Sunday 19th May 2019. It feels like a long time since Aston Villa were promoted back to the Premier League in a hard fought 2-1 victory over Frank Lampard's Derby County at Wembley Stadium. Not only because it was, in fact, three and a half years ago, but also because a lot has changed since then.
The connection between the Villa fanbase and the club at that point in time had never felt stronger. Of course, this was massively helped by the fact it was a Villa team managed by a Villa fan in Dean Smith, captained by a Villa fan in Jack Grealish, and even kitted out by a Villa fan in Luke Roper. It also helped that Villa were winning.
Having only bought Aston Villa Football Club earlier that season, it appeared that Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens were making all the right decisions with the help of their newly appointed CEO Christian Purslow.
Fast forward to October 2022, and I think it's fair to say that the deep connection that the ownership worked so hard to achieve is on the verge of being lost.
Lackluster performances on the pitch are just one of many issues that has Villa fans questioning what happened to their club. With rising prices, questionable communication, and a manager who is far from loved at Villa Park, more and more people are beginning to feel like customers rather than supporters.
Because of this, the general feeling around Villa Park is currently that of apathy rather than passion, but is there a way this ship can be turned back on course?
Paying the price for success
This was the title of an article I wrote back in June of this year. The abbreviated version is that the club felt like it was shooting for the stars, and trying to become an elite club by way of acting like an elite club.
The new Castore deal saw fans being expected to pay hundreds of pounds for replica gear, while season ticket prices shot up to new highs. But with plans to upgrade Villa Park in place, and the promise of big name signings on the horizon, the majority of the fanbase begrudgingly accepted these new prices given the direction the club was supposedly heading in.
Good communication about exactly what was happening was enough to keep the fans feeling as if they were still connected to the club in a meaningful way. Four months down the line, though, that feeling isn't necessarily still shared with everybody.
Although the detailed stadium plans do appear very positive, the promise of new signings was never truly realised. At least not outside of the signings already made at the time of these price hikes.
The subsequent poor performances on the pitch, particularly from certain big name players, has left season ticket holders scratching their heads as to why they are paying so much more money for their seat compared to previous seasons. Villa supporters are being asked to pay similar money to that of elite teams. However, we feel a million miles away from seeing this Villa team perform to those standards.
Arrogant Gerrard's boring Villans
Witnessing such poor performances for a lot more money sure is a good way to start making your supporters question what on earth is going on at the club. Especially when the style of football is so boring to watch.
What doesn't help matters is the apparent attitude that comes with the man in charge. It's no secret that Steven Gerrard is a prickly character, snapping at journalists and throwing shade towards his own players when games don't go to plan.
Admittedly, some fans (myself included) respected this attitude at the beginning. The winning mentality of a former player who won't accept losing. It felt like an injection of confidence and a shift in mindset that the club was crying out for. Well I for one can admit to being wrong, because based on what we've seen so far, this direction is one step forward and two steps back.
Even when everything was going wrong under Dean Smith, the general support and togetherness of the club still felt intact. Fans would go to games and feel sorry for Smith, and even question whether the players should be doing more for the man who got Villa back to the promised land.
And even those supporters who believed Smith was no longer good enough to be head coach, they would never feel comfortable with dishing out abuse to a genuine person who loved representing the badge. A man who would walk over to applaud the traveling Villa fans no matter the result.
Now, it would be unfair for supporters to expect the exact same of Steven Gerrard, especially given his unashamed love for another club. But when he sulks straight down the tunnel following a frustrating game, or when he slumps in his chair when the team is not performing, or when he snaps at respected Villa journalists, it's not surprising that supporters feel no connection with the former Liverpool man.
Generally speaking, a manager does not always need to bleed the colours of the club they represent. But it sometimes feels that Gerrard wants to be anywhere but Villa Park, and the fans feel that.
It would, of course, be a lot different if Gerrard was successful. Us football fans are a fickle bunch after all, bring the club some success and you'll always have a place in the Holte End. Unfortunately though, Gerrard's style of play and results have not been an improvement of what Villa had under the worst days of Smith.
Following Dean Smith was never going to be an easy task, even more so given that the team never truly recovered from losing their captain and talisman. But not clapping away fans, looking like he'd rather be anywhere else while not improving the team has not helped Gerrard. It's worth remembering that Villa fans were more than happy to back Gerrard at first, it's his own actions that have ruined that. Luckily, the same support will be given to whoever is the next man in the hot seat.
The lion, the lamp, and the circular badge
The most recent news that has fans concerned with the direction of the club, and the connection with its fans, is the reports about one of the new badge designs.
A new months back, the club made contact with fans in the form of a survey that covered all bases about what we all really wanted from this upcoming rebranding. It sounded like the club was listening.
It was surprising then, that one of the proposed designs for this new badge was one that got rid of the lion, and replaced it with a lamp.. That's right, fear our mighty lamp!
Now I'm not going to go two-footed on Purslow and the owners here. I do genuinely see the idea behind this proposed design given the club was formed under a gaslit lamp and all that. And in the survey, the club's tradition was a major part of the questioning, and rightfully so. It's also worth remembering that this design was one of three, with the other two badges still featuring the traditional lion. Fans will also get the final say as to which badge is chosen. So all in all, it's not as concerning as some will have you believe.
Having said that, it's still a small oddity that just adds to the pile of problems that have led to the connection between the fans and the club feeling at it's weakest since the season Villa were relegated.
The road back
This article has probably come off as being very doom and gloom, and maybe it is. However, this supporter hasn't given hope, not by a long shot. NSWE have done wonders for Aston Villa. The club still feels as if it's in safe hands, we only need to look back over the past four years for proof of that.
A few changes and some great performances can make a world of difference, and we all know football can change very quickly. Whether it's some big name signings in January, a change of manager, or even replacing Purslow, there's a lot of avenues available to the owners to turn this ship around.
I truly believe there's still enough goodwill from the past few seasons that these sort of changes can bring that strong connection between fans and club back to where it was.
Even something as simple as a big sale on replica shirts and merchandise for members and ST holders, or some sort of giveaway for families in need could help the overall mood around the club. Especially as we approach Christmas during a cost of living crisis.
As fans, we just want to know the club is listening and that they care, it's as simple as that. But if the owners and Purslow stick with Gerrard, fail to make quality additions to the squad, and continue to squeeze money out of the supporters, then that connection we all held so dear will quickly become a thing of the past.
We are not at the point of seriously questioning the ownership yet in my opinion. There's no doubt, however, that the next few months are vital when it comes to keeping the fans happy.