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Aston Villa, The Play Off Diaries: Stumble and Fall

Well, that sucks.

It’s a quirk of football, though, that pretty much any team can play any game poorly. It seems to apply doubly when it’s absolutely loaded with meaning (how many good cup finals do we see? I’d argue not many). In truth, I think Villa could have played another 90 minutes and might not have scored in this game. I’m not sure if it was a case of bottling it on the big day, or Fulham just working out how to shut the team down, but I’ll lay it out how I saw it.

Most days, that game would have finished 0-0. That’s not a complaint, by the way: Fulham’s goal was extremely well taken. It’s just, I’m not sure I’ve seen Villa concede another goal where a man was just left alone roughly where Hutton is supposed to pick him up all season. Generally speaking, it just doesn’t happen.

The goal went in early, though, and in truth, Fulham could have had more before the break. It was the same old theme of the playoffs this year for Villa: step back, and let teams come at you, and hope the defense is good enough. It would be another thing if the ‘attack on the break’ approach was working a little better, but it really wasn’t.

The second half was a little stronger from a Villa perspective, if very frantic. Grealish was by far the best player on the pitch. One of Fulham’s defenders got a pretty harsh red card with 20 minutes to go. Villa had a couple of decent penalty shouts and Grealish tried to take on everyone (and almost succeeded). But there was nothing really clear-cut. Grabban seemed to drift, and was utterly ineffective. Snodgrass had a sub-par game by his standards, and the wing-backs were pretty ineffectual. Apart from chucking on a load of strikers who didn’t do a whole lot, there didn’t seem to be much of a plan B. Only Adomah and Grealish – as has become standard, actually – had particularly above-average games, and it just wasn’t enough.

So now…

I already have a love-hate relationship with the playoffs. In one sense, they’ve obviously inherently unjust, and arguably an end of season money-spinner. Fulham went up, and they also finished third, so there was a certain poetic justice to it all, where it makes me personally happy or not (the answer is not, in case I’ve left any doubt!).

The consequences for Villa, as I outlined before it all kicked off, are quite substantial. Next year has an air of ‘must do’ about it now, as the parachute payments will be gone. The deadwood, in the form of Micah Richards and Gabby Agbonlahor, really need to go. We probably need a new striker, unless Kodjia can find some real form.

Of course, many of the best players will be gone, too. It’s hard to picture Grealish hanging around all that much longer in the Championship. Snodgrass, Johnstone and Grabban (the latter I’m fine about) are on loan, and will be going, perhaps except Johnstone. Terry can’t have that long left in him. The squad, in short, is going to need an overhaul, and it’s currently quite hard to envisage Villa finishing higher next year, rather than lower.

It’s bleak, in other words. Very bleak. Or perhaps that’s just my pessimism.

Context.

I’d be lying if I said football doesn’t matter to me. The same day as this final, though, the results of Ireland’s vote over the rights of women to access abortion services came in. I think you probably have to live in Ireland to understand how frightening to 8th amendment is to anyone who’s ever had a child. There are numerous reasons why it was a bad regulation, ranging from some revolting extreme cases, to simply that it seems sensible to allow someone in the early stage of pregnancy to decide for themselves whether they want to be a parent.

And yes, I know you probably weren’t expecting a football blog to take that turn, but it’s hard to be all that sad in the context of today’s other result, which matters a whole lot more to me. I won’t go on about it, but in my view, Ireland is growing up and emerging from a world of religious dogma at a rapid pace, and I’m proud of it. It makes a football match seem more than a little insignificant.

Context, I guess, matters. Time to get my writing into gear and focus on the ‘other world cup‘.

Aston Villa, The Play Off Diaries: Off To Wembley!

Well, that was far from a classic. Tinged with the added emotion of Jlloyd Samual’s death in a car crash a few hours before kick off, Villa’s second leg against Middlesborough was one of the tensest and most uninspiring games of football I’ve ever seen as an Aston Villa fan. All’s well that ends well…

 

An oddly flat but intense game.

In my experience, Villa have always known how to test your nerves. You’d have to say, trying to look at things from a Middlesborough point of view, on balance they were really poor over the two legs. Without wanting to downplay the occasion, which makes things very different to a normal game, you could almost say Villa won by default. I’m reliably informed they had one shot on target over 180 minutes, none in this second game, which they needed to win, but seemed to forget that until the latter stages. They created incredibly little.

Nevertheless, Villa contrived to make things difficult for ourselves. The first half saw the home side sit back from about 15 minutes on, after a strong start, struggling to hold the ball outside of our own half, and sitting horrendously deep as Middlesborough seemed to keep a lot of the ball. Inability to clear our lines or hold onto the ball in an in any way attacking position is offset, I guess, by the fact that Adama Traore was once again largely shut down. The best Boro really created in the first half was a number of potentially dangerous crosses, which the superb Alan Hutton largely opted to let just fly over his head at the back post. It said more about Middlesborough’s lack of quality, though, than anything Villa were doing.

Things did get better in the second half. With the intensity ramped up, that Adomah/ Grealish partnership came into play, and looked really threatening at times. We seemed to figure out that the best way to defend was to try and get the ball in the other half and hold it, and Grealish and Grabban both had decent efforts on goal. I’m a little unsold on Grabban still: he had very little impact on the game (though you could certainly blame the service), and looked clunky at times. James Bree is also an obvious weakness: he struggled at right back in place of Elmohamady, and I’d be more than a little worried about him coming up against someone better on that wing when Wembley arrives.

The drama came at the end, of course. Downing smashed the crossbar – heart in mouth. Johnstone made a very rare error, in saving a shot by handling outside the area, a move he arguably should have been sent off for, depending on your definition of a clear goalscoring opportunity.  I suspect we would have gone through anyway, given how late in the game the incident was, but the leniency will serve us well in the final: Johnstone is essential to this Villa team, and I suspect he’ll have work to do at Wembley.

Here’s my good friend Stephen’s take on watching me watch the game. I suspect my nerves were more entertaining than what was on screen…

It’s hard to say anything all that positive, apart from that we did enough, and it really is all that matter at this stage. This was emphatically not a classic, though I do think the better team won.

Onwards.

All of which means it’s a one-off game against Fulham that determines whether Villa go back to the Premier League; a game played on the same day as the Champions League Final, and allegedly substantially more valuable. As I said in my previous blog on this, Fulham are the team it would have been better to avoid. They’re all but unbeaten since New Year, they have Mitrovic and Sessegnon, both of whom are undeniably Premier League class, and they will certainly go in as favourites.

Aston Villa, The Play Off Diaries: A Flaky, Winning Start

When it comes to this part of the season, I guess when your team plays well for a solid chunk of the match and gets an away win, you just have to take the positives and say ‘that’ll do’. So in short: as far as first legs, go, this will do:

The game

I broke rule number one of living in Dublin for this particular game: thou shalt not go out in Temple Bar. With yours truly and my amazingly well-behaved four-year-old in tow, the Aston Villa Irish Supporters Club hit up Buskers On The Ball, a place they had managed to convince to show a playoff first leg on a large number of their screens, despite it clashing with Leinster’s European Cup Final rugby exploits. There must have been 30-40 Villa fans there, which makes the games more fun to watch, but doesn’t compare to when the club was based up on O’Connell Street, and at times drew in hundreds. That’s second-tier football, I guess.

I rarely know as much about what’s going on with a game before it kicks off as I did with one. As you might have gathered from my first playoff diary, I was pretty keen on working out what to expect from this (I said low scoring and scrappy, so I guess I didn’t do too badly). I learnt that Middlesborough are pretty much what you’d expect from a Tony Pulis team, and that much of their threat comes from corners, or from the flair of Adama Traore.

As you might know, Adama is a former Villa player, one we somehow poached from Barcelona as a youth player towards the end of the Premier League era. On his day, he’s exceptional, but he’s spectacularly inconsistent. Villa all but marked him out of the game, and I suspect it’s something we’ll have to do again second time around.

First half, it was slow and steady but very much Villa in control. Despite conceding a load of those corners (most of which Johnstone dealt with competently), Grealish, Adomah and Snodgrass were by far the better midfield. It was that other lad, the big Aussie Jedinak (who, I’ll admit, I’m not totally sure I’d have had on the pitch) who actually did the damage, nodding in from a corner by Grealish. He was given plenty of space, but what an untouchably good header, in off the base of the post.

Middlesborough created a bit, but nothing all that convincing (Assombalonga had a particularly poor game, though he was quite isolated). Snodgrass saw a curler tipped onto the post by Randolph; a brilliant stop, I’m still not quite sure how he got to it. Johnstone made a cracking save from Bamford at close range, the kind of range at which his only option really was to hope it came within arm’s length and react quickly. Bamford, frankly, should have scored. The second half was almost unwatchably dour, which suits in a way, even if it is essentially the build up to ‘halftime’ in the context of the semifinal. Overall, it was a tense, uninspired game of few chances. But Villa won, and over this game, and the next couple, that really is all that matters, nobody will care if it’s a sneaky 1-0 or a thrashing.

Aston Villa, The Play Off Diaries: It Starts.

As you might or might not know, I’m a life-long Aston Villa fan. It’s been a rocky road. In the early days, it was quite good fun: a flamboyant, attacking club that won things – albeit relatively minor things like the then Coca-Cola Cup – and reached finals on a regular enough basis to bring lots of excitement. I had a season ticket as a student, by which time the club was a lower mid/table Premier League struggler, but still boasted the flair of people like Juan Pablo Angel and Thomas Hitzelsberger (don’t laugh, they were both excellent to watch). I still make roughly a game a year, which is less than I’d like, but as much as is really fair in the context of having a young child and living in another country.

In the next two weeks, Villa have the chance to regain their status at the top table, so I’ve decided I’ll take the chance to write about it. For two games. Or three. However long it lasts. I won’t be there, in all likelihood, but as far as a small number of games go, there’s nothing bigger than the playoffs. Time to ramble…

The Story So Far (And What I Think It Means)

It’s been a weird few years as a Villa fan, to say the least. I went to the last game in the Premier League and sat amongst the Holte End as Villa fans semi-ironically celebrated a draw against Newcastle, in part because it was likely to send them down (football fans are notorious for celebrating others’ misery, sadly), but also in part because they actually got a result. Specifically, a dour 0-0 draw. That side were awful, and even back then it seemed obvious – with relegation confirmed – that a quick return to the Premier League was not even close to a given. There were vocal protests outside the stadium before kick-off to go with it.

Last year was about clearing out and stabilising, something Sunderland – and the increasing difficulty in quick returns to the Premier League – have demonstrated is very necessary. Villa are largely rid of deadwood these days (I say largely looking at you, Micah Richards and the sadly shadow-of-your-former-self Gabby Agbonlahor), and with the infamous end of the parachute payment situation looming, failure to go up this season will mean squad reductions to meet financial fair play rules, inevitably. And for the casual observer, yes, football has got that much about money, and yes, it does matter to fans, for a very simple reason: financial desolation can mean a huge, huge drop for a club.

2017/2018 has also been an odd season. I wasn’t a fan of Steve Bruce before he arrived, to be honest, but he has definitely put in place a relatively colourful, attacking team. Having finished 13th in 2016/2017, and been lower for much of the season (it’s worth mentioning that Wolves and Cardiff City – who finished in the automatic promotion players this year, finished 15th and 12th respectively last year – the Championship is odd), things got off to a really bad start this year as well.

Villa opened with seven points from seven games. That was followed by a total turn around: a run of 11 wins in 14 games, lasting from mid-September to late November. After a poor December, they won six in a row through January, and converted that to nine out of 12 up to the end of a big home win against Wolves that made automatic promotion look like a real possibility, as they briefly pushed into second. Then came the (as a long time fan, seemingly inevitable) collapse, with losses to struggling Bolton, QPR and Norwich and a draw with Hull seeing Cardiff and later Fulham march past, and the playoff place solidify. I know a lot of Villa fans look at the poor run post-Wolves as the moment automatic promotion slipped away, but the seven points from seven at the start of the season is at least as culpable.

All that means Middlesborough over two legs for a place in the £100 million game. The playoffs are traditionally a lottery, though, contrary to popular opinion, they do traditionally slightly favour the team who finishes third. In the history of English second-tier playoffs, the team in third has won the most times (10). Fourth has gone up 6 times, fifth 8 times and sixth 5 times, so it does broadly reflect finishing places in terms of your chances. Based on recent form, and the quality of Alexander Mitrovic, I’d definitely be looking at Fulham as the team to beat. Obviously, from a Villa perspective, we have to look at Middlesborough first.

Goodbye glamour: a trip to Aston Villa’s last home premier league game

“Are you here for the funeral?”

It’s 7am, and I’m strolling through customs at Birmingham International Airport on the second to last day of Aston Villa’s 2015/16 premier league season. I’ve been a Villa fan for as long as I can remember. A massive perk of my choice of university – Warwick, based in Coventry – was the opportunity to switch from regular trips up to Villa Park with a friend of my dad’s to a fully-fledged season ticket holder in the Holte End Upper. I’ve made a point of dropping back when I can over the years, even while living abroad.

My interest in the intervening years has varied from ‘makes sure I check in on the score’ (living in Asia for several years made it hard to watch regularly, and pushed things down my priority list), to being utterly besotted. Strangely, the link between quality and my interest has often worked in reverse: my most dedicated Villa years were the ones where they weren’t very good.

I vividly remember another second-to-last game of the season in which an extremely late goal from Marcus Alback ensured survival. It was tense and uninspiring, but also a heavy relief. While I’ve also witnessed that ridiculous game against Newcastle, a Europa League defeat of Ajax and a cup final that we should probably have won (the last one not in person, sadly), tense and uninspiring have summed up a large part of the whole experience.

But you can’t change your football team, right? So the customs lad summed it up: I was here for the funeral.

Protests in full swing at #AVFC

A photo posted by James Hendicott (@jameshendicott) on