As the Fulham players danced in front of their 38,000 bouncing fans, and the Aston Villa supporters started to file out, it was hard to ignore the sight of John Terry and Jack Grealish, Villa’s oldest and youngest players, in a hug of consolation on their empty half of the field.
Terry and Grealish had both been desperately hoping to be back in the Premier League with Aston Villa next season but after this painful defeat to a superior Fulham side there are questions surrounding their futures. Villa have been financially over-extended this year and Steve Bruce has had to work hard, signing free transfers and loan players and balancing the books. If Villa had been promoted then of course that £100m of guaranteed income would have made life easier. But now, they are facing the prospect of a season even harder than this one, with a reduced final year of parachute payments and a pressure to lose their best players.
“It’s been difficult this season financially,” Bruce said at Wembley in the aftermath of defeat. “I understand, I’ve been saying this for months, that with Financial Fair Play, discussions have to be had above me. About what we’ve got, what we haven’t got.” For Bruce, these restrictions would be nothing new. “We had to balance the books last summer, with loans and frees,” he said. “It’s something which, over the last two windows, the club has got used to. It’s going to change, with the parachute money, and there will be questions over the next few weeks.”
The biggest questions concern which of these players will still be at Villa next year. Bruce did not want to talk after the game about the possibility of departures this summer. “It’s wrong to ask me these questions when I’m absolutely aching inside,” he said. “Let me dust myself down and collect myself.” But Terry’s future is certainly now up in the air. There was an option to his contract if Villa were promoted but now they are not it will depend if the two sides want to re-commit to each other. “It depends on John,” Bruce said. “There will be another discussion over the next few weeks with John, to see how he feels”.
But Terry was one of Villa’s weak links on the pitch at Wembley and the future of Grealish is a more pressing question. He was Villa’s best player by a distance, showing a maturity and application that he did not always have when he first emerged into the team as a teenager. He is certainly worthy of Premier League football now so the big issue for Villa is who wants to sign him and whether he wants to stay. But Bruce hopes to convince the 22-year-old to stay in the Championship next season. “Another year with us would do him the world of good,” he said. “We would love to give him that platform in the Premier League, but we can still give him regular football week-in week-out.” This will be one of many hard questions in a difficult summer.
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