Aston Villa Michael Bradley has taken to filling his spare time as a model for photography majors. (Photo by Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images)
It's not much of a secret that Michael Bradley's time at Aston Villa has not gone as well as all parties might have hoped. Arriving at Villa Park to much fanfare, the 23-year-old midfielder has been ineffective (to be kind) in his few appearances with the club and perhaps more telling he's been offered little opportunity to reverse his poor first impression. Bradley has made just one appearance-totaling 17 minutes-in the Premier League and another as a starter in Aston Villa's 3-0 FA Cup loss to Manchester City in which Bradley was subbed off in the 71st minute. That's the last anyone has seen of Bradley on the pitch and he's been left out of the 18 for a few games running now.
All of this has led to many drawing the conclusion that Bradley's time with the club would be limited to the duration of the loan deal rather than becoming a permanent arrangement. Aston Villa's caretaker manager Gary McAllister doesn't seem so convinced. "Michael has done enough on the training ground to suggest there might be something come the end of the season because he has an honest, hard-working guy as well as a good player," the interim gaffer was quoted as saying. "It’s true that it has been hard to play him at a time when we have had senior experienced players available in the situation we have been in." "And that is purely all that has held him back, nothing else, because his attitude has been top drawer." "He is a fantastic professional for such a young guy – he is captain of his country don’t forget and he is a top player."
Now, McAllister might be going a bit far with that whole 'Captain of his country' bit-Bradley has captained the US National team on occasion, but Carlos Bocanegra is very much the US skipper when he's in the squad-but aside from that the rumors of Bradley's demise might be just a but overstated. The idea that the Bradley experiment has been a failure is entirely dependent upon the circumstances leading up to his arrival. There were from the start inferences that Bradley's arrival at Villa Park was not at the behest of Gerard Houllier, but to me they always reeked of the same distrust (even if said distrust was subconscious) that led many to believe that Michael's father was on his way to becoming Aston Villa's next manager. Randy Lerner has never been one to intervene in the day-to-day operations of the team (aside from pumping massive infusions of cash into the transfer budget) and this seemed an odd moment in time for him to change that.
To me, the more realistic scenarios have always been as follows; either Bradley was brought in to make an immediate impact or he was brought in as a prospect, a player in whom the club sees potential and expects to contribute in the future. If it's the former, Bradley's time at Aston Villa is most likely done and McAllister's comments are nothing more than lip service. If it's the latter (and I've always suspected that it was) then there's no reason to take McAllister at anything but his word. Personally I find it hard to believe that the club would bring in a player like Bradley, parade him in front of the home fans and offer his shirt at a discount only to give him the equivalent of one full game, park him on the bench (or worse) and send him packing back to Germany at the end of the year. I find it similarly hard to believe that a player would turn down a move to one of Turkey's biggest teams and the opportunity to be a star for a club that is likely to offer Champions League football within the next few years for a glorified trial at an English club that was at the time in very serious relegation trouble. But again, these are all inferences.
And really, that's what we're left with. I think it's reasonable to suspect that Villa figured to improve and give Bradley a more extended look, as McAllister alludes to in his statements above. McAllister also went on to say that "With four games to go it is something that Gerard and I will be speaking about because there are a few guys in the same boat as Michael." "We are aware of these things. There are three or four players who we feel that if we have got ourselves into a better position earlier in the season then certain people would get more game time." "But we’re still very much aware that we need to keep this run going and when a team does well you don’t want to be making big changes, or changing things for the sake of it."
That's an intentionally ambiguous statement if I've ever seen one, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise. That's how these things tend to work. But It casts at least a bit of doubt on the idea that Bradley is as good as gone at the end of the year, and I for one am not especially disappointed by that. I've watched Michael Bradley play quite a bit, and no part of me believes that he is as bad as he's looked in his brief time at Aston Villa. I think he's wildly overrated by certain segments of the population, but he's got the potential to be a solid player at a very high level in world football. What it's going to take is patience, and if there's been a knock on Bradley it's that he's not especially blessed in that arena. He's not currently one of Villa's four best central midfield options (Makoun, Petrov, Reo-Coker and Delph are all ahead, with Bannan added to that number once he returns from Leeds) but he's got enough potential that it might make sense to bring him in permanently with an eye to the future at the expense of one of that group. Those that think Bradley will ever be a star in the Premier League are, I am afraid, sadly mistaken. But he's not so completely out of his depth that he can't contribute in the near future.
These quotes don't necessarily tell us which way the club is leaning, but to me they quite clearly leave the door open. McAllister was adamant that no decisions were imminent, saying "I think we need to be sat down with Gerard, the chairman and Paul Faulkner because they are very important decisions for people’s lives." "We’re aware of the situation and it will all be sorted. There has been no direct dialogue with these guys yet but I’m sure they understand the situation." And if you can read anything into that, it might be that the status of Nigel Reo-Coker, Stiliyan Petrov and Ashley Young will have some say in whether Bradley's move to Aston Villa becomes permanent. But if you'd all but closed the book on the Michael Bradley era at Aston Villa, don't give up (or regain, depending on your perspective) hope just yet.