Draw vs. Hull underlines enormity of John Terry's challenge at Aston Villa
BIRMINGHAM, England -- On the first day of the rest of John Terry's footballing life, as Aston Villa's new captain, he received multiple reminders of how different life in the Championship will be to his 18 years as Chelsea's favourite son.
"The aim is to try and help this club win the Championship," Terry wrote in his first Captain's Column of the season in the matchday programme. A five-time Premier League-winning captain accepts nothing less than total victory, so a 1-1 draw with Hull City was an unsatisfactory step on that path. Villa's fade from the excellence of their first 30 minutes pointed to their 46-game campaign being anything but a breeze to promotion.
A winner's attitude has been lacking at Villa for years, decades perhaps, but in itself may not be enough to rouse a sleeping giant lately living out a nightmare. Terry was brought to Villa by occasional golfing partner and Villa manager Steve Bruce to lead by example, to stop the rot at a club traumatised by relegation from the Premier League at the end of the 2015-16 season, bereft of finance and morale.
Even for a club that has suffered such trauma, hope will always spring eternal on the first day of a new football season. The arrival of Terry -- "one of the biggest signings in the club's history," a club official told ESPN FC -- helped fill Villa Park to something approaching its near-43,000 capacity. Behind one of the goals, on the vast Holte End, Terry received by far the loudest cheer when the PA announcer introduced the teams. Every one of his contributions received warm applause until Villa fans were otherwise distracted by their team's hunt in vain for a winning goal.
Gabby Agbonlahor, the club's longest-serving player, finished a scything move to score Villa's seventh-minute opening goal. Alan Hutton, another member of Villa's sizable over-30s club, blazed on the overlap from right-back, before his cross evaded all save Agbonlahor, whose finish was notably confident for someone who scored only one goal last season.
Bruce is relying on a group of veterans; goalkeeper Sam Johnstone was his youngest starter at 24. The absence of Jack Grealish with a damaged kidney thwarts plans for the England under-21 star to be Villa's youthful No. 10.
Hull, meanwhile, are under the new management of Leonid Slutsky, the Russian who is a confidante of Roman Abramovich, Terry's former Stamford Bridge paymaster. As Hull warmed up in the afternoon sun, there was the unusual sight of Slutsky pacing the sidelines, deep in conversation with himself, a display he joked afterward was his attempt to be "like a shaman, some manipulation of the pitch maybe for a good result."
The magic took a while to work. Hull featured just three players who started their May 21 Premier League match -- their last match before being relegated, a 7-1 home defeat to Tottenham -- and Hull's starters looked unfamiliar with each other during the first half.
Two Chelsea loanees, Michael Hector and Ola Aina, lined up in a Hull defence that had frequent problems with the movement of Agbonlahor and Villa's strike pairing of Scott Hogan and Henri Lansbury. Aina, after chatting with Terry during the prematch warmup, appeared full of skills when involving himself in attacking play, but far less adept at defending, though Agbonlahor's speed and experience was a considerable test in the 20-year-old's third professional start.
And yet Hull were vastly improved from the beginning of the second half. Slutsky may still be taking English lessons, but his team came out from the dressing room looking as if they had received a clear message of motivation and organisation. "We had some new players, some young players in the team," said Slutsky. "For some it is a first match against very strong team like Aston Villa. After, we played better, had chances."
Aside from a couple of moments when Terry's near-37-year-old legs were tested by younger, speedier forwards, he positively strolled through the first half, but then he had to marshal a defence under considerable pressure. He was forced to throw himself into a couple of the warrior-like flying blocks that helped make his reputation.
Hull's equaliser came in the 62nd minute, when 20-year-old Jarrod Bowen, making his second start after being bought by Bruce for £50,000 from Hereford three years ago, slotted home a Kamil Grosicki cross. Terry & Co. had failed to close down danger, and it was just reward for Hull's upsurge.
Villa in turn had stagnated, and it took Hull's goal to reignite their attacking impetus, though their best chance of a winner always looked like coming from a set piece. Terry, loping forward for a Neil Taylor free kick, caused enough of a distraction for young substitute Andre Green to be presented with a golden chance at the far post.
Green could not take it, and Villa, with Terry occasionally operating as an auxiliary target man, continued to toil in search of the goal that never came. "He was everything I was expecting him to be," Bruce said afterward of his captain, preferring instead to consider his team's collective weaknesses rather than the individual.
"We have brought a bit of experience, which definitely all helps. We have got to improve on one thing, which is to capitalise on the chances we had. In the end we have been punished."
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.