Extraordinary Survival Defines 2020 As Villa Enter Uncharted New Year

In purely footballing terms for Aston Villa, it has been a remarkable 2020.

Remarkable not only for the impact that a global pandemic has had upon the game but for a twelve-month period of quite extraordinary happenings both on and off the field, that few could conceivably have predicted.

NEW YEAR, NEW PROBLEMS

The year started in catastrophic fashion on New Years Day. Although a priceless 2-1 win at Burnley will sit innocuously enough in the history books, it featured season-ending injuries for Tom Heaton and Wesley.

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Heaton’s injury immediately exposed the club’s lack of true strength in depth between the sticks, whilst the loss of then-record signing Wesley saw the club lurch desperately into the transfer market. The January acquisitions of Borja Baston and shot-shy Samatta Mbwana would ultimately play its part in the decision to go separate ways with Sporting Director Jesus Garcia Pitarch.

The first quarter of 2020 will be looked back upon as a period of mixed emotions. Worsening league form saw Villa fade from being an early-season competitive outfit to increasingly likely relegation candidates. As the on-field performances deteriorated, so did the results. A long term injury to John McGinn did little to improve matters, with loanee Danny Drinkwater unrecognisable to the player that won the Premier League and England recognition.

Danny Drinkwater’s brief stay at B6 will in time barely be recalled, if only for the decision to debut him in a 6-1 home mauling by Man City. Smith was forced to sub Drinkwater, an act that the Independent referred to as a “mercy killing“. It was a showing from which the Chelsea loanee would never recover.

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CUP RUN FUN

This stood in contrast to the club’s League Cup form that saw Villa brush aside the likes of Wolves and Liverpool’s youthful opposition. Leicester City represented our sternest test at the semi-final stage, with Villa progressing to the final courtesy of Orjan Nyland’s saves and a roof-raising late winner from Mahmoud Trezeguet. It prompted jubilant scenes at Villa Park, including an obligatory pitch invasion.

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A trip to Wembley deferred fears of relegation momentarily, but with the rampant spread of Coronavirus beginning to tear through UK communities, it would stand as one of the final mass gatherings before lockdown restrictions were imposed. 82,145 spectators would watch Villa surprise many and run Manchester City close, losing 2-1 on the day.

Just days later would see Villa crash to a 4-0 defeat away at Leicester City (9th March) and with it sit second bottom in the Premier League. It would prove to be the last Premier League fixture until competitive football resumed on 17th June.

PROJECT RESTART

The unprecedented shutdown of the season had few positives. However, the return of John McGinn from injury was a plus (albeit far from match fitness) and the time it afforded Dean Smith to work on addressing Villa’s shambolic defending.

The pausing of the competition brought with it a concern that the 2019/2020 season would be cancelled entirely. The two propositions were grim; either adopt the league’s standings as of March 2020 or apply a Points Per Game (PPG) calculation. Both eventualities would have seen Villa relegated to The Championship.

There were also off-field distractions which brought the club unwanted media attention. Jack Grealish found himself on the wrong side of the lockdown rules and driving offences. Villa’s club captain made an online apology for his actions, which came just 24 hours after having posted an online request for people to stay at home. Grealish would later plead guilty in court for which he incurred an £80,000 fine and a lengthy driving ban.

Villa’s high-profile Director of Women’s football Eni Aluko didn’t escape the limelight either. Aluko made the headlines for controversial remarks in relation to furlough as well as an accidental breach of Covid rules whilst in Barbados.

HAWK-EYE: GHOST GOAL

The return of football came on the 17th of June, but for the first time in living memory, no supporters would be permitted in stadiums. Villa Park was the first game of ‘Project Restart’ and naturally, it didn’t pass by without incident. The game featured the now-infamous Hawk-Eye incident, in which Villa ‘keeper Orjan Nyland clearly fumbled the ball over the goal-line. It would prove to be the first known error in 9000 matches for a previously reliable system and a point that, combined with a resurgence in form, would keep Villa in the division.

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If Hawk-Eye brought the spotlight onto Villa for the wrong reasons, it would ultimately fail to compare with our extraordinary escape from relegation that followed.

THE GREAT ESCAPE

Villa found themselves seven points adrift with just 2 weeks of the season remaining. This included an optimism sapping VAR induced defeat to Manchester United as well as the last gasp Theo Walcott equaliser against Everton. This was a side that failed to keep an away clean sheet all season but then dug out a four-game unbeaten run to somehow cling to safety.

Whilst much of the attention at the start of the 2020/21 season would fall upon the meteoric rise of Jack Grealish, the truth is that three vital goals from Trezeguet, Conor Hourihane’s assists, and timely defensive solidity kept Villa up.

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There were other contributing factors that can easily be lost in the annals of time which are worth remembering too. Bournemouth’s form imploded, and they even desperately considered legal action for the failure of Sheffield United’s “ghost goal” from counting at Villa Park. West Ham, the scene of Villa’s final day draw, also hauled themselves to safety with an unexpected upturn in results.

Watford’s actions were perhaps the most bizarre, with the London club inexplicably opting to sack Nigel Pearson. West Ham’s David Moyes regarded Pearson as Manager Of The Year, having witnessed him drag The Hornets 3 points safe of the dropzone with just 2 games left to play. Watford had just one win in fifteen when Pearson was appointed. Their decision to sack the manager proved hugely destabilising and Villa moved in for the kill.

WINNING IS BELIEVING

A priceless win over a decidedly lethargic Crystal Palace provided a glimmer of hope before a draw at Goodison Park dampened matters. However, a fine win over Arsenal at Villa Park featuring an outstanding Trezeguet finish set-up the archetypal Great Escape at The London Stadium.

With all things of a Villa persuasion, nothing is often straightforward. Despite a vital second-half strike from Grealish giving Villa the lead, West Ham equalised just moments later courtesy of a wicked looped effort drifting over the helpless Pepe Reina.

Villa hung on, the other results went with us and our Premier League status had been retained against all odds. Cue wild scenes as Villa somehow made it through “Survival Sunday”.

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CLOSE SEASON 2020

After Villa had been lazily accused of “doing a Fulham” in the pre-season of 2019 [having to recruit heavily after a number of loans and contracts ended], the brief interlude between campaigns and narrowly avoided relegation forced the club to move wisely.

If 2019 had felt like an exercise of squad rebuilding, 2020 had the air of acquiring improvements to address areas of obvious concern. Having sent Pitarch packing, Villa’s recruitment now fell under the gaze of not only club CEO Christian Purslow, but now also Johan Lange, who switched from FC Copenhagen. Lange had already had a brief spell in England, having been assistant boss at Wolves.

Villa broke their transfer record in purchasing Ollie Watkins from Brentford to address the chronic lack of goals, added creativity in Lyon forward Bertrand Traore. There were also smart moves made in shoring up the rearguard by adding Argentine ‘keeper Emi Martinez and promising full-back Matty Cash from Forest. In a surprise move, Villa arguably pulled off a genuine coup by signing Chelsea and England international Ross Barkley on a season-long loan.

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The best piece of business was perhaps not who came through the door, but who didn’t go the other way. Douglas Luiz stayed at Villa Park (a £25m buy-back clause remains), but crucially Jack Grealish ended months of speculation linking him with a move away by signing an improved deal.

NEW BEGINNINGS

The new campaign saw Villa watching the opening round of games as our first game was postponed due to Man City’s FA Cup commitments.

It wasn’t long before eyebrows began to be raised, with Dean Smith taking Villa on a four-match winning run. Victories over Sheffield United (1-0) and Fulham (0-3), took second place to a rampant 7-2 demolition of champions Liverpool. Further, a last gasp Barkley strike saw a strong Leicester City side put to the sword 1-0 as well.

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Defeats to Leeds and Southampton brought us back to reality, but the 2020/21 season had immediately felt like a new and re-energised Villa team. Gone was the impotent attack, the defence benefitted from fresh blood and the Grealish/Barkley combination began showing the genesis of something rather special.

GREALISH: ENGLAND CALLING

Indeed, Grealish’s outstanding form could no longer go unrecognised by Gareth Southgate. The former Villa defender and England boss finally selected Villa’s captain to represent the national side for the first time.

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A thumping 3-0 win over Arsenal sent AFTV into meltdown and once again demonstrated the potential in this Villa squad. However, two disappointing losses followed; a home defeat to the ten men of Brighton and an astonishing VAR decision ruling out an Ollie Watkins’ strike resulted in defeat at West Ham.

SECOND WAVE

As December began, another wave of Covid-19 began to bite in the UK. In another first, Villa’s game with Newcastle United was postponed after an outbreak of the virus within Steve Bruce’s squad.

Villa returned to action with a tricky away clash against Wolves. Despite Douglas Luiz seeing red, Anwar El Ghazi stepped up deep into injury time to seal all three points. This would mark not only an upturn in form for Villa but the resurgence of the peripheral former Ajax winger with it. The Dutchman would go on to have five goals to his name by the end of the calendar year.

The team was rampant against Burnley, notching an unbelievable 27 shots, but the game somehow ended in a stalemate. There was no mercy for West Brom however, who despite having appointed Big Sam, were totally out-played as Villa strolled to a 3 goal win at The Hawthorns.

The arrival of Crystal Palace at Villa Park followed and Roy Hodgson’s side looked every bit a team that had just been pumped for seven at Liverpool. A toothless Palace was despatched with ease, 3-0.

Villa then traveled to Stamford Bridge for their final game of 2020, putting in a gritty, determined, and classy display against Frank Lampard’s outfit. At a ground that’s been a graveyard in terms of results for us in the modern era, Dean Smith fashioned a dangerous and impressive display. It will hopefully serve as a marker for what we might expect in 2021.

LOOKING TO 2021

For 2020, football was a welcome distraction if for only being a counterweight to the impact of Covid-19 upon society domestically and internationally.

The inability for spectators to attend sporting events has seen a huge part of many people’s social lives ripped away from them. It’s not merely about ‘getting fans back into stadiums’, it’s the fact that it represents the absence of sitting close to those whose company you enjoy or indeed, those you truly hold dear. Another reminder that you cannot fully appreciate something until it is gone. However, it’s been the Villa Underground’s view throughout that fans should not return until it is safe to do so.

For Villa, and for the supporters who follow them closely, it has been a literal rollercoaster. The transformation from near relegation certainties, to entertaining the idea of challenging amongst the top sides in the best league in the world; now that’s remarkable. The change from July to December 2020 is actually quite something.

There’s always the chance that this is in a post-Covid world, but if not, we can but hope that Villa’s fortunes continue to be a positive and transfixing distraction from it nonetheless.

2021 brings real opportunity for Aston Villa. Let’s hope we grab it with both hands.

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