As opening appraisals from a new boss go, it was not the most immediately encouraging.
Not exactly a rallying cry to demoralised troops, but a message that Villa needed. Not so much a house that needed to be knocked down, more bulldozed, every brick to be ground into dust and the site exorcised by at least one priest.
After the desperate failure of last season, when relegation looked more or less certain from October and things did not get much better from there, a fresh start is required for the new Championship season. As such, expectations at Villa Park for this season should be modest.
While fellow relegated sides Newcastle United and Norwich City will expect to bounce straight back into the Premier League, a season of consolidation would be a more sensible aim: nine months of steady growth and free from crushing, oppressive failure would be a good start to this new version of Villa.
“I’m a positive person,” Di Matteo told the Mirror this week, “so I regard this as a big opportunity.” Villa will need some of that optimism, especially since the rebuilding work is still very much in progress. Some of the more perplexing players from last term remain in the squad, such as social media’s Joleon Lescott and Gabriel Agbonlahor, left out at the end of last term for “fitness issues”.
Part of the hangover from last season is not so much to do with the quality or attitude of the players, but more the psychological aspect, according to Di Matteo. “We need to tune into the right mental attitude to face the challenge,” he said. “The hardest thing to overcome is going to be the disappointment of last season. I think that has weighed on the players’ minds and we’ve been trying to move on.”
Di Matteo’s positivity has been matched by Villa’s new owner. Tony Xia, the Chinese businessman who bought the club this summer, certainly seems to be good value: in May he declared his aim was for Villa to become one of the top six clubs in the world inside five years, then when that modest aim is achieved, to crack the top three.
On Twitter he seems to oscillate between broadsides against pundits who predict doom for Villa (Ian Holloway was the target for his ire recently) and the sort of philosophical maxims you would find in one of those impulse-buy books. “It was because of impatience that they were expelled from Paradise. It is because of indolence that they do not return,” he tweeted recently. Kafka, since you ask.
Despite last season’s catastrophe there is enough talent buried deep in that squad to form the basis for a decent Championship side. Rudy Gestede, Jack Grealish and Ashley Westwood might not have been up to scratch in the top flight, but they should be handy enough in the tier below, particularly when augmented by their signings so far this summer.
It took a little while for the transfer gears to creak into motion, but central defender Tommy Elphick was a brilliant first signing, Italian goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini and midfielder Aaron Tshibola are riskier yet still with potential, and the big one came this week.
Eyebrows might be raised and hands wrung that, for the second time in two years, a striker with no top-flight experience was sold for more than £10m, but Ross McCormack has been one of the best players in the division for some time. He managed 42 goals in two seasons for a largely terrible Fulham, so it was not especially surprising that Villa shelled out £12m (slightly more than the Cottagers paid Leeds in 2014) for the Scot, and with him buzzing around the vast Gestede, Villa could be a fairly brutal attacking prospect. Slowly, they are building a fine side to cope with the rigours of this most relentless division.
If Di Matteo had hoped for a gentle introduction to the Championship then he is out of luck, as Villa travel to Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday, one of the division’s most impressive sides last season under Carlos Carvalhal.
And as Newcastle displayed in losing to a theoretically weak Fulham on Friday night, reputations and famous players mean little here. The house needs rebuilding, and Di Matteo is just laying the foundations.
IN … From … Fee
Ross McCormack Fulham £12.16m
Aaron Tshibola Reading £5.02m
Pierluigi Gollini Verona £4.25m
Tommy Elphick Bournemouth £3.32m
OUT … To … Fee
Idrissa Gueye Everton £7.23m
Ciaran Clark Newcastle £5.10m
Benjamin Siegrist Vaduz £0.21m
Callum Robinson Preston free
José Ángel Crespo PAOK Saloniki free
Brad Guzan Middlesbrough undisc
Carles Gil Deportivo loan
Charles N’Zogbia released
Kieran Richardson released
Janoi Donacien released
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