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How can Roberto Di Matteo’s successor at Aston Villa change the club’s fortunes?

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Aston Villa. Four wins in 51 league games, 1 win in 11 this season and yet another manager has been sacked, it has all gone horribly wrong incredibly quickly for the Birmingham side.

Villa, along with Nottingham Forest, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea are one of five clubs to have been crowned champions of Europe (1981/82), have won the English top flight on seven occasions, the FA Cup seven times and have claimed the English league cup five separate times.

But since the turn of the 21st century, The Lions haven’t notched up any kind of silverware before last season, finishing last in the Premier League on an embarrassing 17 points, claiming a measly 3 wins.

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Things haven’t gone any better this season, one tier down in the Sky Bet Championship. After 11 league games, Villa sit 19th, only 2 points from safety and 15 points from current league leaders Huddersfield and it’s only October.

This poor start to the season has seen Roberto Di Matteo, the man who steered Chelsea to Champions League glory and who was drafted in to replace Remi Garde, lose his job after faring little better than his French predecessor, with assistant manager Steve Clarke temporarily taking charge.

Several managers have subsequently been linked to Villa Park, with caretaker manager Clarke in the running, as well as Steve Bruce and Bristol boss Lee Johnson. No matter who they appoint,he will be the fifth manager in just over two seasons when Paul Lambert was dismissed.

Tim Sherwood came in to replace the Scotsman, and looked to make an impact with his charisma and passion, but a bad start to last season’s league campaign saw him lose his job, with Frenchman Remi Garde taking the helm, and if anything he was even worse than Sherwood.

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Garde left his post and in came Di Matteo, who with Clarke as his assistant looked like a decent bet of reviving the confidence-drained and demotivated Aston Villa side back to one that was capable of winning football and performing well.

But it hasn’t worked out and Villa are continuing to find themselves in a position of turmoil, now effectively back to square one as they search for a new manager, and in need of a quick fix as they potentially face doing a Wolves and sliding from the Premier League and the Championship in successive seasons.

So what actually is the problem?

I think, despite the obvious poor start, that it isn’t all down to the manager. I’m not necessarily suggesting Villa made a mistake in sacking Di Matteo because he didn’t look to be the right man to lead them forward in the long run, but a little continuity would hardly go a miss at Villa Park.

Steve Clarke may actually be a good option given his wealth of experience and relatively healthy track record at previous clubs, and the group of players are already familiar with him. However it could be argued a dramatic change is what the players need.

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Ultimately what Aston Villa need is quite simply a little confidence in themselves. It’s not a big thing, but it is very hard to gain, and things are only getting worse for those who were at the club last season, who are still continuing to struggle despite dropping down a division.

Clearly, Di Matteo wasn’t the man to inspire the squad, ironically one of their former managers Tim Sherwood would probably be able to do that. If Villa can go 2 or 3 games unbeaten or even better get three wins on the bounce, their season could change drastically.

The atmosphere within the dressing room will be less suffocating, the media scrutiny would be less intense and the players won’t be so demoralised if they go behind or concede a goal.

Of course, recovering the sinking ship is incredibly hard to do, and although the players can try their utmost to recover the situation as best they can, it does require a certain type of manager, a passionate manager.

But whoever is appointed, something needs to change and quickly before The Lions find themselves in the third tier of English football when they really, given their infrastructure, ought to be in the first tier.

If nothing else, the fans deserve better. It’s going to be a crucial few months.

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Aston Villa

Can Aston Villa and Steve Bruce afford to blow their big opportunity?

After a difficult start to life in the Championship, Aston Villa are now in a favourable position to secure a return to the Premier League under Steve Bruce, writes columnist Jake Jackman.

Jake Jackman

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Aston Villa have climbed up the Championship table and, after a run of six consecutive victories, should now be considered serious promotion contenders.

The Midlands club have struggled since being relegated from the Premier League and it has taken them some time to adjust to the second tier, but they are now emerging as one of the best teams in the division.

The club’s critics will point to the amount of money that has been spent since arriving in the second tier, but, in truth, the squad needed a complete overhaul and the Villains are now benefitting from that.

They are currently third in the division, but they trail Derby County by only one point and will be confident that they can move ahead of Gary Rowett’s side.

Villa are building momentum at the right time and no team will relish the prospect of playing against Steve Bruce’s men.

The manager is a major reason why the club have to be considered as favourites to clinch the second automatic promotion place, as he has a proven track record of getting teams over the line.

He has won promotion to the Premier League on four occasions and that will stand him in good stead to achieve a similar feat at Villa Park.

A quick look at the squad that faced Burton Albion shows the quality and experience that Bruce currently has at his disposal.

John Terry is a winner and after a slow start to life as a Championship player, he has found his stride. His leadership will be crucial over the coming months.

Ahmed El Mohamady, James Chester, Alan Hutton, Robert Snodgrass, Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak have all achieved success in the Premier League, which makes them great players to have when challenging for promotion.

Meanwhile, Jack Grealish, Josh Onomah and Keinan Davis have the ability to inject flair and energy into any performance.

It has been a period of recovery for Aston Villa, but they are now coming out fighting and the supporters have a team they can believe in again.

At the tail end of the Championship standings, there are examples of what can happen if the team isn’t run correctly after relegation.

Sunderland are second bottom and have only won five times in 30 league matches. Meanwhile, Hull City are just one place above them in the table.

Both clubs could face back-to-back relegations and, considering the supposed financial advantage they should hold over the rest of the league, their struggles are indicative of poor leadership from the top.

Although Tony Xia has caused problems for Aston Villa since taking over as the owner of the football club, namely through his Twitter feed, he has stabilised the club and provided the finances needed to build a team that can compete in the Championship.

The Chinese businessman made headlines when he bought the club,  speaking of his desire to win the Champions League within ten seasons, as evidenced by the following quotes from the Telegraph:

“We don’t have a very detailed plan but we have a vision that we will challenge to get back into the Premier League and we will be challenging when we get back.

”The aim, not just the hope, is to get back in the European field within five years and I wish we can succeed to get another trophy like we have here in eight or 10 years. That is not an exact number, but we want to win the European Cup.

“It is really important to get promoted in the first season as everybody hopes but all we can do is do our best.”

There is nothing wrong with ambition and, as Leicester City showed when they won the Premier League in 2016, the impossible remains possible in football.

However, coming in as a new owner of a club that had just been embarrassed in the Premier League, it wasn’t the right time to speak about achieving success in Europe.

First and foremost, he had to sort out the mess that he had inherited.

He initially appointed Roberto di Matteo and that turned out to be a poor move.

The Italian had previously won promotion with West Brom and the Champions League with Chelsea, but he wasn’t the appointment that the club needed.

Villa required a manager who had the experience of winning promotion and building a squad capable of achieving it, from scratch.

Di Matteo didn’t stay in the position long. Villa were struggling in 19th position after just 11 league matches, with only one win to their name.

Xia made the decision to relieve the Italian of his duties and started a managerial search from scratch.

The appointment that followed showed how much the Chinese businessman had learned from his short time in football, as Steve Bruce came in.

The Geordie was exactly what the club needed and the patience shown by the board underlines the faith they have in him.

The first season after relegation was a tough one. Villa were humbled and finished a lowly 13th. However, Xia didn’t panic and he deserves credit for that.

Compared to the actions of some owners in recent years, the Chinese businessman doesn’t come across as too volatile, despite what his social media profile would have you believe.

Steve Bruce’s recruitment since has been very shrewd. He has brought in players that are proven in the Championship, alongside those with a sprinkling of Premier League class.

Robert Snodgrass would fit into both categories, while the likes of Henri Lansbury and Conor Hourihane know what is required to succeed in the lower leagues.

During January, Villa were keen to add to their ranks to maintain their positive momentum and their signing of Lewis Grabban looks to be a masterstroke.

The striker scored 12 times during the first half of the season with Sunderland, in a team that was struggling badly. His reputation soared and he will provide another source of goals for the promotion-chasing side.

The next few months will be defining for Aston Villa. Their need for promotion is greater than other clubs competing at the top of the Championship due to their wage bill and stature.

A club the size of the Midlands outfit can’t afford to be outside of the Premier League for too long, especially if they want to continue growing.

The finances on offer in the top-flight are huge and the longer the club are missing out on that, the greater the gap will become.

They are in a strong position with a proven manager and talented playing staff. It is now up to them to take that final step and return to the level where they belong.

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

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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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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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