According to Twitter gospel, success in the Championship requires a manager steeped in English Football League folklore. Someone who has ‘been there, done that and got the T-shirt’ is who many fans suggest would be the ideal manager to guide their club to promotion to the Premier League.
So, in that case, Steve Bruce must be the perfect man to take Aston Villa back to the Premier League – surely?
He has won promotion to the top flight a record four times (twice each with Birmingham City and Hull City) and has also managed Wigan Athletic and Sunderland in the top tier. After Roberto di Matteo was dismissed at Villa Park at the beginning of last season following a dismal start to life in the second tier, Bruce seemed the popular choice to take the famous Villains back to where, in their fans’ often not so humble opinion, they belong – the Premier League.
However, Villa currently sit in seventh place in the Championship, despite a recent good run of form. Three wins in a row, which included a 4-0 drubbing of lowly Burton Albion, pushed Bruce’s side towards the play-offs.
The winning run ended at Molineux on Saturday in the season’s first West Midlands derby. Wolves came out on top, winning 2-0 owing to goals from Diogo Jota and Leo Bonatini.
See, since last season, Wolves have enjoyed a magnificent turnaround of their. After the Chinese investment conglomerate Fosun International took over in July of last year, making Wolves one of the wealthiest clubs in English football, it seemed that the Old Gold were destined for promotion. Though, it was not to be. After four managers, with most of the season being under the tenure of Paul Lambert, a below-par 15th-place finish was achieved. Villa, just as underwhelmingly, finished two places higher in 13th.
Before the start of this campaign Lambert, a former Villa manager, was sacked by Wolves and replaced by Nuno Espirito Santo. He oversaw drastic changes to the first-team staff and playing squad.
Ruben Neves became the club’s record signing after a £15.8 million move from FC Porto. He was joined by 11 other first-team signings in a major overhaul of the squad. Of those arrivals, only John Ruddy and Ryan Bennett, who were both free transfers after being released by Norwich City, had played in the Championship before this season. Loan signing Alfred N’Diaye has played on loan for both Sunderland and Hull in the Premier League, but, aside from thereof, none of Wolves’ signings had played in England’s top two divisions before arriving at Molineux.
Wolves’ manager, Nuno, has also never managed or played in England before. His previous managerial jobs have been at Rio Ave and Porto in Portugal, and at La Liga outfit Valencia. Compare that to Bruce’s career; he has rarely found himself unemployed since his first job as Sheffield United manager in 1998, and has never ventured, as a player or indeed manager, away from English football.
The two teams that both managers put out on Saturday do not compare in terms of age or experience. The average age of Villa’s starting side on Saturday was 28.5 years, compared to Wolves’ 24.8. What’s more, Wolves’ second half front three that consisted of goalscorers Jota (20), Bonatini and also Ivan Cavaleiro (both 23) do not come close to the age and experience of Villa’s back four, that boasted Chelsea and England legend John Terry, as well as former Premier League defenders Ahmed Elmohamady, James Chester and Alan Hutton, who have featured as regulars in the top flight for a combined 31 years. Terry represented Chelsea for 19 of those.
A quick glance at least season’s Championship table proves that a manager with second-tier experience is of course useful, but not a necessity. Chris Hughton, who managed Newcastle United, Birmingham and Norwich in the Championship before earning promotion with Brighton & Hove Albion last season was the only manager inside last campaign’s top six to boast serious experience of the Championship beforehand.
Newcastle were victorious and claimed the league title on the last day of the season. Manager Rafa Benitez, having managed some of the biggest clubs in world football, had never managed a second-tier side before. Carlos Carvalhal, who had managed 15 clubs before Sheffield Wednesday, and Slavisa Jokanovic of Fulham had only arrived in England for the 2014/15 campaign. David Wagner, who led Huddersfield Town to promotion to the Premier League for the first time, was in his first full season as manager when such success was achieved. They beat Reading in the play-off final on penalties; the Royals’ manager, Jaap Stam, was enjoying his first ever manager’s job.
It is also often, wrongly, claimed that young foreign recruits cannot cope with the physicality of the Championship. Of Wolves 12 goalscorers in all competitions so far, only four either began their careers at Wolves or were signed having already featured in English football before. On Saturday, as was the case against Burton, Wolves’ electric front three were targeted with big, bruising tackles in the early stages. Were they fazed? Well, seeing as Nuno’s side have seemingly proven most Championship football clichés wrong, the proof is in the pudding.
Villa were totally outclassed by Wolves. Bruce after the game admitted to the Sky TV cameras that Wolves were simply the better team. For all of Villa’s experience, with most of it coming in the Premier League for a lot of the starting side, many would argue that the most dangerous player in claret and blue was young striker Keinan Davis. Even though he snatched at a couple of chances, the 19-year-old’s pace, power and hold-up play was a constant menace to Wolves’ defence before he was subbed off.
What next for Villa? A home tie against Fulham precedes a trip to local rivals Birmingham in two weeks’ time. They currently sit a point outside of the prized play-off places, and seven points off Wolves who sit at the top of the table, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that something has to change. Indeed, Villa have not beaten any of the league’s current top eight – can that be a measure of their ability against the best the Championship has to offer?