THE WRITING was on the wall after Aston Villa’s last trip to Tottenham.
Incoming boss Remi Garde watched from the stands in November, 2015, as Villa’s players strolled around White Hart Lane in a gutless 3-1 defeat.
The display was summed up best when Jack Grealish was subbed off and moved quicker than at any stage in the previous hour.
The game felt like a point of no return for Villa, who were a doomed mess and on course for three seasons in the Championship.
Kicked by opponents and punched by a so-called fan at Birmingham, Grealish is still wearing the same kids’ shinpads, but he has become a man now.
With the Villa skipper’s focus set on fulfilling his talent, rather than Balearic benders, the local lad will come full circle when he leads his boyhood club out at Spurs, who he was just hours from joining during Villa’s financial nadir last summer.
Alongside Dean Smith, two of Villa’s own are taking them into the Premier League. It couldn’t get much better for fans.
Never mind laying down more than £130million on 12 new signings.
Or that they were languishing 13th in the Championship just five months ago.
Or how, as chief exec Christian Purslow revealed on the club’s pre-season trip to the US, the club were almost forced to “start again” like Rangers during their financial nadir last summer, when an unpaid £4m tax bill saw them on the brink of oblivion.
‘Doing a Fulham’ now? Villa nearly ‘did a Rangers’ back then.
VILLA'S SUMMER SIGNINGS
JOTA (Birmingham) £4m + Gary Gardner
ANWAR EL GHAZI (Lille) £8m
WESLEY (Brugge) £22m
KORTNEY HAUSE (Wolves) £3m
MATT TARGETT (S’ton) £11.5m (£17m deal)
TYRONE MINGS (B’mouth) £20m (25m deal)
EZRI KONSA (Brentford) £12m
BJORN ENGELS (Reims) £8m
TREZEGUET (Kasimpasa) £8m
DOUGLAS LUIZ (Man City) £15m
TOM HEATON (Burnley) £8m (8.5m deal)
MARVELOUS NAKAMBA (Brugge) £12m
These are dizzy times when no amount of comparisons to the Cottagers’ fraught transfer strategy will wipe away the smiles.
Whether Villa can shake off the Fulham tag will simply come down to whether the players are good enough.
Sam Allardyce, the self-acclaimed survival specialist, doesn’t believe they are.
Aside from being sure that Villa have “too many players to deal with”, comparing Villa’s business to Fulham’s from a year ago, he believes Smith has spread the cash too thinly and would have been better off spending £100m on just three signings.
Yet that ignores the fact Villa NEEDED players after 13 left following their play-off triumph over Derby at Wembley on May 27.
Allardyce has to “question the quality of players being bought” — having spent £27m on Cenk Tosun and £20m on Theo Walcott in his last job at Everton.
With perspective like that, you can see his point. But Smith deserves more credit.
Said Benrahma and Neal Maupay were signed by Smith at Brentford for a combined £3.3m over the past two years.
Maupay, scorer of 25 Championship goals last season, fetched £20m from Brighton, while Benrahma could eventually leave for even more.
Accusing Villa of ‘doing a Fulham’ suggests they have desperately thrown money at a survival bid destined for a disastrous bounce straight back down.
Fulham shelled out £113m for seven players on August, five of which arrived on deadline day in a last-minute frenzy.
But most of Villa’s recruitment was tied up before the trip to Minnesota in mid-July, more than three weeks ago.
And of the last six clubs to spend more than £50m after promotion to the Premier League, only Fulham were relegated the following season.
Last six promoted teams with net spends of £50m+
Fulham 18-19 Net spend: 100m RELEGATED
Wolves 18-19 Net spend: 80m SURVIVED
Brighton 17-18 Net spend: 60m SURVIVED
B’mouth 15-16 Net spend: 50m SURVIVED
Watford 15-16 Net spend: 65m SURVIVED
Sunderland 07-08 Net spend 55m SURVIVED
Purslow and sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch blitzed their business with time to spare, bankrolled by the club’s billionaire owners Nasef Sawiris and Wes Edens.
While on a club-record ten-game winning streak throughout March and April, Villa chiefs were drawing up one list of targets in preparation for the Premier League and another for a likely fourth season in the Championship.
Working with a Plan A AND B was a world away from the mindless gambling of Tony Xia’s regime a year earlier.
Eight ageing and knackered players were ruthlessly — but rightly — released, with loanees Tammy Abraham, Axel Tuanzebe, Tyrone Mings, Anwar El Ghazi and Kortney Hause heading for their parent clubs.
Of those remaining, only brilliant midfielders Grealish and John McGinn were good enough for Smith to build a top-flight team around — which is exactly what Villa’s boss has done.
Mings, El Ghazi and Hause have returned, helping keep the core of last season’s squad remaining.
Quoted around £30m for the likes of Benrahma, Kalvin Phillips and Adam Webster, they moved on to other targets
Villa were accused of overpaying in a £25m deal for Mings, but they knew knew his return was vital after the centre-back made himself a cult hero with his performances and leadership in the promotion run-in.
If Mings can stay fit, an England call-up will not be far off.
Bjorn Engels — who Smith tracked for three years — has also been injury-prone, but the Belgian should complement Mings as another big centre-back who can bring the ball out from the back in the style Smith demands.
Ezri Konsa does not have the towering presence of Mings and Engels, but the ex-Brentford man plays with the same confidence and will get his chance.
James Chester was the only contracted centre-back at the club last summer and heroically played through injury to a point he caused himself lasting damage.
With Chester in the mix, Villa now have five of them for assistant John Terry to work with.
Smith also has double the depth at full-back and Grealish’s pal Matt Targett should hit the ground running, like Konsa, as a talented English defender with games in the bank.
Frederic Guilbert, signed in January but then loaned back to Caen, has looked superb in pre-season and looks a snip at £5m.
The underappreciated Conor Hourihane will give new-boys Douglas Luiz and Marvelous Nakamba a run for their money to anchor a three-man midfield behind the swaggering Grealish and all-action McGinn.
Luiz’s pedigree had Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola and Brazil boss Tite purring at a failed work permit hearing a year ago, which has now played into Villa’s hands.
And with a man named Marvelous in midfield, what could possibly go wrong?
Jota, who starred for Smith at Brentford, and proven keeper Tom Heaton are Villa’s only signings over the age of 26. Smith has looked to the future.
Spaish playmaker Jota has looked one of Villa’s most eye-catching signing in pre-season and fans feel the club have pulled their rivals’ pants down over the deal.
He merits a start at Spurs, with Trezeguet and play-off hero El Ghazi the other widemen vying to flank club-record signing Wesley in attack — the only area Villa look light.
Thirty thousand fans snapped up season tickets and another 7,000 are on a waiting list, with much excitement stemming from not knowing what to expect from many of the signings – none more than with Wesley and Trezeguet.
Allardyce also believes it will be too difficult “integrating players from different cultures, different environments and different religions.”
Of the foreign players, Jota has not even needed to move house after moving from rivals Birmingham, while El Ghazi spent last season at Villa.
And Jota, like Konsa, played for Smith and his assistant Richard O’Kelly at Brentford.
Wesley, Engels and Zimbabwe’s Nakamba were together at Brugge, while Trezeguet describes his Egypt skipper and Villa team-mate Ahmed Elmohamady as “like a brother”.
Brazilian midfielder Luiz will surely settle more easily with compatriot ‘Big Wes’ around.
So there is familiarity between players throughout a squad which must settle quickly.
On top of all that, Smith brought in Rev Philip Nott last season to support players over matters of faith.
Twelve months on from staring into the abyss, Villa fans’ prayers have been answered.