In the post Christmas, pre-New year gap you tend to get games and days like today's. They don't really make the headlines, they don't make great viewing for a TV audience, or even, it has to be said for the sodden fans shivering in the ground. But they are an intrinsic part of football. They matter just as much as balmy, pinging the ball around, fantasy football games played in May and August. They are the sort of games that define the character of a side.
Let's be clear about it, it was a truly horrible day - The weather conditions were diabolical. In the old days of course, we used to get soaked standing on open terraces at places like Wigan, or Oldham, or other wet, red-brick towns a lot more often. In a way it was nice to get that reminder of those times long gone, again.
On the other hand, now that Football is a HD Event on Sky+ telly, we have become soft, used to multi-million pound fayre at 35 quid a pop in practically centrally heated state of the art stadia with perfect pitches, where rain and weather is something that goes on as a backdrop, rather that as an intrinsic part of the game.
Wigan though isn't like that and probably never will be. Thanks to them for the enlightened pricing from 5400 Villans
For sure the ground is of the modern age. Named after the company of the millionaire owner, the JJB stadium isn't really in the heart of the community, it's on the edge of a town trying to redefine itself for the 21st century. Plastic seats, happy shiny people, concrete and flags on sticks. But despite all that, in truth Wigan Athletic away in December is one of those occasions where however stylish the sports cars and suits of the players might be, the things that really matter are the eternal values of football in the winter in the UK. "Have you got the heart for it". "Do you fancy it" "Get stuck in lad".
The day started off with the rain rattling hard against the windows, awaking the Villa faithful from our post Christmas slumber, eager to get to the pub and meet up after too much time spent slumped in armchairs and couches, staring at the telly.
We convened in the centre of Wigan, familiar faces and friends rammed into the comfortable surroundings of a pub too good to mention. A hoard of VT'ers, and other friends and acquaintances too, all supping on the hoppy produce of varied breweries.
We all felt, to a man, I think, that we'd get something from the game, but we all also felt that the weather, the wind and rain would not make it an easy game. It would be one where we'd have to really show our mettle, compete with a revitalised Wigan and take our chances.
Reluctantly, we eventually left the boozer and yomped into the westerly downpour. 15 minutes of trudging, 5 minutes of pie munching and the game kicked off in front of a packed away end.
Truth be told it wasn't a great game, I can't remember much detail of slick moves and silky skills. The things that stay in the mind are the bobbles of mud churning up on the heavy pitch, the headers and tackles, the total commitment of all the players, of both sides. Shirts drenched, shorts coated in mud, studs clagging up with bits of turf.
Wigan scored first, a cracking header from a corner, right onto Marcus Bent's bonce (the announcer said it was Bent, though I thought it was Titus Bumble), in front of us. Not brilliantly marked, but superbly taken. Scott in goal without a chance of saving.
In that first half, the team were pretty even. I felt Villa were not quite right shape wise. Carew had gone off early, after maybe 10 minutes or so, with an ankle or leg injury after a tackle down the far end. Luke Moore came on in his place. That wasn't the problem. The problem I felt was that we weren't controlling midfield, weren't using the width of Maloney and Ash, and despite the excellent work of Nigel Reo-Coker Wigan were playing the game the way they wanted.
At half time I was thinking that the game was eminently winnable for us, but that we needed to just get Gareth Barry a tad deeper in his starting positions, to use the ball out wide, better, and hold solid at the back. That way, we'd maybe give the two forwards a better chance to get hold of the ball - something lacking in the first half.
The second half wasn't long started when we got an equaliser, not dissimilar to Wigan's goal. From a corner, GB found Curtis Davies (excellent all round) and Kirkland had as little a chance as Scott Carson did in the first. 1-1.
Now we were in business. Gabby was really causing Wigan problems, our defence was holding off the exertions of the Wigan forwards and Barry was really starting to run the midfield and dictate the play.
With about 20 minutes left, Ashley Young got right to the goal line, crossed in from the left and Gabby glanced in from about 4 yards out. Beauty. 2-1.
In a game of few clear chances it turned out to be the winner. We probably just about deserved it because of our greater quality, equal commitment and because the team had the nouse to hold on to the lead.
And then we went back through the rain to the pub to warm up.
Some marks and comments
Scott Carson - Sound, 7.
Olly - another solid performance from a player now comfortable at right back. 7
Freddie - same as Olly - solid 7
Curtis Davies - very good - 7.5 Pacy, strong, looked like a real player.
Martin Laursen - 7.5 - just what you want and expect from him. A game made for him, really. Splendid.
Wee Shaun - 6 - lively but didn't get as much of the ball as he'd have liked (Craig Gardner 7 - a game also made for Craig, did very well when he came on)
Ash - 6. Lovely run and cross for Gab's goal. Always a threat.
NRC - 8 - Top stuff today. Really played well.
GB - 8 - Tremendous drive, particularly second half. Skipper-tastic perfomance.
Big JC - 5 - not on for moe than 10 mins (Luke 6)
Gabby -8 - complete handful for Wigan.
The marks maybe high, for a game that was scrappy, but sitting down near the front, the commitment and effort was tangible and it was a real hard won victory.
Well done to all who turned up, Happy new year. Onwards and upwards.
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