Fulham in the play-off final and their ownership changed hands?
It really was a worrying and depressing summer. For people looking outside into it, they’ve have seen all the drama unfolding and, being even closer to it, I can say that it was as bad as people probably read and saw. The play-off final was disappointing in itself because you don’t go up when you are so close, there is going to be some sort of hangover from that anyway, but the fact that there were so many off-field problems as well just made it all so much worse.
The former majority owner Tony Xia had money problems all through last season and not getting back to the Premier League just compounded that. In May they were struggling to pay the tax bill and by June had come round, the manager thought he was going to have to sell his best players like Jack Grealish, Jonathan Kodjia and James Chester simply to pay the wages of the rest of the staff – it really was that bad and they just couldn’t get money into the club. By mid-July it got to the stage where the owner just knew the club was going to go into administration if he didn’t sell a proportion of his shares but luckily they managed to complete the takeover in about five days – Steve Bruce was quoted as saying, “You can’t sell your house in five days!” so to buy a football club in that time is pretty incredible.
The new owners have come in with big, bold ideas and clearly have a lot of money so their statement of intent was keeping hold of the key players. If they could have spent money they would have, but the problem is that Villa have got Financial Fair Play restrictions hanging over them. But their statement of intent shows that they are serious about the football club.
The Thierry Henry link seems to be a little bit of a grey area and Steve Bruce was unhappy to hear of the apparent links with the Arsenal legend. Link or not, he must’ve convinced the owners that any potential change would be unwarranted?
To be honest, I think they were quite convinced with him before that because they wanted the experienced head. There was some substance in the Thierry Henry link but the early wins this season will have enhanced his position as manager and I think given him more time.
How crucial was it that they staved on interest from Spurs to hold on top prize asset Jack Grealish in the closing days of the summer transfer window?
That was massive for a number of reasons. Jack Grealish is the Aston Villa poster boy and the player that all the fans love: a Villa fan and the best player. Him remaining at Villa Park immediately gave the fans a lift but it also gave Steve Bruce a lift because it has made him feel a little bit more secure in his job because keeping your best player is only going to enhance your team.
With Grealish in the team, they are going to win more games than without him. It was also good for the long-term future: If Villa are kicking around the promotion places come January then I imagine he’ll think of staying again and trying to help the club that he loves get back into the Premier League. I think they’ll have him for another season and then if they are back in the Premier League and lose him, which I don’t think they will, it is not the end of the world because they’ll be back in the top flight. Positives all round, really.
None of Villa’s strikers have netted as yet this term but who would you say is the most potent danger that Brentford should be wary of on Wednesday evening?
There is a new guy called John McGhinn who signed from Hibernian just before deadline day; we’ve only seen him for one game but the fans have immediately taken to him. He sits slightly deeper behind Grealish in midfield but looks very comfortable on the ball, has a lot of energy and a fierce delivery from what we’ve already seen. Steve Bruce has been tracking him for 12 months now and was desperate to get hold of him. The midfield has been a bit slow and labored in recent years and he’s just going to give them something a little bit different so he might be one to watch out for. He won’t score too many goals but he’ll certainly create a few.
How is Steve Bruce likely to set up his team for the Bees’ visit to the Midlands?
It’s likely to be a 4-4-1-1 formation with the following lineup: Nyland, Hutton, Chester, Tuanzebe, Taylor, Elmohamady, Whelan, McGinn, Green, Grealish, Kodjia.
Can I push you for a score prediction?
Oh it’s Brentford isn’t it - they always beat Villa! I will stick with 1-1 just to be safe because they seem to be Villa’s bogey team.
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