Bruce was faced with an incredibly difficult call upon arrival at Villa Park.
What to do about the desperate Aston Villa goalkeeping situation?
Indeed, despite recruiting Pierluigi Gollini to great fanfare, we soon found ourselves significantly short of quality between the posts.
As Gollini’s erratic performances cost us points, the alternative, Mark Bunn offered at best a like for like swap.
Whilst the young Italian lacked in experience, Bunn brought little to the table in terms of reliability either. Jed Steer, a perennial loanee, was never an option due to long term injury.
It was a major oversight of the short lived Di Matteo regime.
Many, this blog included, would have though Bruce would use the January transfer window to source a reliable, solid, “7/10” keeper. A safe if unspectacular set of hands.
Perhaps, someone milling around a Championship squad or out of favour in the Premier League (or European equivalents). Who knows, but the last deal we expected was another rookie.
As fans, we can invariably take a simplistic view of transfers. Perhaps no such keeper was available. Perhaps none would come when approached. Or perhaps Bruce felt that through his contacts at former club Man Utd that he had the inside track on a hot prospect.
Whatever the rationale, Bruce took a massive gamble on Sam Johnstone.
A gamble that as the Villa side struggled to find its feet after significant overhaul through January, looked at times a real head scratcher of a decision.
Villa were also collectively at such a low ebb in terms of confidence.
We had compounded this problem for a number of seasons by persevering with goalkeepers who often made you wince as the ball went near them. In short, quality goalies have been few and far between recently at Villa Park.
We also all know how unsettling it is for any defence which is guarding a dodgy ‘keeper. That’s why the Peter Enklemann’s of this world go on to work for DHL as opposed to developing the rising talent within the game.
Johnstone arrived with the immediate expectation that he’d improve us. Solidifying a position which has been troublesome for all of the reasons above was going to be a big ask.
Thrust from being a peripheral figure at one of the worlds largest clubs, he was now the immediate number one at a fallen giant. There’s no margin for error or omission with either.
Johnstone to his credit had to ride an initial wave of indifference. Indifference owing to the poor results which the whole team contributed to. As a non-permanent face and the man picking the ball out of the net, he becomes an obvious target.
Johnstone was mercilessly exposed which even resulted in James Chester publicly apologising to the 23 year old for the lack of protection he received. It was a baptism of fire for the newcomer. But then, there is a reason why teams like United loan out their prospects to sides in our position; it will be a true test.
Johnstone had his own wobbles, struggled with commanding his area, distribution and often opts to punch over taking a catch. Think back to Wolves & Forest.
To a side like ours which [in our malaise of early 2017] needed someone to take control, a tricky start to his Villa career put him firmly in the spotlight.
Johnstone, like most goalkeepers, benefits when the team as a whole are doing well. It’s no surprise therefore that his form has stabilised with recent wins.
The measure though, are those key moments saves in games which swing the balance. Unlike other areas of the pitch, the goalkeeper’s judgement and footballing brain can impact a game instantly. One ill-judged cross, one miss-timed punch…they’re all costly.
Wigan is easily the most concise example of Johnstone’s overall improvement, with the United man pulling off a string of superb saves. Those saves undoubtedly won us the game.
The challenge for Villa, especially given our lack of a goalkeeping options, is where do we stand with Johnstone?
Johnstone has stated ambitions to return to United and compete for De Gea. Whilst that may be a significant challenge, it underlines the belief that our current keeper has in himself. It does though leave us in limbo, especially going into a crucial promotion season.
Do we have the option to table a bid?
Would we consider another season long loan?
Or do we as an ambitious club ourselves need to establish a goalkeeper permanently?
It’s testament to the qualities Johnstone has shown to date that it brings those considerations firmly into focus.
- Man of The Match (vs. Wigan)
- 5 clean sheets in last 6 games.
- 95 senior appearances (8 loans)
- 14 appearances for Villa.
- 15 goals conceded to date.
- Yet to make Man United debut.