BRUCE’S OLD BOYS CURE ‘TOXIC’ VILLA
IT is a word not readily used by football managers. So when Steve Bruce describes the dressing room he inherited at Aston Villa as ‘toxic’, you wonder how fractured it had become.
He remedied that poison last summer by signing the likes of John Terry, Ahmed Elmohamady and Glenn Whelan. Their house is now in order and they could be about to extend into the top flight.
There is still work to be done as they take just a one-goal lead into tomorrow’s semi-final second leg against Middlesbrough but, with Bruce bidding for a record fifth promotion to the Premier League, they are justifiably favourites.
He has done what was needed to bring in a new era, even if that meant leaning on old heads. He used eight players in their thirties on Saturday, led by 33year- old match- winner Mile Jedinak and skipper Terry, 37.
‘You’ve seen how good he is out there,’ said Bruce of his captain. ‘It wasn’t just on the pitch that I needed him, it was to deal with a dressing room which had been toxic at Aston Villa for years.
‘It was important that players like Jack Grealish see someone and think, “This is how you do it”. It is fine a manager bleating at them, but when you hear it from a top pro… Whelan, Elmohamady, and Jedinak have all been at the top level. They have been crucial to the young players, and we have some good ones.’
None better than Grealish, the boy wonder who once left you wondering if he was cut out for professional football after a string of negative headlines, invariably alcohol-related.
He is 22 now but only under Bruce has he settled off the pitch and shone — consistently — on it. ‘It has been a cultural change,’ said Bruce of his 19 months in charge. ‘ Take Jack, by the time he was 21 he had had seven managers telling him different things. It is important he has stability and focus.
‘Gone are the days when you can go nightclubbing. You have to focus on what you do and the dressing room I have brought in helps that. He was the outstanding player (on Saturday).’
Bruce has achieved all of that recently with the backdrop of his own personal torment. His mother, Sheenagh, died this month just 88 days after his father, Joe, had passed away. But he takes strength from what they would have told him.
‘In my personal life I have had a horrible three months,’ he said. ‘But what I have to do is concentrate on the game. That’s what my mum and dad would have wanted. I can hear them now: “Roll your sleeves up, son, and get on with it.” ’
In turn, his players have rolled up their sleeves for Bruce.
‘We want to do it for our gaffer because he’s been through a very hard time,’ said Albert Adomah, the winger who has scored 15 times this season.
‘I know this victory can’t bring anyone back, but at least we’ve put some joy on his face and hopefully it can be the same on Tuesday.’
It will be the task of Tony Pulis and Boro to wipe away that smile at a sold-out Villa Park.
They, however, have become over-reliant on winger Adama Traore and a team who have been together for the best part of four seasons appear to have lost some energy and hunger.
Ben Gibson, nephew of owner Steve, protests otherwise. ‘I told my family when I left the house before the game, “We play football for these occasions — since I was a little boy you dream of being part of this, so there’s no point fearing them”.
‘When I retire, I’ll look back on these days and I’ll miss that feeling in your belly, that fire and the eyes of the fans.
‘It will be fiery and fantastic (tomorrow), two good teams fighting it out to get to Wembley. But we have got that belief and the quality — we’ll be quietly confident.’
Mile high: Jedinak scores past Traore and keeper Darren Randolph