The mood contrasts sharply with 12 months ago, when morale was bleak as supporters braced themselves for the start of the Alex McLeish era.
That era wasn’t sweet, but it was mercifully short. Now Villa are on their fourth manager in as many seasons, and there is more than blind hope that Paul Lambert will be the man to resurrect the project initially started by Martin O’Neill in 2006.
O’Neill guided Villa into the top six on a regular basis, flirted with domestic silverware, and delivered European football. He also spent money. A lot of money. Lambert must get Villa back onto that same path, with a fraction of the resources his former manager at Celtic had.
Lambert can operate like this, of course; he did so brilliantly at Norwich, where he fashioned a team of lower league players – mainly because the Canaries were in the lower leagues when he took charge – and inspired them to successive promotions. That same group of players did more than survive in the Premier League last season, they thrived. The momentum of promotion was a major factor, but Lambert had demonstrated an ability to identify the right type of footballers to build a team. That’s why Villa wanted him.
Sensible spending is still required by Villa, and Lambert will again be asked to shrewdly put together a side that can develop and grow.
And while the frailties of Villa’s squad are still evident, Lambert’s decisions this summer were encouraging. His first signing was the Feyenoord midfield Karim El Ahmadi for a couple of million. Villa were badly exposed in midfield last season and El Ahmadi is the kind of player who can rectify that. He’ll get on the ball, give it, get it back, give it again, keep it. Another player harvested from Dutch football, Brett Holman – actually signed by McLeish – looks lively, confident and at ease playing on either flank or behind the centre-forward.
Elsewhere, having quickly decided Alan Hutton should play no part in Villa’s future, Lambert signed Sheffield United’s young defender, Matthew Lowton. He also landed his highest-profile signing of the close season, the Dutch defender Ron Vlaar, having first sold James Collins to West Ham.
Selling Collins and replacing him with Vlaar; that’s good business. Vlaar has the look of a leader about him, and I can imagine him becoming a cult hero at Villa Park.
There are concerns, of course. With pre-season injuries meaning Richard Dunne, Gabby Agbonlahor and Marc Albrighton will miss the first few weeks, Lambert’s squad looks light. Straight away, that dictates a fledging central defensive partnership of Vlaar and Ciaran Clark – it could be very good, but it’s also untried. It also places a lot of weight on Darren Bent’s shoulders as Villa’s main striker. Agbonlahor blows hot and cold, but he knows his way around the league; without him, Villa will turn to raw youngsters Andreas Weimann and Nathan Delfouneso for back-up.
Further afield, there are question marks all over the field. Stephen Ireland, Charles N’Zogbia and Barry Bannan are arguably the three most gifted individuals at the club, but they’ve all flattered to deceive so far. Can Lambert harness their collective ability, or will they fall short? Can Fabian Delph finally put his injury problems behind him and cement a place in Villa’s midfield?
No-one is kidding themselves that Lambert’s mere presence will transform Villa instantly into one of the strongest sides in the league, but a step or two in the right direction down that road will satisfy many this season.