Opinion

10 Games that Summed Up Steve Bruce’s Tenure at Aston Villa

Aston Villa are now without a manager after the sacking of Steve Bruce. We looked back over ten games that summed up his reign.
Words by Harry Trend (@HazaTrand)

And that’s that for Steve Bruce and Aston Villa, the relationship over. It’s been a testing one to say the least. Here’s ten games which sum up Bruce’s stay at Villa Park;

Aston Villa 1-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers

This game seems like an age ago, and just by looking at the line-up; Gollini in goal, Richards at right-back and McCormack up front, you can see how much has changed since the heady days of October 2016. Bruce took charge of 19th placed Villa after Roberto Di Matteo’s reign ended in a 2-0 defeat to Preston. For the most part the Pride were up against it, Helder Costa cancelling out Johnathan Kodjia’s penalty, but Villa stood firm and earned the point.

This draw encapsulated Villa’s 2016/17 under Bruce, not pretty but effective. Still, after a poor run of results over the winter period, many were calling for his head. Thankfully, Bruce avoided relegation comfortably, but some of the Villa faithful were never totally convinced after the winter of 2017.

Reading 2-1 Aston Villa

Bruce’s first summer transfer window was a success, with Sam Johnstone, John Terry, Ahmed Elmohamady and later Robert Snodgrass coming to Villa Park. It had that all or nothing feel about it, with three of Villa’s incomings being loans while Terry was only signed on a one-year deal. Nevertheless, everything had been set up for Bruce to succeed, so after one point and three uninspiring performances at the start of 2017/18, shouts of Bruce out became louder.

A Glenn Whelan own goal and Mo Barrow’s strike put the Royals two up after 55 minutes, and a late half-volley couldn’t prevent Villa from coming away from Berkshire with nothing.

Aston Villa 2-1 Nottingham Forest

This was the turning point of the 2017/18 season. Yes, Villa had thrashed Barnsley 3-0 at Oakwell the weekend before, but this was a good performance against a decent Forest side. Conor Hourihane winning it with a low free-kick into the bottom corner.

Bruce got things right with the team line up, picking the same eleven which had success the previous Saturday. This included a nineteen-year-old Keinan Davis, who once again proved to be a great foil for his strike partner Johnathan Kodjia. More importantly, Bruce had found a formation in the 4-2-3-1 that worked. Villa duly won their next two and things were starting to look up.

Aston Villa 5-0 Bristol City

Fast forward to the 1st January 2018 now and Bruce’s Villa gave us the perfect welcome to 2018 with our biggest win in recent memory. This wasn’t against any old Barnsley or Burton either, but fellow promotion chasers Bristol City who had just knocked Man United out of the EFL Cup.

Every goal was a piece of art too. You had Hogan’s looping header, Snodgrass’ quick thinking, Hogan’s slid finish, Bjarnason’s first home goal and Hourihane’s poacher’s effort. 

Around this time Bruce was getting praise for Grealish’s up turn in form after his return from injury. In what was the Solihull midfielders coming of age season, Bruce stuck by Grealish and helped him mature into one of the best players in the Championship.

Aston Villa 2-0 Birmingham City

This was probably my favourite game under Bruce. Every win over the Blues is special, even though they’re so common. Villa were in a rich vein of form, this being our seventh win on the bounce, thus moving into the automatics.

Hourihane’s 25-yard looping effort to make it 2-0 was the defining moment of his time in a Villa shirt so far, but Bruce’s mini victory was the inclusion of Jedinak, who won nearly every aerial battle and ensured the Blues had no joy through the centre.

Aston Villa 4-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers

After the Blues win, Bruce and Villa hit a pothole on the road to automatic promotion in the loss at Craven Cottage and the draw at home to Preston, but this was the surprise result of Bruce’s tenure. Even though it was the start of March, Wolves were on 76 points, holding a six point lead at the top of the Championship.

The arrival of Lewis Grabban on loan from Sunderland was a smart move from Bruce, who saw we needed to refresh the striking berth with Kodjia injured and Davis’ early season form fading. And it was the now Forest striker who scored his fourth goal in four games after 62 minutes to put Villa 3-1 up. It was a memorable night for everyone associated with the Pride, especially when Bjarnason capped off the night with an impressive fourth.

Norwich City 3-1 Aston Villa

This was the game where automatic promotion disappeared into the rear view. Villa had won once in four coming into the contest and would end up missing the chance to capitalise on Cardiff City’s defeat at home to Wolves the day before.

It was a sluggish start from Villa who were inclined to play the safe ball rather than the more progressive option. For most of the season the inverted winger tactic of Adomah on the left and Snodgrass on the right had worked, but it was clear that it needed to be changed with both men slowing our attacks down by constantly cutting inside.

After Norwich got their second through Dennis Srbeny, Bruce decided to throw on Grabban and an unfit Kodjia to aid Hogan in attack, this was a panic move from the former Man United defender which foreshadowed some of the later games.

Fulham 1-0 Aston Villa

The winner takes all match. In hindsight this should’ve been Bruce’s last game as Villa boss because he’d failed his mission to take the Pride up.

The first-half was one of the worst we’d played all season, giving the 40,000 plus Villa attendance nothing to shout about. After Tom Cairney’s 23rd minute goal we all feared the idea of another season in the Championship became real. In the second half the Pride improved, and Denis Odoi’s sending off brought back some belief, but once again it was panic substitutions for Bruce with Onomah, Kodjia and then Hogan coming on and Adomah going to left back.  

Just think, we could’ve had a pre-season under Dean Smith or another new boss and really kicked on into 2018/19. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Sheffield United 4-1 Aston Villa

1st September 2018, the low point for Bruce at Aston Villa. We were undefeated in the league up until this point with two wins and three draws, but this was were Bruce and Villa got their comeuppance.

Villa were completely played off the park. It was a case of ‘let’s throw the ball into the box and see if anyone’s there’ or ‘I’ve dawdled with the ball long enough without getting tackled let’s see if anything comes from this shot’. It was the game in which Bruce completely lost the away support, and the cliché of your time as manager being up once you’ve lost that eventually rang true.

Bruce’s post-match interviews becoming infuriating too. It was going to take more than “rolling your sleeves up and going again” to turn things around. His next mistake was taking a trip to Portugal during the international break rather than staying at the Recon training complex with the players.

Aston Villa 3-3 Preston North End

It’s funny how there’s a symmetry in football, Bruce, like Di Matteo, finished his managerial stint at Villa after a game against Preston.

Going into the game it was rumoured that Bruce had two fixtures left to save his job. Luckily for us, he didn’t get past the first. A promising first 45 was ruined by Villa cowering into their own half at the start of the second. What Bruce said to the team at the break I don’t know, but it clearly didn’t work.

We all know what happens next, Chester gets sent off. Preston score the penalty. Preston make it 3-2. Cabbage. Bolasie equalizes then Whelan misses the pen and the chance for three points.

Ultimately Bruce outstayed his welcome, and while 2018/19 is far from a write off with Villa sitting 13th, two points from the play-offs, it could be much better. To sum it up, Bruce took us “thereabouts”, but he didn’t take us “there”, let’s hope the next man can.

Up the Villa. 

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