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2008 Away Match Reports

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blandy

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Monday, December 08, 2008

hold on, hold on - Everton Away Report

 
A late report this week, sorry.

I think I've only just got over that game. It was a bit of a throwback, really. So many games these days are quite sanitised - lots of tippy tappy football, no tackling, both teams with the same approach. Not yesterday though

The days started badly with the non-appearance of my train to Preston (for the second weekend running). A dash in a taxi, then the train from Preston to Liverpool and some re-assuring beers with Bickster in our regular pre-match haunt.

Once inside the ground, we for once had a decent view. Upstairs near the front, with no pillar in the way. Everton still do that oh so 70s pre match and half time stuff - seat bingo and the like, and the food matched the 70s feel - a half cooked, over-priced, hot dog as they'd run out of pies and pasties.

We'd barely chomped through the dried out bread when SIdwell scored a screamer - Luke Young cut inside, was given space, and passed into Milner in the centre forward position. His lay off was absolutely welted into the net from 25 yards by Siddy.

For the next 20 minutes Villa ran the game - quicker to the ball, they used it well and had Everton chasing shadows. But then things changed. The Everton fans perhaps got to the ref a bit, but it seemed to me that for whatever reason Everton had decided they wee going to start asserting themselves. They began to win free kicks, harry and chase more effectively and Villa were pushed back. We were not keeping hold of the ball, and weren't giving Gabby a chance on his own up front - too many aerial balls which were always going to be won by their defence.

Inevitably Everton scored. A free kick out on their left, and lescott tapped in after Sidwell missed it. They deserved their equaliser, and finished the half on top.

At half time I felt the manager would have impressed upon the players to keep hold of the ball better, pass to feet, don't try and rush everything.

Whatever, we started the second half as we'd ended the first - under pressure from balls into the box and attacks down the flanks. Laursen and Davies were defending manfully, but if it carried on in the same vein, Everton looked likelier to score than us.

You can't explain what gets into players heads, though. For some bizarre reason an Everton defender passed a ball back in the region of nowhere. Ashley Young had brilliantly read what the defender was about to do and was on the ball in a flash, beating the out-rushing keeper to the ball and plonking it into the net. Funny how things mirror out - a couple of weeks ago Sidwell did the same numb-brained thing for us.

Anyway, Villa now looked more likely to score. MO'N switched Ash into the middle and put Gabby on the left. This worked well - it stopped them attacking so much down that side, and left Everton unsure as to who should mark who.

Ash should have got a second goal, when clean through after the ref let play go on from a tangle between Barry and a defender. Barry had the ball, appeared to be fouled, then appeared in turn to foul the defender while squirting the ball forwards. The shot was on after Ash advanced, but he cut inside and lost it.

Back came Everton, piling balls into the box for the giant George Berry look a (bit) like Feliani. They hit the bar, headed just wide and generally had us defending deep.

The ref throughout the game had been giving some strange decisions - playing advantage when there was none, blowing when advantage could have been played, letting Feliani off for repeatedly fouling, even after being booked already. He wasn't biased, just inconsistent, really. In a way it helped the game, but it was infuriating both sets of players and fans.

I thought we'd hold on, just about to the end, but with only a minute or so of injury time to play, they scored again. A good finish from Lescott - a flying volley. He went mad, shirt off running to the Villa fans. (Why?)

Everton fans, most of whom had stayed to the end, raised the roof, Villa dejected. But hold on - from the kick off, Gabby through to Ash, he skinned Lescott and beautifully curled the ball into the corner from 18 yards. Like last year, Villa came back from the dead, this time getting 3 points instead of 1. Amazing. Fans and players celebrated hugely. Evertonians dejectedly trooped out. They were hard done by, truth be told. A draw would have been fair. Since when has football fortune been fair though?

A remarkably swift return to the pub followed, a couple more beers and then the train home.

The whole day cost me a fortune - about £100, frighteningly, but once again it was worth it. It's a bumpy old ride, following the Villa, but it's fun. Hold on to your hats.

Some marks

Brad - 6 - didn't have too many saves to make, and not at fault for either goal. Reassuring, he is.

Carlos - 5 - not his best game, but he did OK
Curtis - 7 - calm. You need calm in a game like that.
Martin Laursen - 7 - His type of game - lots of heading and clearing.
Luke Young - 6 - he might not like it there, but he's doing a very good job at left back.

James Milner - 6 - Lovely lay off for the goal, worked incredibly hard to help out Carlos. Not able to get forward that much. He's an under-rated asset.
Siddy - 6 - belter of a goal, and like all of them worked prodigiously
GB - 6- started brilliantly, and played intelligently as always.
Stan - 6 - He's now a "you know what you're going to get, and you're going to like it" player.
Ashley Young - 8 - 2 great goals, could have had third. Lethal and lively.

Gabby - On his own up front, he's not often going to get much joy, and that was the way of it in this game. ANother who strove manfully for the team.
 

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Glam Racket - Arsenal Away Report

 
Copious mugs of tea, spanish omelette and orange juice. These are just some of the things that are currently doing their best to alleviate the fuzzy headed, bleary Sunday "morning after" feeling that follows one of the Villa's best performances for a long time.

Yesterday was a long old day, starting as it did at the unholy hour of 6:30 am ( I had forgotten there even is a 6:30 am). But anyway, many hours of train travel later I'd made it down to fancy London to meet up in the pub with fellow VT'er Paulo Barnesi, Nigel from the VFC days and a now familiar cast of travelling and London based Villans. Drink was drunk, Pizza was scoffed, and we mostly agreed that Villa would probably lose to Arsenal, what with them having last week beaten Man U, and us having managed to lose the last 2 league games. Arsenal fans in the pub though were not as confident that they would win as we thought they should have been. We were to see why as the day unfolded.

A move of pubs, a march to the ground, where outside I picked up a Programme for a mate's lad and a copy of H&V for myself (there's no competition which is the better read and value - 3 quid for a catalogue of luxury flats for sale, O2 adverts and to be fair some of that indispensable information which is suddenly less indispensable once you've actually seen it - the thoughts of Arsene, or the reserve scores for example, as against the considered and considerable comment and analysis of real people). Anyway I digress.

Villa's third visit to the shrine of 21st century executive class football saw a number of changes - Luke Young at left back, Carlos at right back, Curtis and Martin Laursen in the middle. The Midfield three of Gareth, Stan Petrov and Sidders, with Milner and Ash wide and Gabby on his lonesome up front.

Straight from the kick off you could see Villa were "at it" - taking the game to Arsenal, with Ash, Barry and Gabby all prominent. When we had the ball we used it well, when we didn't they all worked like trojans to stop Arsenal's pass and move game. When Arsenal are on song, they are irresistible, both as a spectacle and as a team. The only way to stop yourself being driven dizzy is to stay calm, organised, controlled and to pose a threat yourselves. That's what Villa did, and it was a joy.

The only thing missing was a goal. There were plenty of chances, but either the keeper was well positioned, or shots went wide. No doubt though that Villa were the better side. And then a penalty. Fabregas or Nasri initially fouled Gareth in midfield, but with him down injured play was waved on. A shot, blocked, ball back out for Ash to run on to, or a defender to clear. But the defender was too slow and Ashley went down over his leg. To be honest I was not at all convinced it was a definite pen. With GB now being treated off the pitch, Ashley wanted to take it himself. He did and it was feeble. Almunia saved and Gallas hacked clear before Ash could knock in the rebound.

Their good fortune didn't really spur Arsenal on, and Ash was now like a man possessed, trying to make amends for his miss. But half time arrived with the game goal-less. Villa I felt should have been at least 2 up.

The second half started with Arsenal managing 10 minutes of control on the game and the concern was that we'd blown a real good chance to get a win. But Arsenal's threat faded, floundering on the intelligent defending, organised midfield play and good use of the ball shown by Villa. I can't stress enough how pleasing it was to see Villa "footballing" a performance against a Sky 4 team.

Things got markedly better for Villa when a break down the left by Ash left him with time to pick out a peach of a cross from Gabby to run on to and head into the net. He was closely tracked by a defender but the whole thing was fast and precise. 20 minutes left on the electric scoreboard. Noise in the away end, glumness in the rest of the ground.

Arsenal shuffled their side around, Adebayor came on, and that mexican lad up front. Their left back was carted off injured with a poorly leg, hurt when he lost the ball in the build up to the goal.

Villa just carried on with the intelligent play. There was no sense that Arsenal were building up any kind of head of steam, but they're always capable, as our last 2 visits have seen, of getting a goal back right at the end. Really only Theo Walcott looked a threat, and he was superbly mastered by Carlos, with able assistance from the rest of the side. On one occasion we saw Gabby surge back in a real speed race to stop a pass into space being picked up by his equally lightning England (if there's any justice) colleague.

While in "Gabby time" everything happens in a blur, in fan time the minutes slowed right down. 10 left, then still 10 left. 5 minutes later 9 minutes and five seconds left. Then the natural order has to re-align the 2 time zones, so a clearance is chased by Gab and Gallas. Time stops. There's no doubt who was going to win the race to the ball, but until recently there has always been some doubt as to what would happen when he gets there first. Not any more. He held off Gallas, knocked it a couple of paces forwards and then belted it past Almunia. Pandemonium in the way end, seats emptying all round the rest of the stadium.

Apart from a header against the outside of the post, and a couple of hits dealt with ably by Brad, the storm never came, Villa ran the ball into corners and eased themselves to a truly merited win.

A race back to the station, through the under-tube network, exchanged smiles and handshakes with fellow claret and blue travellers. Then a couple of swift pints at the station. Thanks from a Spurs fan, a good chat with some Arsenal fans - I've never met one who isn't thoroughly decent. They grumbled about the ref, Riley, they wondered whether "Arsene's lost it", but agreed that Villa were much the better side on the day.

The train journey back was a long and happy one. It seemed rude not to tuck in to some swillo, under the circs.

Home at midnight. 18 hours spent to see 90 minutes of football. Well worth it.

Some marks for the team - 110. The famous Ron Saunders 110% was given and 10 marks each were earned by the players

Brad - did let one shot bounce back out into play, but otherwise he was calm and controlled.

Carlos. Won his battle
Curtis - Won his battles and aided in the covering of Theo.
Martin Laursen. Had Bendtnar in his pocket.
Luke Young - utterly solid.

Jimmy Milner - massive effort put in, just never stops running. Didn't always manage to beat his man, in fact didn't often do so, but with that level of effort, their left back just could not, for a moment, rest easy.
Stevie Sidwell. Very good. I was sceptical about how he would fit in at Villa, but yesterday shows there are no concerns at all. Paulo raved about his performance, and rightly so.
Stan Petrov - we didn't half miss him when he was out. Superb.
GB - excellent performance from Gareth. Some people have questioned him recently. Anyone who saw him yesterday would surely recognise his importance and his quality.
Ash - livewire is the word they use to describe performances like his yesterday. Rubbish pen, mind.

Gabby. 2 goals. The thing about Gab is how you can see the improvement almost with each game. His hold up play and his use of the ball is something I wouldn't have believed possible. Just fantastic.

MoTM - Martin O'Neill. The team was set up right, the tactics were right, the attitude was right, the work-rate, the team ethic, the style were all splendid. Looking back over the past seasons, we were stuffed in the last game at highbury, O'Leary went. Then in the first game at the emirates we scored through Olly, and just defended, a draw "against the odds". Then last season we had a bit of a go, got a goal from a rare-ish attack and Arsenal piled on the pressure and scored right at the end. It might have felt like a defeat, but the performance showed promise. And this season we ran the game and deserved to win. Patience is thin in football, but perseverance is important. When you've got a good manager, keep him.
 

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Inbetweenies - Wigan Away Report

 
A local game for me and a chance to reflect on a good day out, to consider where we stand.

The day started well - after all who wouldn't welcome an extra hours kip? Thing is though, every time they shift the clocks forwards, it takes me 2 weeks to acclimatise, every time they shift 'em back, it's like it didn't happen. That can't be right, can it?. You're left in a kind of nowhere zone.

But anyway, get up, wander off to the station, sleet drilling down, then the sun comes out, and it's quite warm. Neither winter, nor summer.

The trains to Wigan from my house take only half an hour, with a wait betwen the two local shuttles at Preston. But then the North West's best pub, or one of them, awaits.

Drank a few beers in good company, toddle off to the ground, pie, wee, match starts.

The game, for the first 20 minutes or so was OK, but with little clear pattern - neither side dominant, final ball not quite there. And then one thing you can rely on - Titus Bumble helped us out - an injudicious tackle on Gabby, right on the corner of the box, down the far end, but definitely inside. Afterwards, in the pub, a Wigan fan said Bumble got the ball, and he had a better view, as he was down that end. Anyway, the Ref thought he didn't. Gareth Barry scored from the spot, very well too.

Us Villans, not as many as the 5400 of last year, but still a healthy number, perhaps a thousand less - around 4,400 at a guess, celebrated.

Wigan threatened a couple of times - Petrov did really well to block Heskey in the box, and Friedel saved a long range blunderbuss of a shot and also got in the way of a header from Heskey stopping what looked likely to be an equaliser..

So half time and 1-0, without the game really catching fire.

The second half was different. Villa did the business. They put Wigan away, as they say.

John Carew came on for a limping GB with maybe 10 minutes gone and almost immediately assisted Gabby in scoring our second. From a Corner his header down was directed onto Gabby's knee and in past Kirkland.

Having been the recipient of some supportive but mickey taking chanting, Big John was clearly delighted.

Our next goal was an absolute beauty.It started with a Petrov tackle and backheel just outside the D of our box. Milner's passed long ball for Gabby sent him away. He held the ball up. Normally, we've seen Gab lose the ball or waste it in these situations, but he waited and then skinned the defender before crossing left footed right onto Carew's noggin 3 yards out. Brilliant. Brilliant team play, great cross, clean finish.

After that, despite numerous Wigan corners, a couple of scares when they perhaps should have pulled one back, Villa held on pretty easily with teamwork and good defending.

Martin Laursen had time for a storming run up the pitch and lay off to Gabby, who reverted to the other type.
Ash too had a run and shot tipped round by Kirkland.

In the last few minutes Steve Sidwell made his league debut, and topped it off with a cracking goal, right into the top corner from outside the box.

Winning 4-0 away with a couple of really excellent goals, and after having played midweek. Really well done to all the players, and the manager.

Back to the pub, chat with some Wigan fans, then to another pub, and a few more drinks with some Cumbrian Villans. Nice end to a good day.

I'm not doing marks today, I want my tea. But I will say that Martin Laursen, Gabby, Stan Petrov, Ashley Young and James Milner were all really, really good. The rest were all good.

Where does it leave us all?

Well we're clearly a side capable of beating "the rest". We're looking able to handle playing after European games, we're well managed, well owned, well supported. But we've done now't yet.

However much us fans love a "character" we can't be having players out on the lash on the eve of games. As much as I'd love to do the same, given half a chance, discipline is needed to change from the progress we've made to the place we want to be.

One final comment - Mark, from the NW Villans - I wouldn't want your hangover tommorrow, mate.
 

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ride Away - Albion Away Report

 
A beautiful Indian Summer of a day at the Hawthorns, an open entertaining game with Villa ending up as deserving 2-1 winners - it almost makes up for having to go up at daft O'clock to go to the game. I'm not at all sure games against the Baggies need to be at 12:00.

Get up early I did, and with no trains from the North West to get me to the game, I had to trundle my trusty car out from the garage. The early start probably gave me a feeling of how the Villa players must be feeling - that sensation of not quite being fully with it due to journeys and early rises - Monday London, Thursday Bulgaria and now 12 O'clock on a Sunday in West Bromwich.

The atmosphere in the ground, in the sun, was rather more laid back than on occasions past, and less spiteful than the derby games with Small Heath (R), but there was plenty of noise all the same. I'm not sure if the game was on the telly, hopefully it was, because the detail has gone from my tired mind. What's left is an impression of both sides playing good football, I was impressed with the Baggies passing game and movement, though they lack any kind of focal point to many of their moves.
Villa, as we know are pacy and with the 3 injured players from midweek returning most definitely have a focal point to the attack. He's bigger than me and you, and he could perhaps have had a hat-trick. He had to settle for just the one, and it came after about 25 minutes or so - a solid header in off the angle of the bar and near post pretty much unchallenged. Ashley Young had crossed in from the left from a free kick.
That goal seemed to knock Albion back - they'd looked slightly unsure - as if wondering exactly what Villa might do to them, and the unsureness almost immediately got worse. practically from the kick off a hapless defender passed the ball straight to Gabby who ran on and beat Scott Carson. From 0-0 to 2-0 within about 90 seconds.
We looked well in control, obviously, but let Albion back into the game thanks to a mistake of our own - a well hit shot from the corner of the box was allowed to bounce off the sprawling Friedel, who really should have held on to it and a forward just bear Laursen to the loose ball. It was at this point that I said bad words about Friedel - along the lines of him making quite a few mistakes, and not many top drawer saves so far this season.
But I guess the thing with 'keepers is that they have to clear their mind off what's done and concentrate on what's to do.
What to do, was make a blinding save from a point blank header a few minutes later.

Half time saw some grown ups in animal costumes race across the pitch, for charity, apparently. The Wolves man in an oversized costume won, Villa's Lion was second.
In that heat they'll know how the players felt by the end of the game.

The second half sarted not unexpectedly with Albion coming out with renewed confidence and vigour, but to be honest despite their approach to the game - the diametric opposite of Stoke's style, really, they just didn't look that dangerous.
Villa however did - once we'd weathered the early pressure we took control for a period and really should have scored at least one or two more. A lovely cross from Stan Petrov, again superb, was headed onto the post by Carew, who'd earlier shaved the post from the angle after being put through again by some sweet football. Both time Carson was beaten.
Carson saved from NRC, other moves broke down as maybe fatigue and the heat started to affect players.
Subs started coming on for both sides, players started getting knocks and the ref started getting his cards out. The heat got to him too.

MO'N did his usual "take the left-back off and swap everyone around" thing, so Shorey off, Luke Young across to the LB spot, NRC to RB and Milner on to play right mid.
Stan, after one too many bruisings hobbled off and Craig Gardner came on, and later Carew was replaced by Cuellar, just to see out the last 5.

Luke Moore on for the Albion was given a good round of applause from the away end too.

We held on without too many alarms, cheered off the team, cheered Ian Taylor again sat in the away end, and went in search of some scoff.

A good start to the season, a very good week - 3 wins, all away, in 6 days.

Some marks
Brad - 6 - one great save, one error.
Luke Young, did fine, booked again. 6
Nicky Shorey - he's neat, he passes well, isn't the quickest, but had a good game - 6
Martin Laursen - 8 - excellent
Curtis Davies, also excellent. 8
NRC - another good game from Nigel - still makes the odd bad choice, but is playing well. 8
Stan Petrov - another 8, and another good game from the real Stan.
GB - He knows how to play, where to play and where to be. Classy, but weary. 7
Ashley Young. Not quite at his best today, but worked tirelessly. Refs think he goes down too easily, and sometimes they're right. At other times he gets some rough treatment and little justice. 7
Big John - MoTM - 8.
Gabby - He's improving - his hold up play is miles better than a year ago, he scored, he terrifies defenders, and yet he still frustrates at times with his runs. As long as he keeps improving, he'll, er, keep improving. 7

The subs were all fine, and the ref did alright, too. He got some stuff wrong, perhaps, but let the game flow and gave players breathing space - he used his noggin.
 

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Storm - Stoke Away Report

 
My first visit to Stoke's "New" ground - I'd been to the old one a few times, and used to quite like it. The Britannia Stadium, today at least was an impressive sight.

You know what you're going to get when you go to a newly promoted team's first game at home. You're going to get a belting atmosphere from the fans, fired up players, playing like their lives depend on it, and you're probably going to get a few goals.

We had all that, today.

The one thing you hope for when you go to such places is a good refereeing performance. We didn't get that. We got Mark Bloody Halsey.

The first thing to report on is the lack of parking anywhere near the ground. I eventually parked about 2 miles or so away in the town centre. No time for any beer, though to be honest Stoke doesn't look the sort of place you'd want to linger for a pint, on a matchday.

Anyway, to the game. Villa started with the same team as last week, but in our new black and blue away kit. Ashley Young in particular would have felt it appropriate, as he'll be bruised to bits after some mostly unpunished rough treatment. A marked man in more ways than one.

The first 20 minutes of the game was largely all Stoke, with long throws, long balls and mainly attacks down our right hand side. We'd seemed to have weathered the storm and had started coming into the game more, despite looking out of sorts in a number of positions - Gareth Barry in the centre, NRC on the right, and Gabby, Ash and Big John not getting much ball.

Stoke had put a number of balls into the box, mostly dealt with under some pressure, and we'd had just a nice turn and shot narrowly wide from Carew. Then Gabby broke free, seemed to be bundled over from behind, but my view was partially obscured and it was down at the far end. I could clearly se the ref, badly positioned, also with his view obscured, completely, by several players. Because of his poor positioning he couldn't have given us the pen, and the Lino was inert. People with a better view than me thought it should have been given.

In Stoke's next attack, one of their players tumbled on the edge of our box. Halsey didn't give a pen, rightly I think, but I half expected him to. 
The ball wriggled about, trying to escape from all the players trying to hack at it. Brad nearly got to it, but GB, then Nicky Shorey got it. Shorey was hacked down. No foul given - then a Stoke player caught his legs round Shorey and fell over. Halsey was crouched there, itching to give a pen. So he did.

It was well taken. Brad almost got there, but it just beat him. The Stoke fans "Delilah'ed" their happiness. Villa fumed at the injustice.

Half time thoughts were that we'd been rubbish and Stoke's impetus, if not their quality, probably deserved to see them in front. During the first half, with NRC so ineffective on the right, MO'N had re-arranged things after about half an hour, with Ash going right, GB to the left and NRC into the middle. Truth be told only Stan Petrov, who was excellent throughout the game, had shown much in the midfield for us.

The second half saw us come back out as we had started, with GB back in the middle and NRC on the right. But we were much better and managed to play the ball around, getting more service to the forwards.

We equalised with a lovely goal. Combination play, possession, movement and trickery eventually saw Ash back heel for Carew's run and finish. Quality goal. Now the ground reverberated to the noise from the away section.

We were playing with much more confidence and belief, but then a loose pass from Barry, Stoke picked the ball up and ran at the empty left back position - Shorey having gone off injured, I presume. Routledge coming onto the right, Luke Young moved to LB and NRC to RB. Anyway, whoever the Stoke player was scored a cracking goal - with a fantastic turn past Laursen and a hard finish into the corner.

Stokies "Delilah'ed" again, but were hardly through the chorus when we equalised for the second time. A set piece goal, but not of our usual quality. Ash's delivery was mostly poor today, and this was too, but Barry got a shot in, from the mishit freekick and Laursen, I think tapped in the rebound.

Both teams were still trying to win it, and from one of a succession of long throws, Stoke did, with the last kick of the game.

So what have we found out about Villa?

Not a lot that we didn't know already, perhaps. We can score goals, but we let too many in. We don't keep the ball well enough throughout games. We desperately need a right midfielder/winger. Stilian Petrov is a quality player, and has now played very well for 2 games in a row. Gareth Barry is also quality but played a part in conceding 2 of our goals. He needs to get his mind straight.

What of Stoke? - I was impressed by the support they got - much different to the sterile atmosphere you get at many grounds, from the home fans. The players will need that support, because they're not all Premiership standard. They were well organised, and have simple but effective plan. They remind me a lot of Sheffield United under Warnock, not just because of the strip. I couldn't help but feel some empathy with them - it was their big day, or the first of many, and they won. Well done to them. I wonder if they'll struggle away from home, though.

What about Halsey? Once upon a time it used to be an accepted and widely pronounced opinion that "English refs are the best in the world". Now everyone keeps very quiet on that front. And Halsey is one of the reasons. He doesn't deserve the accusation of "cheat", that's unfair, but he needs to cut out his tendency to want to be "part of the story". Frankly if we never have the bloke ref'ing us again, it'll be too soon. We've had far too many of his "look at me" moments for it to be co-incidence. He surely must be like that to every team.... mustn't he?

Marks
Brad - 5
Luke Young - 6
Curtis - 6
Martin Laursen 6
Nicky Shorey 7 (Routledge 6)
NRC - 4
GB - 6
Stan Petrov - 7
Ashley Young - 6
Big John - 7
Gabby - 5
 

Monday, August 18, 2008

Thanks

 
This is nothing more than what the title says - a thank you. 

It's not a look ahead, a look back, a comment on players we've signed, or sold, the manager, the chairman or the price of pies. 

I guess it's one of those "stop and smell the roses" things. 

Sometimes we can get so caught up in what was and what might be, we don't stop to just get a feeling for where we are right now. 

So I'll say it again. I like going to watch the Villa. It's good. 

There are many people who have said and written many things about improvements in the club, respect for the tradition, hope for the future, the mosaic, the training ground, the relationship between fans and club and all that. And that's only right and proper. 

There are others who complained bitterly about previous times, me one of them. So given that I've said when I'm not pleased, it's only right to say when I am. 

I guess as you get older, the importance of individual results fades, and the experience you take from the games widens. You appreciate the whole day, whether you win or lose. Quite often in the past it's only been because of the "peripherals" - the pub, the banter, the day out, that I've carried on. 

But you know what? Right here, right now, the experience of going to games is just about the best it's been, certainly since the wide eyed astonishment of youth - where everything was magical, whatever happened. 

There are plenty of things about football that I could rail against - from this 39th game lunacy, to re-arranged kick off times, to the tangible greed enveloping much of it, the Sky 4, the petty idiocy of "sit down" jobsworths and a thousand other things, but despite all that, or maybe because of it, it's worth really appreciating what we have. 

It isn't the edgy experience of the 70s and 80s, it isn't the mass of humanity on a terrace and the eardrum bruising noise of the same period, though just occasionally a (loud) echo is heard, still. 

What it is, is kinder, more comfortable, more commercial and more accessible (with limitations) through our electronic media age. Of course it costs more and players are millionaires and set up for life. TV is ever present. It's an industry, not a sport. The provincial patriarch has been replaced by the super-wealthy owner. 

However well Villa do this season, looking out yesterday at the ground, I saw a stadium that may have lost the Victorian splendour of old, but there are serious signs of class about the place. The balustrades with their claret and clue stripes, uniform around the ground, no tacky adverts, a noticeable, but discrete(ish), electronic advertising board around the pitch, expounding the team "sponsor" ( a good cause), Acorns charity, a team that performs as a team, a team that cares. 

The seats pretty much full. Somebody, or lots of somebodies, are doing something right. And I'm grateful. 

Reader, you may say "well of course you like going - you're a fan, you've been going for ages, why wouldn't you?" But the truth is for a fair part of the time I've been going, it's been a case of habit, not necessarily pleasure. It's been a routine. Of course meeting your friends for a pre-match chat and drink will always be enjoyable, but sometimes the actual matches and experience has been a bit depressing. 

Us fans being a combination of hopelessly idealistic, and brutally pragmatic can't be easy to please, but right now I'm pleased. Maybe writing this after the first game of the season following a good home win is not the right time, but then again, maybe it's exactly the right time. 

When I think of Villa now, I see a uniformity about what the club is. I see a "pure" kit of claret and blue, I see a side with players who ( I hope) appreciate what they have and what their responsibilities are. I see Acorns on the shirts, I see the ground looking more like a claret and blue oasis than it has ever been, really. I see the mosaics, I see a place that is both grounded and yet still has that magical attraction. I see something I want to go back to. 

Thank you Villa. Thank you Randy Lerner, Thank you to Martin O'Neill and to all the people who work for or help the club.
 

Monday, May 12, 2008

ten years in an open neck shirt - West Ham Away Report

 
And so another season ends. This one ended in much the same way it's played out - with entertainment, raucous support for the Villans and plenty of togetherness between the players, management and fans.


The trip to fancy London from the North West is a long and expensive one, and the price of the match ticket at 43 quid was another blow to the bank balance, but it turned out to be well worth the expense.

An early start, too early indeed for Bickster, who missed the train, and met up with us later in London. But the journey down was a good one, spent chatting to a Liverpool fan I know, who was going to see his team play at Spurs.

After negotiating the line closures and heat of the tube I arrived blinking and thirsty into the Upton Park air. Failing to meet up with Paulo and Nigel, I had to settle for a couple of cans of swillo in the sun, and a quick chat with some Hammers, before entering the ground. On going through the turnstiles everyone was handed a "Mellberg - Thanks 4 your support" team shirt. A fantastic gesture from a fantastic gentleman. It's rare that players give anything tangible back to supporters in such a direct way, and it showed terrific generosity from a real pro. Olly, thanks for the memories - the header at Old Trafford, the skilled finish at Boro, the tackles, the blocks, the headers, the pace and the consistency. All the best at Juve. We'll miss you, and we'll remember you. And you were right about the Blues, too.

Anyway, the game itself was a belter. Given the number of end of season games that end in 2-2 draws and our shared history of draws with West Ham, I felt the game was likely to end at 2-2, and it did, though during the first half i feared we might lose, and in the second I thought we'd win.

West Ham scored first - a free kick from the edge of the box beautfully taken by Nolberto Solano, still a class player and a real threat all afternoon. Though he got some stick from us lot, he didn't celebrate. Scott Carson didn't get the wall right - I was right behind him, and there's just no way he could have sen the ball until it was over the wall. He nearly saved it, but should have organised the wall better.

It didn't take long for us to equalise. Ashley Young had already hit the post down the far end, and after about quarter of an hour, he was put through by Nigel Reo-Coker and finished very well.

West Ham though were attacking with pace, movement and strength and were getting through our back line a bit too easily at times. Several shots almost went in, and they looked dangerous.

The second half was much better from a Villa perspective. We really went at them from the off and Robert Green had to make a number of saves, Shots were blocked and deflected.

Gareth Barry was outstanding, driving on, playing people in, shooting and controlling. After one surging run down the middle, like a modern day Dennis Mortimer, he passed to NRC, whose shot was beaten out, but only back to the Skipper, who volleyed into the net. Delirium in the away end.

West Ham then came back at us, Ashton hitting the bar from a cross - he looked a danger all through the game.
There were panics in the West Ham area too, one sequence of shots and blocks, ending with their keeper down with a head injury. He was fine though, happily, and the game carried on at great pace, interspersed with the players snatching drinks from the sidelines.

Just before the end, West ham scored a belting goal, a powerful curling first time hit from Ashton giving Scott no chance at all to save. We went down the other and another mad scramble saw the ball cleared off the line, and hit the arm of Ferdinand, too. But the whistle went, and the game was over. Olly was serenaded one last time, relegation for small heath cheered lustily, and we have intertoto football and hopefully UEFA cup football to look forward too next season.

We made it back to Euston quite quickly and were able to scoop down a few quick pints of Fuller's excellent produce with Barnesy, before the train back to the north. Cheers Paulo.

Some thoughts on the season overall, and our Skipper in particular. Like practically all the squad, Gareth has done really well this season. He's arguably been our best player, he's unarguably a gem. I absolutely love watching him play, so it's hardly an unbiased view, but I really think there's an absolutely sound set of logic for him to stay at Villa. Just look where he's gone this season - He's a key part of our side, established as the first name on the team sheet in central midfield. He's playing great football, he's enjoying it. Martin O'Neill's management has brought out the absolute best in him. As a result of his fine performances he's a regular England starter. He's a wealthy man, he can earn plenty more in the years to come. No doubt the notion of playing EuroTelly league games is appealing, and no doubt tales from his mate Gerrard make him envious to an extent. But is moving from Villa to a left back/left sided role, when he's not rotated by Rafa, or whoever takes over from him, really in his best interests? Liverpool look to be in a bit of a crisis with their owners not talking, Rafa and Parry at Loggerheads, a lack of money from signings and for their new ground. How's Gareth's mate Crouchy getting on up there? Liverpool is a fine club, but it doesn't look to me like GB should go there. Our players, with one exception, seem to agree. He's wanted and loved at Villa.

At Villa we have something really going on. A fantastic manager, a brilliant owner, a settled and ambitious Club going undeniably in the right direction. Players will come in, in number and quality this summer. There are of course, no guarantees, but it just looks right at Villa. It looks good for the future. The grass is green.

For the rest of the squad, most of them young and improving things also look good. Martin Laursen has been a giant, Ashley Young a proper entertaining winger, there are goals from everywhere and a tremendous spirit. Pace, Power and guile abound.

I've spent a small fortune travelling up and down the country watching the team this season, and just about every minute of it has been fantastic. Well worth the time and the train delays, the motorways and the car park delays.

Have a good summer, come back safe next season, passports ready, Voices rested.

Thanks to everyone who's made it so good this season, from the ticket office, to the fellow travellers. And whoever "found" my iPod yesterday, in the away end, you better enjoy using it.
 

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Stay Close - Everton Away Report

 
A later report than normal, from the game at Everton today, due to a pleasant post match spell in the pub.


For us North-West based Villans a trip to Everton is always one to savour. Handy, fine City, good beer, often a good game and, er, rain.
Today was no different, though the short trip was made all the better for meeting up with old fiend Risso, over from his rocky outcrop in the Irish sea, and particularly because of a meet up with all round top man Tsvet from Bulgaria, plus Yordi a UK based Bulgarian Villa fan and a couple of others over for the weekend, one an Evertonian. Multinational game this premiership football. It was an absolute pleasure, fellas. Thanks.

Following the pre match preparations in a notable City centre boozer we took a cab to the ground, and got out into the pouring rain. Memories of Chris Sutton's winner last year, and Merse's spectacular a few years before, also in the rain, sprang to mind.

As the game kicked off there was a tremendous atmosphere in the ground, both sets of fans bellowing out their songs. Everton for the first 10 minutes were pushing and probing more assertively, but gradually Villa got complete control of the half. Plenty of possession, the Everton crowd quietened, the only thing lacking was much in the way of goalmouth action, or shots.

And then Ashley Young hit a belting free-kick over the wall past the keeper and onto the post....and back out. A brilliant effort and a goal would have been well deserved for Villa.

So at half time both managers would have been pleased and disappointed - MO'N because Villa had controlled the game, but not scored, and Everton because they had held on, but not played so well.

The second half saw things change - Everton were much more involved, pressing and closing and tackling, and their passing improved too. Villa put under pressure coped well, but with less possession, things weren't so assured.

I guess after about an hour or so, Everton scored. A good hit from the right, by Neville, was covered by Scott in goal, but it hit Martin Laursen on the side and the deflection, though not massive, took it into the net.

For a good while, that looked like it would be the only goal, the forwards weren't really on top for either side, but then joy for the Villans with maybe 10 minutes left, when a corner on the far side, taken by GB, reached Gabby who just knocked it nicely into the net on the bounce. The goal had followed on from some close shaves here we could have scored from freekicks and corners - Laursen, Carew and Zat, I think (though the view from the third row of the lower tier was not good) having half chances.

It was now end to end, subs Patrick Berger and Marlon on for Zat and Freddie Bouma (both tactical as we tried to get something from the game) were trying to create and finish in a very attacking, formation.

But then Everton scored again, a cross from their right, curled in from fairly deep saw Yobo volley in from a yard or two, after getting the wrong side of Nigel Reo Coker, nominally marking him, but actually from my awful view playing him onside and being in the wrong place. Still, makeshift measures carry that risk, as you go for it.

So with maybe 5 minutes to go we were behind again. It didn't seem fair on the balance of play, and Villa were having none of it. Nice play involving Stan and GB led to GB just passing a lovely little cross for Big John to nod in from 6 yards. Bedlam once again in the sold out away section.

Both teams tried to score again, but time was up. A draw fair result for both sides I felt. Good game, good atmosphere for much of it. Proper competitive meaningful football between 2 teams of different styles, but both with spirit by the bucket load.

Villa, to me, looked more classy on the day, and more confident, but Everton were determined and played well themselves for spells. Neither side is quite top 4 material at the moment, but both clubs and both teams could and perhaps should be, given time, patience and money.

some quick marks
Scott 7 - did well on a slippery surface, unlucky with both goals - nothing he could do

Olly - 7 - 2 games left, now for our bearded wonder. We'll miss him.
Freddie - 6. Sound.
Martin Laursen - 8. Magnificent
Zat - 7 - very assured.

NRC - 6 - hard working and mobile, passed well, too.
GB - 7 - made 2 goals, but played at time too far forwards in the second half, I felt, and we lost a bit of midfield control as a result. (That's probably rubbish, mind as it was impossible to se the patterns of play from so low down).
Stan - 7 - good passing and composed.
Ashley Young - 7 - a real threat again, in the free role. Very unlucky not to score.

Big John - 7 again. Not quite unplayabale today, but pretty good all the same.
Gabby 6 - scored, but maybe also not at his best.
Everton's defenders impressed me, too - Lescott and Jagielka were both excellent.

The ref was average, I felt.

That's all. 2 to go, and we're still close.
 

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Some Candy Taking

 
A report of a surreal day at a surreal ground as experienced by a scouting party from the North West Villans.

The day started with a mixture of hail, sunshine and rain on my short trip to Bickster's house in Formby. That was about as normal as it got all day. 

It's true that the subsequent drive to Derby was routine enough, it's also true that the while the pub was a little bit special, and the beer both nutritious and delicious, and the company excellent, including another VTer, TrentVillan, nothing looked likely to really jolt us out of our happy and relaxed reverie. It was more a creeping thing. 

First off there was the ground - pretty much full, despite Derby's appalling season. I can think of plenty of places where that wouldn't be the case. Then there was the stadium announcer - without any sense of irony he was really trying to ramp up the importance of the game as an event. It didn't quite fit right. Sure both sets of fans, and (as it turned out) one set of players wanted to win, but come on - he was a bit detached from reality. 

As we Villans settled into position the atmosphere was good, both teams looking fairly evenly matched in terms of play, with perhaps Derby starting slightly the brighter. 

It wasn't to last that way though. Just as we were beginning to think that it wasn't going to be a walk over - Freddie Bouma with a last ditch tackle saving us from perhaps going behind, and that Derby weren't that bad after all, Roy Carroll came flailing out of his goal for one of Ashley Young's free kicks taken from our left, and he missed it. I don't know if Martin Laursen got a touch after that, or if it went straight in, but 25 minutes or so gone and we could settle ourselves down and try and play a bit more controlled football. 

Gareth Barry and Stan Petrov started to get a grip in centre midfield, Big John's hold up work came more to the fore and we began easing ourselves well on top. 

Within a couple of minutes we had another, Carew belting the ball powerfully through a crowd from the edge of the box. 

Not long before half time Roy Carroll decided to give us another helping hand - a poor kicked clearance went straight to Stan on the edge of the centre circle. Instantly Stan hit it back over Carroll's head, left footed and into the corner of the net. A goal of stunning skill. 

By now, it was like big boys taking the sweets from the small boys or a junior school side playing a senior school side. Every time the ball went loose, Villa picked it up. We were on song, but Derby were dire. They'd just collapsed. 

The second half started a bit like last weeks game - the struggling side, given a telling off at half time roused themselves for a bit of an effort, for a while, but it came to now't. 

Villa got back in control and scored a 4th - Gareth Barry knocking in a rebound after Gabby's shot was saved by Carroll when put through easily by the splendid Ashley Young. 

Around about this time, the Derby fans, who had been quiet, started a grand piece of theatre - for some reason they all started cheering wildly and chanting - perhaps in response to winning a throw in, or had Forest let in a goal elsewhere - I don't know. 

Gallows humour I suppose. It was followed by a succession of mexican waves. None of all this had anything whatsoever to do with their abject team. It was just the Derby fans making their own amusement. Quite a sight to see, and it all brought smiles and applause from the Villans in the ground. The last time we gave someone an away tonking like this was at Leicester about 3 years ago, and they went angry mental at their team. Derby were like "they're nothing to do with us, that lot on the pitch, we're just having fun" 

On the pitch Villa decided to score another one, after a period of wasting chances and moves breaking down. it was ridiculously one sided. Gabby this time scored after being put through by a rebound, I think. 

Martin O'Neill let Gareth and Big John have a rest, and Salifou and Marlon have a go at stealing sweeties. 

Marlon did the better of the two, as he helped himself to a thumping goal when Paddy Berger, the third sub just played him in. 

The game ended, we'd won 6-0, played well, Derby had been truly, desperately, bad. Their fans - the ones who stayed at least, were a credit. 

Some marks for our school bullies 

Carson - a Mars bar snaffled from a brilliant save in the second half. 

Olly - had a few goes at goal, had a forward in his pocket, and ended up with some Maltesers and a Toblerone for a good performance. 
Martin Laursen - Paul McGrath's wine gums? 
Zat - Smarties off Kenny Miller 
Freddie - A packet of spangles and a kit-kat for a solid bit of full-back play 

Nigel Reo Coker - had a terrific haul of opal fruits, but gave a number of them away. 
Stillain Petrov - a chocolate truffle was his reward for an brilliant goal and game. top man. 
Gareth Barry - Our Prefect garnered himself a selection of Bon-bons 
Ashley Young - Bassets allsorts for Ash, Plenty in his box. 

Big John - He's bigger than me or you and earned himslef a big Yorkie Bar for his efforts. 
Gabby - He wasn't quite a kid in a sweetshop today, but his sweet tooth for goals brought him a bag of Celebrations. 

None of the subs were on long, but they shared a haul of nutty slack. 

One last comment - at half time Derby let people out the ground to blink in the sun, buy food and toke on a gasper if they wanted. Very enlightened. We should do that at VP - the banished baked potato stall could be out there, too.
 

Friday, April 11, 2008

I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down

 
Readers might know about the growing furore around the issue of "persistent" standing and the consequences for us fans, as well as the club.

Here we take a look at where we're at right now.

Personally, I think the whole issue is absolutely bonkers. The rules are ridiculous, ill-defined, unreasonable, don't have anything like consensus support amongst match going fans, and are being used by jobsworth numpties to try and get themselves some attention, pay-rises, little empires and continued employment at local councils and the FLA.

The issue absolutely needs resolving - Where it is right now is unworkable and unenforceable.

So that's my cards on the table.

Unfortunately, we are where we are right now. And where we are is that the club has been told that it will be fined if fans continue to persistently stand at the back of the Upper Holte.

General Krulak has said the following 
The only issue right now is that we have been offically cautioned about this issue and we need to take action to stop the persistent standing. In many ways, this is like the smoking ban...we don't have to like it...it just is what it is. We are asking for the Fan's help on this...we cannot control it ourselves without causing major problems. We need our Fans to understand that persistent standing puts our club in a financial problem. We will do all in our power to control the away fans...and will do so even if it means throwing folks out of the park. Stating that you or others are "excited" 90 minutes a game is in concert with how I feel (and Randy) BUT, that CANNOT be the excuse we use. I would not be coming on this site and asking for the help of the fans if we REALLY didn't need your help. 
on VillaTalk's messageboard.

So what should we do?

My suggestion is that in the short term we should take heed. We should comply with his request for our help.

I believe this for two reasons

1. Bluntly, if we don't, we'll get thrown out of the ground. We'll lose our season tickets, the club will lose money and less people will be allowed to attend games. Self interest in the short term says please do as our club asks.

2. There's also a gain for us in complying (as opposed to an avoidance of losing something). The campaign against the way the "rules" are being enforced by the FLA and councils will not succeed with outright confrontation. It might succeed if we can get the club to work with us. So to get the club to work with us, we have to work with them. Co-operation is a 2 way street.

So if we do our bit, I would hope that the club would respond by doing their bit, as I see it.

Clubs and fans need to be aware of the background, each others views on the issue and take it from there.

So here's some background, from the FLA, no less. 

The last season for which figures are available is 2005/6. (The FLA has for some reason delayed publishing last season's figures - why could that be? does it show further improvement and further undermine their stance) show that across the whole country

• The downward trend in the reported injury rate continued – from one injury per 28,363 in 2004/05 to one injury per 32,449 in 2005/06. While overall attendances fell by 1%, the overall number of injuries treated fell by 13% from 1,377 to 1,191. 
• The number of injured spectators taken to hospital fell substantially from 100 in 2004/05 to 65 in 2005/06 
• The 1,191 spectators treated for injuries sustained at the ground were greatly outnumbered by the 1,892 treated for illnesses or pre-existing injuries 
• Since 2000/01, the overall number of injuries treated has fallen by more than half from 2,429 to 1,191 and the number taken to hospital by over three quarters from 304 to 65.


So the trend is downwards, crowds are up, there's no breakdown of how injuries occurred - people falling over, walking into walls, being hit by the ball, burnt by hot coffee, etc etc.

These figures just do not support any case for "clamping down" on people standing, on the grounds of safety.
The council and FLA have no authority or jurisdiction over "customer complaints" - people who can't see because someone is obscuring their view, by the way.

While we're on the stats, the FLA reported that for the above year, one of their "key aims" was to 

Persuade football authorities and clubs to accept responsibility, in partnership with local authorities, for eliminating persistent standing by their supporters, in particular away from home, through national and local measures. and their progress on this was  
Disappointing progress at many grounds. Legal advice taken over extent of our liability and that of clubs / the football authorities. Examining with local authorities what further measures may be possible. 
Football authorities confirmed that they have no wish to reintroduce standing; are considering various initiatives.


So there you have it, they set themselves an aim of reducing persistent standing, got nowhere with it, yet even so, the number of injuries at grounds continued to go down (perhaps because persistent standing isn't the problem in terms of safety?). And their first response to their failure was to look at the extent of their own liability, legally speaking.

The other background is what we know - a significant number of fans want to stand for more than just "periods of excitement" and that when they do, it adds to the overall spectacle, and to their enjoyment of the games.

There is no genuine problem as such, only an artificial one - an ill defined set of legal guidelines is not being adhered to by people who live in the real world, and the FLA and councils in some Cities are put out by it, or see an opportunity to further their own career agendas.

What I'd like to see is for people to do as the General has asked, and in return for the club to clearly communicate with the FLA and the council, on behalf of their customers, and the council's tax-payers, that the way they are performing their job is not only counter to best practice in terms of dealing with a notional problem, but counter to the interests of those customers and tax-payers.
The FLA say that football authorities (the FA and Premier League) are not interested in bringing back terracing. Basically I read that as they are just not interested in the whole isue, unless it will hurt them in the pocket.

That's not good enough. People can hold differing views about the re-introduction of terracing, or not, but there's no doubt in my mind that Clubs need to take a more pro-active stance, and work with their supporters to reach a MUTUALLY agreeable outcome.

That isn't "you lot sit down" it's "how do we jointly put a case that satisfies your wishes, your safety and our finances/other needs?"

So to summarise. I feel supporters at the rear of the Upper Holte should spend a little more time seated for the rest of the season, for their own benefit and for that of the club, and then over the summer and beyond, fans and the club can try and address the issue we're facing without getting ourselves thrown out, fined, arrested, sections of the ground closed down, and so on.

You know it makes more sense than half the stuff the FLA and council come out with, at least.

There's a long thread with much more detail and comment 
here
 

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Pattern Recognition - Manchester United Away Report

 
A match report in which your correspondent fails to report almost anything of note.

Apologies, dear reader, but I'm lost for what to say, or what to make of it all today. There was a game played. Villa, as is the case and has been the case for a very long time now, lost to Manchester United at Old Trafford - I was a teenager last time I saw us win there, 25 years ago.

I've been to just about every game we've played there since that win in '83. The past decade or so, they've all been much the same, the games, with the odd exception. Managers have come and gone, many players too. The good, the bad, the indifferent.

And always it's the same. Sometimes, like today, it rains and it rains and it rains. Other times the sun's been out.

Always, as far as I can recollect, the end result is much the same. They win, we lose.

Today we started brightly, for 12 minutes or so looking sprightly. Then they scored from a badly defended corner - the ball missed by the zonally marking defenders, hitting one of them, Bouma, I think, and Ronaldo quick to the ball knocked it into the net. Game over, really.

Though it went on for much longer, of course, all that is to report is that United were bright, pacy, eager, talented and alert, and had plenty more chances, some scored, some saved, some missed - Rooney scored a couple, and Tevez the other - a header from a cracking cross by Rooney, with Nigel Reo-Coker dozing off on the wrong side of Tevez.

Rooney's two goals were well taken. He missed a sitter, Shaun Maloney missed a sitter for us, they then scored. Oh, I give up - you'll have seen it on the telly, anyway.

3 of the goals were due to defensive lapses, perhaps, but at other times we defended well, individually.

Look, who cares? It happened.

The struggle I have is quite what to make of it, quite what it tells us. And I just don't know.

I'm sure people will debate and discuss on the messageboard the significance of this that or the other for our prospects over the rest of the season, and into next even. But I just have no thoughts at all on the matter.

Perhaps people will discuss why we played a central midfielder at right back. He did quite well, Nigel. Should we be doing it though?

Perhaps people will look at the performances of individuals - why was Gabby so absolutely listless? was it his orange boots?

Why was Zat dropped? - well I think we know why, on that one.

Really I don't care. Not in a "I've had it with them" way. I just don't care in a "there's now't I can do about it" way. It's been going on for so long, it's so utterly predictable, whether it's Neil Cox or Earl Barrett, Paul McGrath or Olof Mellberg, Scot Carson or Tommy Sorensen...and so on. It's all just blended into one long repetitive pattern of them being better than us.

Today's little rays of hope were Shaun Maloney, Stillian Petrov, Martin Laursen and Daddy Cool, sorry, Salifou - just mildly resembling Ian Taylor, by the way.

Details details.

What is Aston Villa Football Club going to do, or able to do about, y'know, just always losing at Old Trafford? Anything? Nothing? It's a big question, and one I feel goes to the heart of where the club's headed - Man United are the benchmark, the most successful club in England over the past decade plus. What can Villa do to replace them, anything? nothing? will we try, should we try? should we settle for being a self sustaining club? Is going to the games enough - just to watch and enjoy the football, without really worrying about that troublesome trophy business?

That we lost this year, is neither here nor there, really. But equally, we can't just sit here, forever looking for a brighter future, can we?

We sort of had a go - we lost 4-0 in part because we didn't go there for a 0-0. That's a start in my eyes. That approach, however forlorn it turned out to be, at least we wanted to take the game to them. Sporadically we were successful too, though let down, as I mentioned, by the defending.

The playing staff is sort of partly geared towards the attacking approach, but let down by whatever lethargy got into Gabby in particular, and the complete lack of depth of the current squad. So perhaps we can improve the squad?

But I've thought all these things before, in past seasons. It's just pattern recognition.

So go on then Villa, shake me out of this sodden, soggy, rain drenched, 80 quid down the drain catatonia. Or maybe don't. You decide. I'll watch. I've shouted and sang, trekked all over the Country, sulked and celebrated, cursed and lauded - and nothing's changed.

I'll go to the pub before the game, chat with friends, meet old friends, by chance, on the train, get soaking wet and sunburnt. Life will just go on. It's not a bad one. In fact it's a darned fine one.

No marks this week. But Gabby wouldn't have scored highly.
 

Sunday, March 02, 2008

In Metal - Arsenal Away report

 
What do we make of that then? I'll tell you what, be proud of the team and the manager, that's what. They were superb. I'm not so sure about some of our support, but yesterday saw one of the best Villa performances since Martin O'Neill has been manager.

At this point your VillaTalk correspondent would like to apologise for the late arrival of the match ramble (in association with Black Beer), scheduled to arrive at 10:30 last night, but unfortunately delayed by the fact that Network Rail exists.

Incidents on the line between Milton Keynes and Hemel caused the day to be a very long, and expensive one indeed.

The day started well enough, albeit uncomfortably early for Bicks and myself, as a trip to fancy London means getting the train, for me at least at 7:30 in the morning. Meeting up with Bickster, we set off full of optimism.

Soon however things started to go slightly awry. Something called "weather" had interfered with the, ahem, normally smooth running of our nation's strain, sorry, train, service. Weather had made a freight train fall over and break the metal road.

Consequently, instead of arriving in London around mid-day, we were left bimbling about at Moor street for a good while, eventually catching a painfully slow Chunter line train down to Marylebone. The train was occupied, in part, by young Villans chugging down draughts of economy "Swillo brand" watery "lager", perhaps anticipating a shortage of pub time in London, and of course the high prices down there for Swillo.

Arrival in London saw things improve, a couple of text messages later and after a quick ride on the under-tube, in the belly of a metal worm down in the caves we emerged into the sunshine to meet up with friends and acquaintances at Highbury and Islington. Cheers fellas.

We talked amongst other things, over a few pints of Stout (no Swillo for us Northerners) about prospects for the game. We all felt that while any result was possible - something that for a good decade, just about, has not really been the case - Villa really did have a good chance to actually win. 1-0 to us was my confident prediction. Oh so close.

A walk past down past the old the ground, now a building site, and into the Metal coliseum that is the Emirates. On my second visit, I was no less impressed than on my first. Though it's clearly a corporate paradise, it's still mighty impressive. It's a shame that the corporate shilling is quite so dominant, and it's a shame that some fans with flags were prevented from hanging them up, but a fine stadium it is.

And there before us were the players.

The game kicked off with Arsenal looking quite sprightly, but Villa also were looking to use our pace up front and really "give it a go". Arsenal's passing, touch and movement, even when they're not at their peak, remains an example of how attacking football should be played. They missed a couple of early chances, Fabregas shooting over, Walcott impressing, confident no doubt after scoring 2 against small heath last week.

Speaking of last week, the unfortunate Eduardo, as people know, suffered a horrible injury at the Sty. The several hundred Villa fans, amongst the 3000, singing about this did not do us proud. What purpose it serves, and how it is of any help to Villa beats me. Human decency is lacking in too many people, sadly.

Villa were coming more into the game, breaking brilliantly, the shape of the team was good, the midfield were closing down and tackling and then keeping the ball. Unfortunately we were dealt our first bad hand when Nigel Reo-Coker was injured and had to be replaced. Zat knight came on, Craig Gardner went to midfield and Curtis Davis moved to right back.

It didn't affect our play, or the confidence of the team.

Not too long before half time we got a bit of luck to balance things up. Gabby down the left, cut into the box, crossed the ball low and fast, and Phillip Senderous kindly finished the move off by tonking the ball past Almunia.

Other chances for Villa were created, and Shaun Maloney, having a blinder, in my eyes, hit a fantastic shot towards the top left hand corner of the goal. The keeper just managed to finger tip the ball onto the post, and away. Scott Carson saved well from a good Arsenal chance.

After half time, Arsenal again started very brightly and again Villa suffered what looked this time like a bad injury. Curtis Davies was stretchered off after twisting his knee, I think. And still people sang about Eduardo. Belief was beggared.

Back to the football, Ozzy came on, Craig Gardner moved back to right back. But still Villa played on in the same vein, perhaps even better than before. What seemed like countless, but in reality was perhaps only 4, clear chances were created. Gabby twice, Ashley Young and later Marlon, on for Shaun, all could and perhaps should have scored. Almunia saved all of the efforts. Would we pay? It didn't look like it, though the pressure was building. Adebayor, almost, from 2 crosses, got an equaliser, defenders blocked and tackled, even big John got tackles in. Shots went wide.

And still we were a threat on the break.

3 minutes injury time was signalled, and in the 4th of these 3 minutes with absolutely the last kick (but for the resulting kick off) Bendtner equalised.

Arsenal rejoiced, Villa were gutted. Not rewarded fully for the effort and skill we put in. Tactically too we had got it right.

Personally, though I'd absolutely love to have won, I wasn't at all down-hearted, and nor should the players be, for long. They were magnificent. That showing did us proud, it was an example of everything that has been improved on the field over the last 18 months. We're definitely, irrefutably, a good side now. We can match Chelsea and Arsenal on their own grounds. On one of those occasions we scored a last gasp equaliser, on another we conceded at the end. Them's the breaks. But, by playing as a team, by attacking and by no little skill and endeavour, along with a (mostly) excellent support Aston Villa is back as a club we can be proud of.

A belated happy Birthday to MO'N. It could have been even happier, but he's given us one hell of a present, and better than that, a future.

Some marks

Scott - 7. One poor punch and some quality goalkeeping the rest of the time.

Craig Gardner - 7 - better in midfield than at right back, but a good game from our tiger. Blasted one free kick over, got forward, tackled and chased and shot and crossed. Good work.
Freddie Bouma - like Craig, splendid. One of his better games. 8
Martin Laursen - Another fine game from a fine, fine player. 8
Curtis - Another who played well, sadly injured, 7. (Zat Knight - splendid, 7)

Ashley Young. Like With Martin Laursen, you know how good he is. Showed it again. 8
Shaun - He really impressed me today, 8 One cracking effort almost scoring from 25 yards. (Marlon, 7. Should have scored, was a real handful and kept the team going. He's gone from someone most fans really didn't rate, to a hugely popular player by dint of his commitment, attitude and goals. No question he was a good signing.)
Nigel Reo Coker - good, again. Passing was accurate. Hopefully he'll not be out for long. 7. (Ozzy - ever more promising, stronger now. Slotted in seamlessly, as they say. 7)
Gareth Barry - Control, reading of the game, passing..etc etc..(you know the script so well). Led by example. 8.

Big John - Battled hard, strong, a leader. In possibly the only minor quibble I might have, he perhaps could have gone off, instead of Shaun, as he tired towards the end. 7.

Gabby - Back revitalised, he terrorised Arsenal's defenders and made the goal. 8.

Man of the Match - all of them. Team effort.
 

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

American English - Liverpool Away Post Match Thoughts.

 
Aston Villa, so long a by-word for instability and plotting and internal politics is now ultra stable. Liverpool, England's most successful club, and for so long ultra stable is now anything but. Who'd a thunk it? They have my sympathies.
This is not, by the way, so much a match report as a bunch of random thoughts.

The first of several things that struck me on the way to the game last night was that of the role reversal that is taking place.

In recent years, for far too many years, it has been us Villans unhappy with the way our club was run, in a ferment as we railed against what many saw as an owner more with his own interests at heart, than those of our club. Joyously that sad situation is now well and truly in the past, both Mr Ellis and the fans have moved on, to hopefully happier futures - certainly more optimistic from the fans perspective, at least.

Our new-ish American owner is quite rightly hugely appreciated. He says very little, publicly, preferring to let the manager do the talking, and to let Martin O'Neill run the playing side of the club exactly how he sees fit. He preserves and cherishes the traditions of our club, and is building upon them.

Quite remarkably, it's now Liverpool with the angry fans, protest, unpopular owner(s) prone to saying things that they really should keep to themselves. 

Their manager is blatantly undermined, though he's also been "playing games" himself, complaining about the owners, lack of money and so on. It's all so eerily familiar. Some of their players speak codedly about how things are not right at the club, others say nothing. There are grand plans announced, and then they seem to fade away to nothing. Deja vu, for us lot. A new and unpleasant shock for the scousers.

Another contrast is that of the records of the two clubs. Not such a big contrast admittedly, as we both have the same number of points, but Liverpool draw far too many home games to have any chance of winning, or even challenging to win, the league. Villa on the other hand, as this was an away game for us, have now gone almost 12 months with just a single away defeat - exactly the sort of form which, if built upon, could lead to "getting up there" in the not too distant future.

That there is much building to be done is apparent when looking at the squad size and depth of the two clubs. Villa missing Gareth Barry and the on-loan Scott Carson had to recall a raw but promising young player with just a handful of games, back from loan to sit on the bench. Liverpool, as is their wont, change their team every week, picking at random from a profusion of internationals.

The way I see it, then, is that their expectations and hopes are not anywhere near being met, ours are for the most part, more than being met.

The game itself was one in which Liverpool could and perhaps should have gone more than one goal up, had their finishing been half decent. But it wasn't. They did though certainly have much the better of things for all of the first half, and the start of the second half. Sami Hyppia, though ponderous in comparison to Gabby, was able to nip in time and time again, to take the ball before Gabby could get away. He matched Carew in the air, and with both teams' passing at times being very careless, the forwards were not getting much to feed on anyway, particularly our two. We certainly missed GB. The counter point to the absence of Gareth was that Nigel Reo-Coker really raised his game. His tackling, closing down, blocking and intercepting was high class, as we know he's capable of. Giving the skipper's armband to him seemed to lift his performance. If only he could, on occasion release the ball, simply, a little sooner, and pass with a bit more penetration, he'd be the complete player. What I do feel though is that he is improving. He's less careless with the ball now that he was earlier in the season. Nigel had, a very good game.

Our other players who get talked about in terms of being called up for England weren't nearly so effective. Ashley Young was frankly poor last night and also unluckily seemed to pick up an injury to foot or leg that hampered him. Gabby, as already mentioned was well marshalled and had little service. His pace was still there, of course, and but for a failure to pass at the right time, a break could well have led to a 3-1 lead for Villa.

Along with NRC, I was again really impressed with Curtis Davies. He seems to get better every game. He was our best defender by a distance, and also late on also made one storming run through the centre in support of a fast break, not a common sight for any team. Sadly no pass was forthcoming, but the intent and will was there.

Of the rest of our team, there were decent performances from Stuart Taylor, Olly, Freddie Bouma, Craig Gardner and but for 1 mistake, Martin Laursen.
Our passing and ball retention wasn't up to greal deal, but there was a bundle of energy, application, desire, resilience and so on. These things are all intangibles, but they don't appear by luck.

Luck did play a part in our second goal. Both the goals came midway through the second half, within a couple of minutes of each other - first a Marlon overhead kick from a nice knock down by Martin Laursen and then a ball actually handled into his own net by a Liverpool defender, deflecting an "Olly Volley" over and past the goalkeeper and defenders.

Marlon's goal came after he'd only been on the pitch for 5 minutes, and he'd already caused on scare for Liverpool, beating a fullback and pulling the ball back across goal, whereupon Carew took it away from the onrushing Petrov (attended by a defender) and then turned and shot weakly at the keeper.
To show how little i know about things, I was only just done bemoaning that Craig Gardner had been subbed for Marlon - I'd thought Craig was doing fine, and wondered whether Marlon would hold the ball up that well. He did. He was, in his short spell on the pitch, excellent.

A final thought for the supporters. The tickets were £36 each. The match was 
on the telly, away, on pretty grim monday evening. And 3000 Villans sold out 
our part of the ground. Which by my judgement is not only a damn good effort from all concerned, but an indication of the faith we have in our team, our club and our manager and owner.
 

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