Here we are, the season’s final match, and what a ride it’s been. It’s only fitting that the entirely surreal 2020-21 edition of the Premier League comes to an end at Villa Park with supporters in the stands for the first time in over a year. Hard to believe, but this will be the true home debut for Ollie, Emi, and Bertrand, who have yet to play in front of actual Villans. Matty, hope you appreciate the applause, too.
The claret-and-blue faithful will certainly be in a better mood than the Spurs crowd Wednesday night, and they should be. Our future is brighter, and the present hasn’t been half bad. During these long months, football has given us all a lift, despite the almost inevitable disappointments. And me, I can’t believe it’s all coming to an end even as I scour the summer transfer click-bait. Being firmly mid-table has never felt so good.
For many, the story of the season will be the fabulous start and subsequent fizzle—what could have been. For others, the first time in a while we’ve been able to sit back and watch Villa be competitive against most anyone, even when we were slogging through the second round of fixtures. No one will forget the glorious 7-2 drubbing of reigning champions, Liverpool. Doing the double over Arsenal. Finally beating Spurs again. Snatching a late winner against Leicester to help erase the memory of the dismal 0-4 defeat that seemed to seal our fate before the pandemic intervened.
Likewise, no one will forget the piped-in crowd noise. Or the training match feel when the cameras panned the empty stands and we could hear the players and coaching staff. No one will forget nose hairs being offside, or the lottery that penalty decisions have become.
No one will forget the post-Covid slump, or the three-week lockdown preceding it. The fixture congestion featuring matches throughout many weekdays. Nor will anyone doubt any longer the massive influence Jack Grealish has had on this Villa side. The 12 matches he missed showed just how much he’s carried the team over the last three seasons.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some other outstanding performers, though. Ollie Watkins firmly established himself as a Premier League striker at the first time of asking. Matty Cash made the jump in what has to be the modern game’s most difficult position. Emiliano Martinez became a fan favorite overnight, and easily the best keeper at Villa since at least Brad Friedel. Ezri Konsa blossomed into an outstanding player. Matt Targett also looked so much more assured, and became as solid as they come.
But as is always the case in football, the conversation will quickly move on. Whether or not Villa’s slump was Covid related will become a forgotten point of contention, and only Dean Smith & Co. will really know what was behind the up-and-down form of a number of players. But even as the side struggled, there was a resilience that saw us grind out enough results to prevent a free fall.
The final day will see us with little to play for on paper. But Chelsea will get our attention. Jack will be fighting for a spot in England’s Euro squad. Ollie, too, perhaps. A number of players will be trying to take advantage of their last chance to cement a spot on next season’s squad, whether starting or on the bench. I wouldn’t mind seeing Carney and Jaden getting some more minutes against a side full of household names. I also wouldn’t mind seeing the club earn a small measure of redemption in closing out the season buoyed by back-to-back wins over two ‘bigger’ clubs we’ll be looking to go toe-to-toe with in a few months’ time.
Chelsea of course will be fighting to hold on to their Champions League spot. I can’t say I wouldn’t enjoy seeing Villa take all three points and Leicester and Liverpool leapfrogging the Blues. Not that I have any love for the scousers. It’d just be fun to bloody another Super Club’s nose, spoil their summer, and help Leicester break the stranglehold. It certainly wouldn’t be a bad way for Villa to go into the close season and lay down a bit of a marker for the upcoming campaign.
So even though we couldn’t stay up in the European places and even though Leeds will have just pipped us to 10th or even better, I, for one, will fondly look back on this strange season for the stepping stone I believe it to be. I like Dean and our staff. I like our owners. I like being competitive in the top tier. And I think I’ll like the business we’re about to do to make a real push at establishing ourselves as a top-seven side who can beat anyone on our day.
I’m also really going to enjoy taking my vaccinated ass out and about this summer and anticipating a bit of normalcy for football: but more important, a return to almost regular life having had a bit of reinforcement about the things that really matter. Like fixing VAR.
Over to you.