John McGinn scored the goal of the season, it isn't enough for Aston Villa
John McGinn's sumptuous volley was a rare moment of escapism, a sharp bolt of magic to cut through the heavy Steve Bruce gloom suffocating Villa Park
Legend has it that you know they're in as soon as it leaves your foot. It's true. You do. In fact, sometimes you know even before that, when the stars align with the ball in the air and the faint sense of an idea hits you like rain.
You track it, weighing up flight and velocity, clairvoyance for a moment. You know it is going to fall... there, so that's where you move. You don't think about the processes because it never happens that way, they only work when you're not trying to remember them due to all those years of shooting into the bushes and over the fences, failure hardwired into the muscle memory. Nettle scratches on calves like time written in chalk prison cell walls. You'll get there one day. And then suddenly, you do.
It's like your dad always told you: Keep your eye on it. Keep your head over the ball. Laces. Follow through. Keep your head still. Don't take your eye off it.
The ball falls, and then it is simple. You can peel away now.
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) September 23, 2018
John McGinn's volley at Villa Park on Saturday, arguably the goal of the season already, a goal with PUSKAS AWARD practically etched all over it in Sharpie, wasn't enough.
Even as the ball dropped from the sky, surfing down on a silver platter, perhaps wailing "twat me top bins ya wee prick" - I don't know, I just imagine that this is what McGinn imagined, in a thick Glaswegian drawl - even after such a gift, it still just meant another loss for Aston Villa Football Club, a once mighty vessel not so much slowly sinking as just nervously circling the iceberg, boring everyone to death with its deliberation; shall we just go ahead sink to the bottom already lads?
A 2-1 home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, and one win in the last eight games (against newly promoted Rotherham) suggest more dead weight than buoyancy. Before that, the last win was a fortuitous 1-0 scrape against Yeovil Town in the cup, which followed an even more fortuitous win against Wigan Athletic courtesy of a late, late goal set up by substitute Conor Hourihane.
Similarly, Hourihane's response to Pythagoras, a mind-bending free-kick that saved a point away at Blackburn Rovers, is another kind of goal you can't rely on. There's pulling a rabbit out of a hat and then there is pulling out a monster truck.
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) September 16, 2018
Which brings us neatly to Steve Bruce, the phantom of this particularly tiresome opera.
Saturday's loss to Wednesday was his 100th game in charge, a milestone, sure, but not a celebratory one. In that time, a cricket century made up entirely of opportune singles and cautionary batting, not much has changed. In fact, nothing has.
For context, Bruce often claims he saved the club, arriving as a knight in seemingly shiny armour to stop the rot as Villa languished second from bottom. This is his claim. The truth is Villa were in the bottom half, just outside the relegation zone. The truth is, at the precise moment in time, they were a few spaces away from Wolverhampton Wanderers in the league table.
Wolves drew away at Old Trafford this weekend.
Bruce hasn't saved the club, whatever myths he might perpetuate in his press conferences, whatever appraisal of his experience (four promotions from the Championship) his old pals might keep harping on about in the Sky Sports studios.
Villa reached the Championship Play-Off final last season, losing 1-0 to Fulham. That, in a vacuum, is the only current argument for not handing Steve Bruce a P45 and a train ticket back up north. Anyone who watched the game, or either of the clubs throughout the season, will know that only one side had any semblance of a Premier League football club about them. The scoreline might seem close in hindsight. In terms of actual quality, there was a chasm.
And this isn't to say he hasn't had the players. He has continuously been gifted footballers far too good for a playoff run in the Championship (John Terry and Robert Snodgrass last season, Tammy Abraham and Yannick Bolasie now) and boasts a starting XI and substitute's bench that would be the envy of almost any other team in the league.
Yet it is all horrendously unbalanced, spinning plates on pudgy fingertips. Despite signing the aforementioned Bolasie and Anwar El Ghazi, a former Ajax wonder kid, both Johnathan Kodjia and Ahmed Elmohamady have been asked to masquerade as attacking wide-players in their place. Albert Adomah, who scored a ludicrous 14 league goals as a wide midfielder with defensive responsibility shackled around his ankles, hasn't been the same player since Bruce very openly tried to move him on during the transfer window.
Then there is the defence. Aston Villa currently have one left-back and two centre-backs in their senior squad. Roughly speaking, when the makeup of your team consists of roughly 6 million Championship-quality central midfielders (McGinn, Whelan, Jedinak, Hourihane, Lansbury, Bjarnason, Grealish) and four goalkeepers (Nyland, Moreira, Steer, Bunn), this lack of depth doesn't really make much sense.
It makes even less sense when Mile Jedinak, the only actual holding midfield player amongst them, is moved to centre-back time and time again to lose his individual footraces against coastal erosion, a sleepy tortoise, Brexit negotiations.
There has been no cohesion, no system, no real football - the consistent creation of chances, a team playing to win every game - despite being given almost infinite resources during his 100 games at Villa.
In 2011, Louise Taylor of the Guardian wrote a story about Steve Bruce's refusal to move with the times. "I'm not really into tactics", he said during his time at Sunderland, a club his 30 frivolous signings over a two-and-a-half year period as manager helped run into the ground. This was 2011. Seven years on, after more 'big signings' at yet another historically 'big club', the story remains the same. The cracks are just no longer small enough to paper over.
The grass isn't always greener, he says, gruesome press conference after press conference, reminding the fans they don't know how lucky they have it. After the win against Rotherham, he told the Express & Star: “I have got four promotions, last year I nearly had a fifth. Yet I don’t know what I am doing? Unfortunately it filters through the mad few."
At that point, Villa were sixth. Now 13th, after Saturday's loss he told the Birmingham Mail: "No matter what I do, in some people's eyes I'm not going to be the right fit. There's nothing I can do about that. I will stay on the ropes and stay with it. I do believe we've got the nucleus of a very decent team again, given time."
To continue his boxing analogy, he's not even on the ropes anymore. In the eyes of the fans, Bruce is the beyond past-it old heavyweight currently being counted out in his third or fourth 'comeback' fight in a row.
Oh, and that McGinn goal? That was nothing more than a fleeting moment of ecstasy, a sharp reminder of exactly how magical football could be, were it not having the life squeezed out of it by a man with no ideas and no plan.
It's not just joy Steve Bruce is robbing Aston Villa supporters of, it's the very hope of further joy to come.