Steve Bruce: Aston Villa's 'worried' manager says players must handle pressure
Aston Villa boss Steve Bruce has warned his team that they must handle the pressure of playing for such a big club better, or risk being "swallowed" into Championship relegation trouble.
Villa's run of seven defeats in eight games in 2017 has left them within seven points of the relegation zone.
"The buck stops with me. It's my responsibility," Bruce told BBC WM.
"But we must roll our sleeves up and get back that pride which has eroded over the last six weeks," he added.
"If we don't, we're going to get swallowed into it and we can't allow that to happen. Am I worried? I think I've got to be worried, given how we're performing at the moment."
Speaking after Tuesday's 3-1 home defeat by play-off hopefuls Barnsley, Villa's fourth straight loss, Bruce admitted: "This is the biggest challenge I've ever had, the best club I've ever had, in 20 years in management and I'm determined to turn it round. Given time, I know for a fact I'll do it.
"We had a positive impact when we first came in three or four months ago but that seems to have eroded. We've had a horrible six or seven weeks.
"After some of the horror shows we're seeing at the moment, we have to question the team individually and collectively."
How has it gone wrong for Villa?
"There were signs of recovery when we first came in," said the 56-year-old. "We had one of the best defensive records but that has eroded with too many silly mistakes, which we simply have to cut out.
"And we can't score, no matter what formation we play. Thirty attempts, 22 on Saturday, and we've scored once. Barnsley have had six and scored three. Jonathan Kodjia has scored again but nobody else does.
"We've got one of the biggest wage bills in the Championship because we're expected to handle playing under pressure and, at the minute, we're not handling it.
"That's what it is to play for a big club. That's why the players who came in January were so determined to come.
"Maybe I've put five or six in too quickly, which really was out of necessity, but it's been difficult for the new ones walking in when confidence is low.
"And we've had a couple of players injured who we haven't had over the last month (Mile Jedinak and Gabby Agbonlahor). But, if we're just going to throw in the towel, that's not me.
"There's been accusations at myself that I'm not bothered, but that couldn't be further from the truth."
One anguished caller to BBC WM's pre-match phone-in on Tuesday asked: "If even Steve Bruce can't put it right, I can't imagine who can."
But Bruce acknowledges just how much the players need Villa's suffering fans to stay on their side over the closing weeks of the season.
"On the whole, the crowd were fantastic," he said. "From what's gone on and what they've just witnessed, they're well within their rights to voice their concerns. It's not easy for them. It's not easy for any of us. But they stayed with us."
The awful prospect of third-tier football?
For a side such as Villa, who were in the Premier League from its formation in 1992 until relegation in May 2016, the idea of playing in League One seems unthinkable.
But the founder members of the Football League have been down this route once before - they were relegated to Division Three in 1970, before winning promotion under Vic Crowe at the second attempt in 1972.
Were they to fall that far, Villa would not even be England's first former European Cup winners to play in the third tier, Nottingham Forest having sunk that low for three seasons between 2005 and 2008.
There are also enough recent examples of other high-profile clubs to know that it can become reality, and also that those clubs can recover from dark times:
- Neighbours Birmingham City (1989-92) and West Bromwich Albion (1990-93) both spent more than one season down in the third tier.
- Wolves went even further, reaching Division Four for two seasons in 1986, before successive promotions.
- Former European Cup finalists Leeds United spent three seasons in the third tier between 2007 and 2010.
- Manchester City spent the 1998-99 season at third-tier level and have since won the Premier League title twice.