The final Bank Holiday before the start of the summer and the last Monday in May here in England can only ever mean just one thing. Championship Playoff Final Day and the most valuable match in world football.
This year estimated at £170m to the winners the match between Aston Villa and Derby County in front of 85,000 fans at Wembley proved to be an entertaining affair between two fiercely contesting Midland rivals and it was the Birmingham based side that edged themselves into a 2-0 lead with goals either side of the break courtesy of some sloppy Derby defending.
The typical English attitude to never give up however ensured the Rams clawed themselves back in the game with ten minutes remaining and all be it with a huge push could not barge the door down to open entry in to the Premier League for the 2019/20 campaign.
Villa clung on to a 2-1 win, were the more solid side across the board and look better equipped to do well next season in the top division of English football which is where their fans feel they should be plying their trade year in year out.
Hats off to Dean Smith who replaced the underperforming Steve Bruce as Manager in October after moving from Brentford where he often guided the bees to respectful seasons in the Championship’s pack. Smith, a West Bromwich born Villa fan who played the majority of his career at Walsall, Hereford and Leyton Orient at Centre half has been known for his attacking style of play since taking the step into Coaching and at Villa was sometimes criticised for playing too open during the early months of his reign. That however improved with the loan signing of Tyrone Mings from Bournemouth in January and especially since the return from injury of star playmaker Jack Grealish in March where they won ten straight games in a row (starting with a 4-0 win against Derby on March 2nd) to push themselves from mid-table obscurity into playoff certainty.
The ride since winning just one of their opening 10 league matches has been much improved. Under Smith Villa have won 19 and drew 10 of their 38 games and have gone from drawing games 3-3 (as they did against Preston & Sheffield United) and 5-5 (which they did dramatically against Nottingham Forest in November) to defending much better and scoring just as impressively. The ten game winning run came at the perfect time and going into the playoffs Villa were the form team in the division and favourites for many as to who would go up.
Not just down to the form of Jack Grealish, Villa have had 25 goals from Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham to thank for huge contributions to this seasons successes as well as some terrific performances from the likes of Anwar El Ghazi and John McGinn in midfield who incidentally both scored the vital goals in the playoff final to take the claret & blues up.
McGinn a signing from Hibernian in August dubbed the Scottish Iniesta has punched above his weight with some feisty box to box performances and has been consistently one of the best midfielders in the division since moving south from Scotland. It will be interesting to see how he fairs in the Premier League with an attitude and commitment level to succeed amongst the very best in world football.
The stylish 24 year old El Ghazi is on loan from Lille and has been twice capped by the Netherlands. Smith will be hoping he can capture the Barendrecht born winger permanently along with Abraham from Chelsea as the step up next season will mean Villa must keep what they have, add to and strengthen in all areas to compete successfully in the Premier League.
Another loan signing at Centre Half is Axel Tuanzebe from Manchester United and another that they’ll be looking to keep with Mings a revelation since signing on loan from Bournemouth a certainty to stay at Villa Park buoyed by his relationship with Coach John Terry who has been key in resolving Villa’s early season defensive issues. With Premier League & International experience in Neil Taylor, James Chester, Mo Elmohamady and Mile Jedinak it is a squad that just needs the i’s dotting and t’s crossing as long as it keeps its best assets for the season ahead.
Whilst now the future of Grealish looks more secure I feel a goalkeeper, centre half, and at least one more midfielder and attacking option will be on the shopping list for Smith and this huge, huge football club who will no doubt start attracting those worldwide stars once again to its Premier League status now that they are back where they feel they belong.