Steve Bruce is the second Aston Villa manager to have previously relegated Birmingham City.
When devoid of context, a statement like that makes him seem a curious choice to take over at Villa Park, but of course bringing in a manager of Bruce’s reputation is a rather different matter to Alex McLeish.
When Roberto di Matteo’s brief spell in charge was brought to a reasonably brutal end, Bruce was the obvious choice, a man who has achieved four promotions with two clubs and one whose experience in the wider game can only be matched by a few currently working. After his first game in charge, a grind of a 1-1 draw against Wolves, one might have forgiven Bruce for wondering what he’d done in taking the job, but since then he has recorded two wins from two, and life seems a lot brighter.
Those victories are significant not just because they were just Villa’s second and third in the league this season, but because it’s the first time they’ve won back-to-back games in 18 months, and the first (at Reading) was their first away victory since the opening day of last season. The job of restoring confidence to a broken club is probably up there with the toughest tasks of Bruce’s career, but nonetheless very achievable.
This is the first Birmingham derby in the second tier since 1987: back then Garry Thompson bagged two as Villa secured a 2-1 win at St Andrews, a season that ended with Graham Taylor’s Villa returning to the top flight, and Blues struggling towards the nether regions of the table. There have been plenty of tense and firey derbies since then, but Sunday’s clash between the two could be one of the biggest in some time, for Villa at least.
For while Villa’s start to the season has basically been catastrophic – enough to sack a manager, anyway – such is the close an chaotic nature of the Championship, they’re still only six points off the playoffs, and 11 shy of the top two. With the squad they have, they could close that gap by Christmas.
Or, more specifically, with the squad and manager they now have: Bruce is the ultimate safe pair of hands, and while he still has plenty of work to do in order to get Villa in any sort of shape, he has the tools with which to work. Because this Villa squad is undoubtedly better than the one Bruce guided to promotion last season, with three strikers that would stroll into any other side in the division (Ross McCormack, Jonathan Kodjia and Rudy Gestede), two or three defenders who could hold their own in the Premier League and, if Jack Grealish can get his act together, one of the most natural talents in the division.
Hull, by comparison, were relatively pedestrian.
Promotion – particularly automatic promotion, given how strong Newcastle have looked so far – is still a way off, but victory in this weekend’s derby would be very significant. For a start, winning back-to-back away games would surely signal that Villa’s mental block on the road is well and truly gone, a vital psychological breakthrough if nothing else.
Also, considering where Birmingham are in the table (seventh, only out of the playoff spots on goal difference), this would be a more substantial victory than merely one over a local rival. Beating a team in the promotion mix, as Blues will be under the hugely-impressive Gary Rowett, would be another sign that Bruce has turned things around at Villa already.
“One of the hardest parts of management is trying to bring a club back after it’s been relegated,” said Bruce after he was appointed, “because there is a lot of doom and gloom around, especially among supporters.
The first thing I and the players have to do is win back the supporters’ trust.” Imagine what a derby win could do for that aim.
This week Bruce spoke about the importance of “hitting the ground running” after arriving at Villa Park. A win against the side from across town would turn that run into a sprint.
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