Cahill decision was right for Villa

By Graham Hill

TIME will tell if Villa’s decision not to sign Gary Cahill on a free transfer this summer was a wise move.

But right now, it looks like the correct one.

Cahill was widely tippled to return to Villa Park after being released by Chelsea.

The deal had the backing of Villa coach John Terry who has obvious Stamford Bridge connections with ex-England defender Cahill, 33.

But, according to The Athletic website, Villa’s bosses decided to opt for the ‘young and hungry’ rout, buying players who are likely to increase in value.

Villa were also concerned that Cahill’s wages of £80,000 a week would make him the highest paid player at the club – that is despite captain Jack Grealish earning a pay rise as a result of winning promotion last May.

Cahill went to Palace instead and could line up against Villa on Saturday.

Instead, Villa signed defenders Tyrone Mings, Bjorn Engels, Ezri Konsa, Matt Targett and Kortney Hause for a combined total of around £50million.

Certainly, it is difficult to provide a good reason why Cahill would be a better prospect right now – particularly if it meant Dean Smith could not have signed all of the above players.

It was argued at the time that Cahill, a product of Villa’s Academy system before he was sold to Bolton 11 years ago, would have added some valuable experience,

But at the end of his two-year deal, Villa would likely release him just as Chelsea did. And the players they did sign have years ahead of them and can only get better.

Wesley put doubters in their place

By Graham Hill

LOOKS like the doubters were a little too quick to write off Villa’s record signing Wesley after all.

Former England midfielder Paul Ince was particularly cutting after the Bournemouth defeat when he suggested the £22milllon Brazilian was a ‘moaner’ and ‘at least I could play’.

It is unclear whether Wesley pays much attention to comments like that – and it was not the only one made after the first two games of the season.

But his clever strike against Everton appeared to lift a weight off his shoulders in that it was his first goal on the back of a big money transfer deal.

After what had been said before, it was refreshing to see Ian Wright on Match of the Day highlighting the fact that Wesley had been causing Everton problems all night.

Villa boss Dean Smith admitted on the eve of the Everton game that he could understand why Wesley was being scrutinised so early on in the season.

The reason is directly linked to the amount of money spent when the 22-year-old was signed from Bruges.

But you can see Smith’s point. All of Villa’s signings need time after such a big turnaround. Some settled straight away, some did not and some have yet to play.

One thing is for certain now, there will be no more pundits and critics questioning when Wesley will score his first goal for the club.

He will need to deliver more than that of course, but for now, the spotlight is not glaring so brightly in his direction.

And there was more praise for Wesley from Talksport pundit and former Crystal Palace chairman Simon Jordan who said:

“One particular player who stood out for me was Wesley. I liked a lot about him.

“He reminded me a lot of John Carew. He had this presence and power. He bossed the centre-halves. I like his shoulders back attitude, I like the fact he attacks the ball.

“I think he’s going to do a good job for Villa.”

And Wesley’s joy at scoring against Everton was playing to see when he spoke to Villa’s official website.

The big striker said: “I am very happy to help my team with the goal.

“In the first two games, I did not score but the supporters, manager and my team-mates know me, they know my quality – and I am very happy now.

“I hope to continue like this – to help my team-mates, to score goals and to play very well.

“The goal, of course, gives me more confidence. Now I have to continue like this.

“The support was incredible. The noise was incredible. The atmosphere was incredible.

“It’s important for this to continue because it helps you do good things on the pitch. The fans definitely help us.”

Spotlight’s on Villa in top flight

By Graham Hill

DEAN Smith is already having to defend some of his key players in the build up to what is only Villa’s third game back in the Premier League.

For Smith, it is a reminder that the spotlight is so much brighter than it is in the Championship.

Just as players might be able to get away with mistakes on the field outside the top flight, it is also much harder to deflect the media glare once you are in the elite. On Thursday ahead of the Everton game, Smith was mystified to discover he was facing question about record signing Wesley who has yet to score for Villa after joining in a £22million deal.

A player such as that would be given time to settle into his new role at Villa Park in the Championship. It would not be up for debate nationally. But Smith now knows everything about the Premier League is cranked up a notch or two.

And skipper Jack Grealish was not be expected to deliver man of the match displays every week in the second tier.

The fact that he did in the last quarter of the season was because a lot of the pressure was off him following a three-month injury lay-off.

Now he is expected to perform against the best – particularly as he has said publicly he wants to be part of the England set-up under Gareth Southgate.

But while Grealish has been as creative as ever, his errors are now highlighted.

It means the boyhood Villa fan lifting himself for the Premier League season ahead.

But Smith knows the star midfielder will make the adjustments he needs to.

Smith told reporters: “What people won’t see is three or four times against Tottenham he picked up the ball on the edge of his own area and caused the opposition problems.

“That one time he’s given it away. We have to make sure if he’s doing that he doesn’t make the mistake

“It’s always a balancing act. At that period in time there wasn’t an out ball for him. It was probably the team’s fault as much as Jack’s. If he had an out-ball he would have played it but unfortunately he didn’t so he ended up taking another touch.

“I thought Jack against Bournemouth gave the ball away two or three times in the first half when I wouldn’t expect him to.

“Second half he took it to them. He should’ve done better with the chance but he was starting to look like the Jack we saw in pre-season that will move forward in this league!

“He played deeper against Tottenham but we worked on playing deeper as a team anyway. The have midfielders that can punish you. Against Bournemouth it was more as an attacking midfielder hence the chance he got.”

No hiding place for Villa coach

By Graham Hill

WHEN Kevin MacDonald briefly stepped into the manager’s hot seat nine years ago, he had a saying: ‘Self praise is no praise’.

It was meant as a reaction to any coach with an inflated ego who needed little invitation to push themselves publicly.

And that was seen as one of MacDonald’s faults.

Whenever the chance to be a manager came along, he did not push himself.

His time at Villa, in the public eye at least, was understated.

The Scot had a chance to take on the job of Villa manager when Martin O’Neill quit after a dispute over cash with former owner Randy Lerner.

At a time when the American did not know who to turn to after O’Neill’s departure leading up to the 2010-11 season, MacDonald was in pole position.

But his indecision probably cost him and it Gerard Houllier who got the job in a misguided appointment considering the Frenchman’s well documented health problems.

In his last press conference before handing over the reins, MacDonald thanked the media for the positive treatment of his short time in charge.

It was one of three spells as a caretaker boss for the ex-Liverpool and Coventry midfielder

All of this seems to be at odds with what emerged about the 58-year-old’s work with the club’s younger players.
MacDonald left his position as head of football development on Tuesday after an eight-month enquiry.

He was a reserve and youth team coach during two spells over a 25-year period and had already been re-allocated to non-player duties in the wake of allegations made last year by ex-Villa midfielder Gareth Farrelly.

A Villa statement read: “Aston Villa wishes to apologise to all former players who were affected by behaviour which would not be tolerated by the club today.”

Farrelly, who was with Villa between 1992 and 1997, described MacDonald’s regime as a ‘culture of physical and verbal bullying’.

MacDonald is a man who came up through the school of hard knocks at places such as Anfield when football culture was a lot different to nowadays.

Back then, it was accepted that coaches spoke to players in a certain way – we can safely say they did not stand on ceremony.

For MacDonald, this was clearly the way it was done. And the complaints stretch back over almost three decades.

The modern game does not tolerate bullying, it is common to hear that the ‘throwing tea cups again the wall’ mentality is long gone. But it is something that would have been ingrained into MacDonald – and some of the language used towards players does not look good in the cold light of day.

Villa fans will be team’s 12th man

By Graham Hill

IF you needed any convincing that the Villa Park crowd can be used as a weapon this season, you only had to listen to the words of Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe after Saturday’s game.

Sure, Bournemouth went away with all three points but this was no easy ride and, on another day, Villa might have taken a share of the honours or more.

Because the reaction of the crowd to Villa’s determined efforts to get back into the game after going two goals down was a definite factor.

BBC’s Match of the Day referred to the party-like atmosphere before the game.

And it was heartening to see the volume turned up when Villa were behind.

Certainly, a Dean Smith side will not ever think they are beaten when they are two goals behind, we saw that last season.

And it is not often a visiting manager comments on the support of the home fans – even in the Premier League.

In fact, there are certain stadiums that are big in stature, but devoid of atmosphere.

That is not going to be the case at Villa Park this season.

Yes, things can turn ugly, hostile even when you look back on how it all went wrong for them in the top flight previously. That all depends on the manager and the style of play.

But Smith’s approach will earn him respect as long as the team play entertaining, attacking football.

And Smith has made it clear that Villa will play with a winning mentality.

Results have to come sooner or later though, but a buoyant Villa Park can make that happen.

Howe was clearly impressed by the home support when he told reporters: “I think the home support are very good for Aston Villa. That was something we had to contend with and deal with. I thought in the main, we did that pretty well.”

Compare that to the comments made by former defender Micah Richards on BBC Radio Five when speaking about the club’s relegation to the Championship in 2016.

Richards said: “You can’t let negativity set in.

“When we were in the Premier League last time after about seven or eight games the players were actually scared to play at Villa Park.

“That’s how bad it was. Fans thought that players weren’t trying and weren’t giving 100 per cent on the field.

“This time it’s a different feeling as they have a great manager and they have some great young players. I think they just need that first win and that’ll give them the confidence they need.”

The atmosphere at Villa Park built and built last season as the play-offs loomed larger. And record season ticket sales in the summer made sure the feelgood factor carried on into the Premier League.

There has been a lot of hype around Villa’s summer signings and the home fans are clearly buying into it. Sooner or later, that support could be the difference when it finally clicks for Smith’s side in front of goal.

Wesley needs time… and a goal

By Graham Hill

RECORD signing Wesley may not be having an immediate impact for Villa – but is he a victim of the club failing to capture a second signing before the transfer window shut?

Despite Villa’s unprecedented transfer market spree this summer, the feeling was that Dean Smith probably wanted to get a couple more faces though the door.

In the week leading up to deadline day, Smith hinted at this publicly without giving away any names.

It has since emerged that Villa were trying to do deals right up until the window closed.

Yet nothing more happened on that Thursday before the season started and Wesley is starting to look a little isolated.

Smith is well stocked in defence and midfield, but a forward line that was dominated by Tammy Abraham last season – albeit in the Championship – seems light despite the big presence of £22million Brazil forward Wesley.

He certainly presents a threat up front but looks like he will need time to adapt after playing in Belgium for Bruges.

Apart from Jonathan Kodjia and Keinan Davis, Smith does not have the option of playing a strike partner alongside Wesley. The formula does match the one that brought success to Villa last season, but this is a a different landscape and could be asking a lot of Wesley at the moment.

But this is a squad where goals can come from anywhere and so far it is two midfielders who have found the net for Villa in a mixed start to life back in the Premier League.

Smith is encouraged by the start Wesley has made to life in the English top flight.

But there is little time for him to bed in as Villa need to get points on the board or face a season playing catch-up.

The Villa boss told reporters after the Bournemouth game “Wesley did okay on Saturday. He had a couple of chances, the keeper’s made a save, one’s got deflected.

“He was a presence up front and ran down the sides as well at the end of the first half and again in the second.

“He’s starting to get up to speed with the Premier League and it’s going to take time for the few of them. I’ve been pleased with his performances so far and he just needs a goal now.

“Cutting out the mistakes is the major thing. There were a couple of loose touches. I look at their victory and it’s probably come off their mistakes.

“The game was littered with mistakes from both teams and they capitalised on ours.

“I don’t think the speed of the Premier League has caught us out. We’ve adapted well to it and have had a tough start. I thought losing on Saturday was very harsh on us but it happens.

Villa must build on the positives

VERDICT By Phil Jennings

CONCERNING? Yes? Worrying? No. That seems to be the story of Villa’s mixed up start to the season.

For every bright, encouraging sign, there seems to be a head-in-hand moment.

And the one thing Villa are not right now is a 90 minute team.

That is the sort of problem that could be comfortably corrected in the Championship – not so in the Premier League.

An impressive hour at Tottenham was wiped out by Spurs’ undoubted class in the opening game.

And as for a so-called easier meeting against Bournemouth on Saturday, they simply do not happen at this level.

This was the opposite of what we saw at Tottenham. At Villa Park, it was the shakiest of starts that proved too much for Dean Smith’s side to overcome.

There is an upside to this of course. Yes, it is two defeats in a row. But the indications are there that Villa can turn this around.

You can only hope that they are getting their mistakes out of the way early.

Because it is no good dominating for long periods and getting nothing for your efforts.

Smith said at the start of the season that Villa would take the game to their opponents, no matter what their status.

Is it time to temper that way of thinking? Maybe a more cautious approach could pay dividends, especially with Everton in town this week.

Or is now the moment to reflect on the huge positives to come out of both of Villa’s opening games.

Certainly, John McGinn has taken to the Premier League in a way most people hoped he would.

And while skipper Jack Grealish admitted on Match of the Day that he has made mistakes, statistics from the Bournemouth game showed he created more chances than another other Premier League player on Saturday.

Tom Heaton was in fine form in the opening game but the keeper gave away a needless penalty to provide the platform for Bournemouth’s victory.

It was difficult to know whether to be happy or sad at Douglas Luiz’s contribution on his full debut.

His mistake for Bournemouth’s second goal was a huge error – but his goal later in the game was pure brilliance. You suspect that we will see more of the latter this season.

There are other areas worth questioning. Smith has chosen to stick with last season’s full-backs in Ahmed Elmohamady and Neil Taylor for starters, despite an encouraging pre-season for new signings Freddie Guilbert and Matt Targett.

You get the feeling that might change soon, with Ezri Konsa another candidate.

The defensive partnership between Tyrone Mings and Bjorn Engels is another plus point. But Wesley needs to become more of a threat soon up front – a £22million fee means goals are a basic requirement.

Villa have shown enough to suggest they will not struggle this season, a win will be needed soon though.

Flashback: Villa-Bournemouth ’72

By Graham Hill

IT was February, 1972, Villa hosted Bournemouth on the old Third Division – and it was on Match of the Day!

That was when the BBC’s flagship football programme only showed two of the games that had taken place that Saturday.

It was virtually unheard of for such a lowly game to make it on to Saturday night TV.

But there was a reason – a record crowd for the third tier of English football, 48,110 – even Saturday’s long awaited Premier League return against Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth will not see that figure repeated.

That number has only been surpassed since by the Sheffield derby. But 47 years ago, both clubs were heading for promotion.

For Villa, it was the step back to a promotion that had eluded them the previous season – although that had reached the League Cup Final where they lost to Tottenham at Wembley.

But the Bournemouth game was part of a bigger picture – and the attendance reflected that.

Villa would go on to win the Third Division title – but Bournemouth missed out on promotion to Brighton.

On this day, Villa ended up as 2-1 winners with goals from Geoff Vowden and Andy Lochhead – now 78 years old.

Villa had to come back from a goal down though after Bournemouth took the lead through danger man Ted MacDougall – a man who once scored nine goals in an FA Cup tie. Take a look at the video for MacDougall’s superb diving header.

These were heady days at Villa Park after the shock of being relegated to the third tier of the English game two years earlier. And their next home game was against Pele’s Brazilian side Santos. The crowd? 54,437!

Purslow transparency is a joy

By Graham Hill

CHRISTIAN Purslow did not give too many interviews when he first arrived at Villa Park.

After all, there was not a great deal to shout about – Villa were treading water in the Championship.

Sure, the club was now in the hands of the richest people ever to own the club.

But what good was that when Financial Fair Play was biting hard? The money was there last year, but it would almost another 12 months before any of it could be spent in a way that would significantly make an impact. on the squad.

Ironically, it was the £2.7million – peanuts in today’s football world – to bring in John McGinn that had the most effect last season.

From there, a decision to replace Steve Bruce with Dean Smith – and thankfully not Thierry Henry – eventually paid dividends along with the return to form of newly-appointed captain Jack Grealish.

Chief Executive Purslow had only spoken publicly in the briefest terms before then as Villa’s Chief Executive.

Villa could easily have remained in the Championship this season and the club’s alternative spending plan would have been implemented. Instead, Villa went from near bankruptcy under former chairman Tony Xian’s reign to boom time with Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris. And that is what has made the club’s unprecedented spending spree so significant.

Twelve months ago, Villa almost went under and Purslow confirmed this when speaking to supporters in the USA last month.

And here is the sea change in the way Villa is being run right now – transparency.

Randy Lerner barely said anything to let fans know what was happening at Villa – then criticised the media for trying to second guess him.

Yes, he spoke when he first arrived at Villa, but those comments became less and less when his interest waned. Even the incendiary online comments from his right hand man General Charles Krulak began to fade from view.

Xia tried to communicate with supporters on Twitter, but while the financial risks he was taking were there in plain site, with even players warning about the consequences of not winning promotion in 2018, the sheer size of the mess created by the Chinese businessman were shocking.

So now, not only are Villa financially stable and able to spend in order to compete with their Premier League rivals, they are also letting the wider public know why they are behaving like this.

Critics have lambasted Villa for spending upwards of £125million in this summer’s transfer market while the likes of other newly promoted clubs have taken a more prudent approach.

The comparisons with Fulham’s doomed Premier League campaign last season are inevitable but wrong.

Remember, Purslow has previously worked at Liverpool and Chelsea – that alone speaks for itself when Villa are accused of being reckless in the market.

Purslow was remarkably candid last month when he addressed supporters before the pre-season friendly in Minnesota.

And he kept little hidden when he spoke to The Times and Sky Sports in the wake of Villa’s opening day defeat at Tottenham – a display that promised much for the rest of the campaign.

Purslow is making it clear not only why Villa spent so much, but the necessity behind it if the club is to restore its former status in the top flight.

He is insistent that Villa have not adopted a Supermarket Sweep attitude to their transfer policy.

Purslow said: “It is a lot of money, and I’m incredibly grateful to our owners, but a couple of important points. Firstly, at the end of last season we had 12 players leave Villa, so we would have been starting with 10 players had we not bought.

“With or without promotion, Dean Smith and Jesus Garcia Pitarch came to Aston Villa with the certain knowledge we would be rebuilding our club this summer.

“It’s essentially 12 out, 12 in. £127million, before add-ons, is a huge amount, but it is about a year’s worth of television money. My board and I feel strongly that in the Premier League we have an obligation to be competitive, not to be promoted to the Premier League, spend no money, take some TV money, say thank you very much and go back down probably.

“We feel like we’ve invested to try and make our great club competitive in the Premier League. At £10m a player, that does not feel like an enormous amount of money spent.

With or without promotion, Dean Smith and Jesus Garcia Pitarch, the sporting director, came to Aston Villa with the certain knowledge we would be rebuilding our club this summer.

“We bought a goalkeeper at 33, Tyrone Mings at 26, the rest of the 10 are all 24 and under. Young players we hope will establish themselves in the Premier League and in doing so, grow their value. So far from being a liability, we are trying to invest in assets that grow their value, to protect the future financial health of our football club.

“I wouldn’t comment on another club’s transfer policy, and I’m not briefed on the fine details of Fulham, but I am extremely close to our policy.

“Of the 12, four players were with us last season, loans that we converted into transfers. Three players had either played for our coach at Brentford or had been about to sign for Brentford, so that’s seven of the 12.

“This is not: find a footballer, bring him to Birmingham and hope he works well for Dean Smith. These are players intimately familiar to our coach and our coaching staff.

“We had a scouting department put in place from last October. All the players we signed were watched by our coach, by our sporting director, very frequently.

“Most of our business was done very early in the window, so those new players who hadn’t played for Dean before were in the building, going on our overseas training camp in America and maximising the time they had to familiarise ourselves with our great club.”

Purslow also spoke in glowing terms of Jack Grealish’s value to the club – even likening him to Steven Gerrard when he was a Liverpool player.

He told the The Times’ Henry Winter: “ Jack is the heart and soul and face of our club. He’s kind, generous and incredibly driven. He lit up the Championship.

“He was unplayable. If we hadn’t been promoted it would have been impossible to keep a player who’d performed at that level. He had a £60 million escape clause. Somebody would probably have invoked it. Jack can be Villa’s Steven Gerrard in terms of importance and impact to his club.”

Xia mess is consigned to history

By Graham Hill

SO, it’s farewell to Tony Xia – the man who almost ruined Aston Villa.

The Chinese businessman arrived at the club in 2016 with a promise to get Villa back into the Premier League and then challenge to be Champions of Europe as they were in 1982.

Sounds crazy now of course. New owners Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris have not gone that far in terms of sound bite promises to fans.

The first thing he did was to abandon plans to appoint Nigel Pearson as manager as Villa began what was to be a three-season stint in the Championship.

Instead, in came Roberto di Matteo – after all, here was a man who had won the Champions League, he surely could not fail, could he?

He did and his place came Steve Bruce – with John Terry arriving the following season as Villa’s star signing.

The kitchen sink was being thrown at promotion – and all we really had to go on in terms of Xia’s thinking was a series of Twitter emojis.

Eventually, the car crash of Villa’s finances was revealed when they lost the 2018 Play-off Final to Fulham.

The cash simply was not there to function as a club – and Jack Grealish would not have been sold to raise money. Villa almost went under. Even a disinterested Randy Lerner did not let this happen, and it definitely would never have got to such a stage under Doug Ellis.

But the rest is history, Edens and Sawiris came in to rescue the club, Villa were promoted and now Xia no longer has any connection with them.

He arrived as a potential saviour, now he is merely an unwanted footnote.

Xia stayed on as a minority shareholder and vice-chairman the arrival of Edens and Sawiris.

But documents filed at Companies House confirm his directorship has now been terminated, while he has also lost his position on the club’s board.

Sawiris and Edens stepped in to pay a £30million loan owed to Lerner after Villa were promoted, in exchange for what was left of Xia’s shares.

The Express & Star says Xia’s shareholding had also further been reduced after he failed to pay back a substantial loan he received from the new owners as part of last summer’s takeover.