STEVE BRUCE knows all and sundry will now be lining up to have a Pop.
Adrian Popa’s strike may have been a complete fluke as it looped up off poor Glenn Whelan for an own goal but it paved the way to an easy Reading win.
And it cranked up the pressure on Bruce, whose side were booed by some of their own 3,935 travelling fans after Modou Barrow’s first Reading goal confirmed the victory.
The Villa chief, who did see his side net in the final few minutes through Conor Hourihane, was even taunted with chants of ‘You’re getting sacked in the morning’ by the home supporters.
And while that is surely premature at this point for this expert in Championship promotion, the fact remains that Bruce is finding life as tough as ever at Villa despite being in the job for ten months.
The 56-year-old was supposed to be the man to lift the Villans out of the doldrums.
His record at this level is immaculate, taking Birmingham and Hull up to the Premier League twice each.
Last season could be forgiven for a transition year where he was getting his house in order.
But three games into the new campaign and only one point accrued – and more importantly two abject away displays delivered – suggests little to no progress has been made.
This fixture provided Bruce with arguably his standout result since coming to the club.
Jordan Ayew’s last-minute penalty sealed Villa’s first away win in FOURTEEN months and suggested better times were to come under the ex-Birmingham chief.
On that satisfying October evening, few Villa fans – let alone Bruce – would have predicted the team would still be making such heavy weather of most Championship opponents they face.
Particularly after splashing out around £70million during chairman Tony Xia’s reign.
Financial Fair Play rules have kept the transfer fees to a minimum this summer – yet Premier League names like Glenn Whelan, Ahmed Elmohamady and, of course, John Terry have still been signed.
But the team looked a galaxy away from a Prem side at the weekend when they were humbled 3-0 by Neil Warnock’s Cardiff – and the same could be said for here.
Were it not for some wasteful finishing and heroics by keeper Sam Johnstone, it could have been five or six down in South Wales. How Bluebirds hitman Kenneth Zohore walked away goalless remains a mystery.
Bruce did not mince his words after that defeat, labelling it “on the edge of embarrassment” and bemoaning how “fragile” his side looked.
And the 56-year-old responded in kind by ringing the changes at the Mad Stad.
Dropped were Alan Hutton, Henri Lansbury and Gabby Agbonlahor, while Elmohamady missed out with a mouth injury. Ritchie De Laet was handed his first start in 11 months after a catalogue of injuries.
One man Bruce could not call on was Leandro Bacuna – as he sold the Curacao ace to Reading on Sunday night for around £2m.
Jaap Stam left his new recruit on the bench but still made three changes himself as he looked to wake up his team after their own sleepy start to the season.
And the Dutchman’s side were caught napping just five minutes in as Spurs loanee Josh Onomah rolled in Andre Green, who raced past Paul McShane and Co but shot straight at Vito Mannone.
That was all Villa offered in a first half where they barely touched the ball.
But for all Reading’s possession before the break, Stam’s side rarely threatened beyond long-range efforts such as John Swift’s 25-year curler on 19 minutes.
Bruce was dealt a blow just before the half hour when striker Scott Hogan hobbled off with an unspecified injury and replaced by Agbonlahor.
Reading were playing without a recognised striker and it showed, but Popa did offer a threat when he blasted Chris Gunter’s pull-back towards the far corner, only to be denied by Johnstone’s smart stop.
Popa really should have done better moments later when Barrow laid him in down the left, but the Romanian could only weakly fire at Johnstone after cutting inside.
He made up for it in strange circumstances just after the interval though, as the 29-year-old fired a shot from the left-hand side of the box which took a wicked deflection off Whelan, looped up over Johnstone, hit the far post and went in.
Manchester United loanee Johnstone then cleared it but the ball had crossed the line, as Reading claimed goal-line technology later confirmed, with unfortunate Whelan attributed with the goal.
Any chance of a Villa revival was killed off on 55 minutes when Barrow hit his first goal since netting for Swansea against Bournemouth on March 12 last year.
After a Liam Kelly corner found its way into the six-yard box via Swift and Liam Moore, there was the Curacao speedster to blast home gleefully.
Villa did still have chances after that with Tyler Blackett coming to the rescue with a brilliant last-ditch intervention to deny Birkir Bjarnason from close range, before the Icelander fired just wide.
And the hosts did endure a nervy finish when ex-Barnsley man Hourihane volleyed in with three minutes to go.
But when Bjarnason headed poorly wide in the final minute, Bruce knew the game was up, no doubt ready for the subsequent flak he will face.
It is not getting any better. And by now, you really thought it would be.
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