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Why the FA Cup weekend provides a big opportunity for Aston Villa

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Aston Villa
Photo: Reuters

It was the best of times. It was the worst of the times. It was panic mode. It was ‘don’t worry’. It was December. A month, for Aston Villa, that does not bring many gifts.

In the twelfth month of the year, it is usually the time of the football season where you can expect Villa’s hopes to collapse. Of course, the club have ironically lead league tables before November eroded into December. After Christmas the club is usually lucky to have a hand on the top half of the table!

And again, that’s almost how it went for Aston Villa in 2017. A blown two goal lead, a draw, a defeat and another loss. Steve Bruce’s reign at Villa has been defined by streaks. A stint of winning, coldly sandwiched between two barren spells.

After a Boxing Day bashing by promising coach Dean Smith and his plucky Brentford side the tide seemed to be turning against Steve Bruce for the final time. Booed off rather viciously by an angry pack of away fans at Griffin Park, the 57-year-old head coach was quick to defend himself.

He was even quicker to do so when he escaped Middlesbrough with three points a few days after, and by the dawn of the new year – after taking six points against two very good sides, including a resounding 5-0 win against Bristol City – he was more than happy to take the plaudits.

Now, after a barrage of cold surf, Villa’s manager now seems to be riding a waves of optimism into 2018.

Villa’s first match post New Year’s Day is a FA Cup 3rd round tie against League One outfit Peterborough United. These matches are usually dismissed by those who are too quick to get down to the business of the league.

However, while the FA Cup might not offer glory, it certainly offers opportunity to teams like Aston Villa, who would do well not to turn their nose up at England’s oldest club football competition.

The FA Cup? For Villa, it’s an opportunity for rebirth. It is not a throwaway fixture at Villa Park in any sense of the world. Why? It allows the team to experiment, rotate and try out new things that they may be too scared to implement in a league fixture.

It also allows them to give extremely talented youngsters like Jake Doyle-Hayes, Easah Suliman and Callum O’Hare some valuable first-team game time. What is more, it allows an erratic side to settle into form, with a big chance for a win on offer.

Scott Hogan will likely be allowed a full ninety minutes of football to continue his decent spell, and a few goals will do nothing but help him along.

Among other things, it also gives Villa a look at a decent League One side. Many clubs are chasing Jack Marriott, who leads the line for the Posh. Seeing a ready-made replacement for any departing striker can do the Bruce’s team no harm. Well, as long as he doesn’t bang a few goals past Jed Steer.

The flip side of this? It is also a good way for the Birmingham side to put second-stringers and reserve players in a shop window. Especially considering it is very much a ‘sell-to-buy’ situation for the club this January.

Villa and Steve Bruce would be wise to pay close attention to Saturday’s fixture, as it represents a massive chance for this side to grow and really galvanise their season.

It has been a stop-start campaign so far and a good win against a talented Peterborough side in the FA Cup certainly won’t hurt Villa. In truth, it could be a really good opportunity to learn a lot more about Bruce’s current squad.

Villa won’t win the FA Cup, but a good run will only boost their season. Ignoring fixture congestion and other intangibles of which we cannot measure the impact, any match where a loss is not of huge detriment can only help one of the Championship’s most exciting, talented and erratic teams grow.

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Aston Villa

Exclusive: Aston Villa’s Conor Hourihane on his creative prowess and the Villans’ season ahead

Jake Jackman

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Conor Hourihane

Aston Villa have had a challenging start to the season and are in 10th position after eight matches. This is three places higher than the position they finished in during the 2016/17 campaign and supporters have grown frustrated at the club’s inability to establish themselves at the top of the division. However, their struggles underline how difficult the Championship can be. Reputations mean nothing and it won’t be easy for the Villans to return to the Premier League.

The squad upheaval hasn’t helped, as they have signed 22 players since relegation. The individuals that have been brought in won’t all be seen as good deals for the club, but Conor Hourihane is one that Steve Bruce will look to build the team around this season.

In a period of transition, it took time for the midfielder to earn himself a regular starting place. He has managed to do that now after a good start to the season in front of goal. The 26-year-old has five in the league, which included an excellent hat-trick against Norwich City. He revealed his delight at his own start of the season, before moving on to address the club’s results to date:

“Yes, it was great, a great feeling. It was my first hat-trick. “

“They have been up and down, we’re starting to find our feet a little bit now and are unbeaten in a few games, we’ve had a few draws in a row that could have gone either way but overall it’s been an average start.”

It is clear that the players understand the frustration of the supporters, but the four draws could have gone Villa’s way and if they had done, they would be in a healthier position now. The Championship is a tight league, which is why Hourihane is a key player for Steve Bruce’s side. He can unlock defences and win points for his team, as he has proven on a consistent basis since arriving in the Championship.

Last season, he finished top of assists in the Championship with 14 spread across his time at Barnsley and Aston Villa. He created a chance every 41.3 minutes throughout the campaign, but Hourihane was keen to stress that he is a complete midfielder, rather than one that focuses on attacking contribution:

“I suppose that’s what the stats show but for me I’d like to think I’m a bit of an all-rounder who can do bits of everything. Last year it went well for myself from that point of view but I think if I don’t get as many assists but we are playing well as a team and up there at the top of the league I will take that any day of the week.”

It is refreshing to hear that Hourihane isn’t letting last season’s personal success affect his aims for the coming season. Aston Villa need to develop a strong mentality if they are to challenge for promotion, with the team needs going before that of any individual. If the Villans can return to the Premier League this season, it would be a far more enjoyable achievement for the midfielder.

There were many reasons why Aston Villa were relegated and it was a result of a decline across a number of seasons. The recruitment policy didn’t help. In the summer of 2015, the majority of signings came from Ligue 1 and the club no longer had a British core. Their motives may have been more self-oriented, which is why the above comments from Hourihane are very encouraging. The team is beginning to become one that supporters can connect with and they should be a lot tougher as well. This is a trait every promotion-winning team needs to have.

Barnsley were the surprise package of the Championship last season and Hourihane’s performances for them were the reason why Aston Villa wanted to bring him in. During the first half of the season, he contributed six goals and 11 assists.

There wasn’t a shortage of interest in his services during the January window, with Sheffield Wednesday being heavily linked. However, it was Villa that won the race and their ambition played a key role in persuading the midfielder to make the switch. When asked what attracted him to the Midlands, he responded:

“The size of the club, the history and the where the club wants to take itself.”

It isn’t surprising that Aston Villa were an attractive club for Hourihane. The 26-year-old has had to work his way up from the lower leagues and will see his current club as his best chance of completing the journey into the top-flight.

Every good football career starts off with a failure and Hourihane’s is no different. The midfielder failed to make a first-team appearance for either of his first two clubs, Sunderland and Ipswich Town. That will have been a huge blow for the player at an early stage of his career, but he showed an impressive mentality to go down the leagues and forge a career on his own terms.

At Home Park, he improved year-on-year and his final season with the club saw him score nine times. A move to Barnsley followed and it was in Yorkshire that he made a name for himself, as he was a regular scorer with 23 across two seasons in League One. In his final full season with the Tykes, he was an integral figure as they won the Football League Trophy and gained promotion through the play-offs. Hourihane believes that his career to date has prepared him well for Aston Villa:

“It’s probably given me a different education to the lads that are here, a lot of them started off higher and have found themselves at Aston Villa and I’ve started off lower and ended up at Aston Villa right now and myself and the players have met in the middle and hopefully that would be a good mixture to take us up the table and ultimately where we want to be and get promoted.”

The make-up of the Aston Villa squad is a point of interest, as they have players like Hourihane with no top-flight experience playing alongside a Champions League winner in John Terry. In the Championship, the experience and know-how possessed by the midfielder is equally, if not more, important than that of the former England captain.

The 26-year-old’s main focus will be helping Aston Villa return to the Premier League, but he also wants to establish himself in the Republic of Ireland team. He has been capped eight times and that has certainly whet his appetite for more in the future.

Yes, I’m hoping so, I’ve been involved in a few squads now for the last six months, made another appearance recently so hopefully if I keep playing well for Aston Villa that will only benefit my international career.”

The next few weeks are crucial for Aston Villa as they try to make up ground on the leading pack. They have matches against Burton Albion and Bolton Wanderers coming up in the next two. No match is easy in this division, but Steve Bruce will be looking to take six points.

It is early in the season, but Hourihane is the team’s current top-scorer. Although he is unlikely to finish the campaign with the most goals, the 26-year-old will be key to their promotion chances.

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West Ham’s Robert Snodgrass set to join Aston Villa on loan – what would he bring?

Rob Meech

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Snodgrass

He only joined West Ham United in January, but Robert Snodgrass looks to be on his way out of the London Stadium.

Sky Sports are reporting that ambitious Championship club Aston Villa are in “advanced talks” with the Hammers about taking the Scotland international on loan.

Snodgrass has been told he is surplus to requirements at West Ham, who signed the midfielder for £10.2 million in a three-and-a-half-year deal from Hull City in the previous transfer window.

What would he bring?

Snodgrass’s expertise from set pieces is his biggest asset. He has an uncanny ability to deliver pinpoint crosses and is a real threat from free-kicks and corners.

The Scotland international’s form in the first half of last season earned him a high-profile switch to West Ham, but the move has been nothing short of a disaster.

Although he made 15 Premier League appearances, the 29-year-old never looked comfortable in a Hammers’ shirt and is no longer in Slaven Bilic’s plans.

Despite his struggles in the capital, Snodgrass remains a classy player who could certainly do a job at Villa, where he would be reunited with Steve Bruce.

Snodgrass played under Bruce at Hull and was an influential figure in their promotion to the Premier League back in 2015/16.

He became a real fans’ favourite at the KCOM Stadium, scoring 14 goals from just 45 appearances in all competitions – a commendable return for a winger.

With several eye-catching signings already rubber-stamped, Villa have signalled their intentions in their quest for promotion back to the Premier League.

Specifically, Bruce appears to be targeting players with top-flight experience.

Their audacious move for former England captain John Terry stunned the world of football, while Bruce has also snapped up Christopher Samba, Glenn Whelan and Ahmed Elmohamady.

Sndograss would complement these new arrivals and bring additional quality. His quality from set pieces could be invaluable in a league that is notoriously difficult to get out of.

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Are Aston Villa ready to move for Newcastle United midfielder Jack Colback?

Jake Jackman

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Colback

Aston Villa are interested in signing Jack Colback from Newcastle United this summer. The Chronicle report that the midfielder is available for transfer, with Villa Park being one possible destination for him. This comes days after the Mail reported that the 27-year-old had a training ground row with Rafa Benitez and it does seem likely that he has played his last game for the club.

His big wages mean that it will be difficult for a lot of Championship sides to sign him, but he would be a great addition for that level. Aston Villa have had a slow start to the season and will want to increase positivity among supporters. A lot of their signings have been questionable, but Colback is a player in his prime and his experience means that he is worth targeting. Although Glenn Whelan was signed during the summer, he hasn’t impressed in a Villa shirt and a younger midfielder with more mobility could solve a lot of the club’s problems.

What would he provide to the Aston Villa squad?

The midfielder would provide more energy to Villa in the centre of the park and his experience in the Championship last season makes him an attractive option. Colback is a hard worker and full of running for his team, which suits the second tier well. Newcastle used him frequently away from home and he provided a shield in front of the back four, which allowed the more talented Jonjo Shelvey influence matches.

Steve Bruce has yet to get the best out of Conor Hourihane, which is why it is important to find a good foil for him. At this stage, Whelan doesn’t look to be the right player to do that. His legs have gone and he hasn’t played at this level for a long time. He can’t be relied on as a regular starter and that means that the club need to sign another player to compete. Colback is available and has a good pedigree. Despite his lack of attacking influence during the last couple of seasons, he remains an accomplished central midfielder.

How likely is a transfer?

Jack Colback has been mentioned as a player that Aston Villa are interested in on a few occasions this summer, but there hasn’t been a concrete report that suggests it is going to happen. In the article published by the Chronicle, it is a throw-away line when discussing possible departures at St James’ Park. Newcastle are keen to offload players and Colback is one that will be pushed to other clubs before the end of the window. Villa seems one of the more likely destinations, but they have yet to make an approach.

Colback to Aston Villa
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Transfer Likelihood
The Boot Room's Verdict
If Villa are interested in him, there is a great chance of a deal being reached, but there hasn’t been a concrete report to suggest it is likely to happen.
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