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2009 Away Match Reports





Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jiggery Pokery - Man Utd away report

I imagine Darren Fletcher's post match interview may have been along these lines

It was jiggery pokery, trickery, chokery,
how did they open us up,
Robbery, muggery,
Villa skull-duggery,
We never have any luck,
What a delivery,
I might as well have been,
marking a lumbering galoot
Jiggery Pokery who were these nobodies
making us look like buffoons

(with apologies to Neil Hannon)

Forgive the whimsy, reader, but it's been a while since I last saw us win at Old Trafford. 26 piggin' years in fact. And nearly as long since we beat the devils at home. So, definite cause for celebration then.

In those long years, mostly, Man United have deserved to win the games they've won against us. Not so much in the last couple of years, but overall they've larger had better players, more belief and any luck going they've probably deserved because they were looking for it, whereas Villa were fearful of them finding it.

Yesterday was different. The days building up to the game were different. Villans were openly suggesting we'd win, putting their money on it at the bookies, and instead of being sniggered at, or thought of as brave but daft, the rest of us tended to agree. I certainly did.

All this belief in the fans, was clearly shared by the players, and most certainly by Martin O'Neill, I'm sure. I mean it's come from him. He is the source of our strength on occasions like this. With Randy's backing he's built a team that can and does beat the TV sides. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool had already been beaten by Villa in the past 12 months. Only United remained to be victims of the revolution.

Anyway, onto the day and the game itself. The tea-time kick off meant a journey into Manchester and all the Christmas shoppers after lunch. Being a cold day I spurned the outdoor drinking and plastic glasses of the Oyster bar, and settled for a read of the paper and a chat in a warm boozer with proper beer as pre-match preparation.

The game started brightly for Villa, the same adventurous 4-4-2 as started against Hull last week took the game directly to United - we forced a corner from the kick off and for 5 minutes looked very bright and lively indeed. Then United had a spell, forcing us back, but the defending and covering was excellent, and though United looked good out wide, causing the two full backs some problems, their 4-5-1 left Rooney, only, in the middle and thus there was no real worry about conceding at this stage.

Villa then came back into the game Downing and Ash switching flanks and Gabby's pace being augmented by the more physical presence of Emile. Heskey didn't have the best of days in an attacking sense, but he worked manfully for the team.

After about 20 minutes, Warnock played the ball down the left flank to Gabby's feet. He held off Fletcher, turned the ball out wide to Ash. He shimmied to go outside, turned back in and whipped in a cross right onto the noggin of Gabby, who had lost his marker sprinting into the box. The near post header was perfect. Bedlam in the away end, belief re-inforced on the pitch, and it showed.

Villa's pressing of United all over the pitch almost brought another goal. Gabby robbed Fletcher, ran down the left channel and tried to square to the unmarked Ashley Young on the right side of the box, but Kuszczak got a finger to the cross and the danger was cleared.

From a Downing corner, Dunne got a clear header on goal, but the ball hit a defender standing on the line. Another corner from the same side saw Dunne head wide.

All this obvious threat to their esteem brought out the worst of Rooney. A disgraceful dive in the box was at least spotted by the Ref, who booked him. Giggs seemed to protest to the ref, but Rooney's body language tellingly showed he had cheated and been caught.

United pressed again, tremendous blocking by Warnock and Luke Young stopped efforts on goal, and Friedel had just one save to make - just grabbing a Carrick shot from the edge of the box at the second attempt.

Superb tackling from Dunne, leading the defence brilliantly, stopped Rooney.

Petrov was immense in midfield, and James Milner while not as effective as he was against Hull, nevertheless still played like 2 men - covering all of the pitch, running tackling, passing, shooting, heading.

What was clear at this point was that Villa were playing as a team, totally aware that we had what it took to score against United and to stop them from scoring.

For the second half, "little Michael Owen (ah, God bless him!)" came on for an ineffective United midfielder, and then Berbatov came on for their left winger, as United tried to play through the middle rather than down the wings.

The result of all this was that the area where they had looked most dangerous (out wide) they diminished, and the are where we were strongest defensively (through the  
middle) was more tested.

Again though, Friedel was not overly tested - he made a couple of good saves, one in particular from Berbatov, but mostly he continued to be brilliantly protected by his eager colleagues. Both Dunne and Cuellar were outstanding all game, not just for their commitment, but the intelligence of their play. When we won the ball back, we tried to play to feet, to keep the ball.

There were some moments of concern - I can remember Berbatov mising a volley, Rooney shooting straight at Friedel and a free kick given on the edge of our box, which had my heart in my mouth. But United are no longer able to call on the likes of Beckham or Ronaldo to turn threat into goals.

Villa broke out several times, but as the game went on, these breaks turned more into "head for the corner flag" than "head for goal".

Even so, Heskey miscued a shot from one break and Gabby failed to find Ash on another. Carew came on for Heskey, and in perhaps the ref's only real big error of the game, was hacked down with no free kick or booking given. Mostly the ref had just been of the "get on with it" attitude when players fell over at the slightest touch. Nice to see.

Warnock had to go off injured, Carlos moving to right back, Luke to left back and James Collins came on into the centre.

The ref added on only 3 minutes of "time added on for Ferguson" and Villa saw them out easily enough. Neither of those 2 things have often been said at Old Trafford.

More celebration at the final whistle and a happy journey home.

Some marks:

Friedel - 7. Calm and confident.

Luke Young - 7. Hurt in a collision in the second half, but happily recovered from what could have been a nasty blow.
Carlos Cuellar - 8 - Excellence is becoming the norm from Carlos.
Richard Dunne - 8 - Splendid leadership from the big man.
Stephen Warnock - 7 - Injured twice through throwing himself at the feet of a United player to make blocks. Replaced by James Collins - 7. Glad to see him back.

Downing - 7 - looking fitter by the minute, and a clever player to boot. Replaced by NRC - 5.
James Milner - 7 - Prodigious effort, His "3 shredded wheat" efforts are vital.
Stan Petrov - 8.5 Fantastic from Stan, today. Man of the Match.
Ashley Young - 7 - his perfect cross made the goal, and he was always a potential threat, as well as working his socks off to help out defending.

Gabby - 8 - splendid from Gabby. He's got the knack of scoring against top teams, and defenders are scared of him.
Emile - 7. Good work from Em today. Not much of a goal threat, he had one of those "Oh!" days, but he put in his shift. Subbed by Carew - 6, not so much in the game, as we were on the back foot when he came on.

I'm now off to read the papers and watch MoTD with a smile on my face.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Part Time Moral England - Burnley Away Report

Burnley's got a lot to be proud about right now. At the top of the town's list of course is their Football Club. Brought back to the nation's attention by the virtues of Owen Coyle, hard work and a pleasing willingness to play the right way.

In turn Burnley Football Club can be proud of its fans. They're a fine bunch to talk to and they generate a good atmosphere in the ground.

Of course even for a town on the up, the recession is having an effect and it was while Lancs Villan was pointing out to me the colour TVs in a local shop, as we walked to the pub, that I realised something was missing, something not quite right about the place. It wasn't the shape of the TVs - sort of rounded and square, as opposed to these fancy flat screen jobs you see in horrible out of town shopping centres - it was something else, but I wasn't sure what. On the short train journey eastwards from my west Lancashire home I hadn't noticed anything amiss. The train, gradually filling up with Claret and Blue clad folk from all parts, trundled happily enough past cottages, streams, hills, woods and sheds. The blades on Wind turbines gently meandered their circular paths. Everything looked fine.

We walked to the pub, and everything seemed OK. We drank beer, ate pie and peas, drank some more beer, chatted to people and eventually left for the ground. It was at this point I realised what had been missing - the weather hadn't been turned on. I was alerted to this fact by the rain that began gently falling from the sky, as if the young lad at the Town hall had overslept and only just that minute turned on the big lever that starts up the weather generator. Fortunately we made it into the ground before the machine had built up any head of steam.

The ground itself sits just on the edge of the town centre and has changed since the last visit, for a league cup tie 5 years ago, only in as much as a dividing wall has been built half way across the inside of the away end, so that it is now half filled with home fans. The concourse is still way too small, the "facilities" utterly inadequate for the number of people and the seats in the stand are the old wooden type, with adequate legroom - clearly not of recent vintage, but all the better for it.

Taking my seat I noticed that the flag atop the stand to my left was doing it's best just to hold onto it's pole. I also noticed the rain teeming down onto the floodlit pitch. Clearly the weather machine was operating at full efficiency, now.

Burnley started the brighter and after less than 10 minutes got themselves in front. A free kick knocked in from their left wing position landing on the bonce of their Captain, beating Dunne and the out-rushing Friedel, who perhaps might have been better staying on his line. The ball plopped into the net.

With the wind behind them Burnley were much the better side. Because of the conditions neither side was making a lot of chances, but most of the efforts on goal were coming from Burnley. They were playing more as a team. It was noticeable that Carew wasn't getting into the game at all. Gabby was looking good, but without much service. It was mostly Villa chasing and harrying. Things did pick up when their keeper rushed out of his goal to try to get to a ball through before Gabby, but failed. Gabby pulled back for Ashley Young to try to loft it into a semi-unguarded net, but his effort from 30 yards went just over. Mostly though it was Friedel, roundly jeered everytime he touched the ball, who was the busier. He dealt comfortably enough with the long range efforts that Burnley attempted. The ref booked Sidwell and Cuellar for tackles and half time arrived with Burnley having been pretty comfortable for most of the half.

The second half was better for Villa. Carew started getting into the game a bit more, we gradually got hold of possession and started to test the Burnley defensive strengths. As had been the case in the first half, the pressure on the goal in front of me was mostly from free kicks and corners and the odd long range shot, rather than clear cut chances. Gabby came very close to scoring from the best opportunity so far, when he was put through one on one, but Jensen just tipped his shot past the post. Jordan nicked in to steal the ball from Milner, I think it was as he was almost through, too.

MO'N decided to change things round a bit - Heskey coming on for Luke Young and Stewart Downing coming on for Sidwell, with Ashley Young moving more central. I felt we would score, as Villa were dominating the play in seeking the equaliser, but then again, though Burnley were not breaking effectively, due to misplaced passes it would only take one to go right and we could have been beaten. Friedel did save one long range effort extremely well.

Happily Villa did equalise, Downing took a corner in a spell of Villa pressure, the keeper punched away, rather than catching the ball and Milner lofted the ball back to the far post, where Emille Heskey outleapt his marker and headed in easily enough.

There were still maybe 7 or 8 minutes of play left at that point, and though Villa tried, lifted by the goal, they couldn't manage to force a winner that truth be told would have been undeserved.

I hugely enjoyed the day out. I like Burnley, perhaps for their Claret and Blue kit, perhaps because the fans were, to a man and woman, good company, perhaps because the ground is a bit of a reminder of how things used to be 20 years ago, before Sky and Identikit Super Stadia. Even the game was a bit of a throwback - influenced by the weather and the hard endeavour of both sets of players. Nobody dived, no cheating handballs, no dirty fouls, pretty well ref'ed overall. Right as rain, in fact.

Some marks for the players:

Friedel - 6. Maybe slightly at fault for the goal, but otherwise sound, as ever.

Luke Young - 6. Pretty quiet attacking wise. Replaced by Emille Heskey who did well from his first touch to the end of the game. Well played big man.
Cuellar - 7. Excellent again in the middle. MotM for Villa.
Dunne - 6. Didn't let the disappointment from the week affect his game at all.
Warnock - 6. Not jeered like Friedel, also pretty quiet attacking wise.

Milner - 6. Crossed for the goal, ran his socks off, as he always does.
Petrov - 6. In the first half he was one of the few who played well. Keeps things ticking along nicely.
Sidwell - 5. Almost managed to get on the end of a cross early in the second half. He works dilligently, but for me I'd like his to have more of an impact when we've got the ball. Replaced by Downing who slotted in nicely after his long lay off.
Ashley Young - 6. Might have scored in the first half, but was fairly well controlled by the Burnley defence.

Gabby - 7. Looked fit and hungry and was by far the more effective and dangerous forward.
Carew - 5. Not really good enough today, from big John. He defines hot and cold.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bark At The Moon - Everton Away Report

The third in a sequence of 4 away games in 10 days ended up like the previous 2 - scores level, and fairly so.

This game at least was at the rather novel time of 3 pm on a Saturday. Marvellous.

Following the traditional pre-match beers with Bickster in a most estimable liverpool boozer, we got the taxi up to the ground and settled into our seats. Villa made a change with Emille Heskey in for Big John from the start, but otherwise the team was the familiar line up. Everton's side was missing a fair few regulars, but they still have a decent enough squad to put a good side out. They certainly started the brighter, having, for the first 15 minutes or so the majority of possession and pinning Villa back. With our passing again not so hot, we weren't really able to get into the game in the early part. But Everton's early storm waned and Villa then had a period where we were much more in the game. Neither side really, though, troubled their opponents' keeper too much.

There were a couple of harsh bookings for Warnock - who cleanly won the ball, and Cuellar who tried to get out of the way of the Everton player. Other than that, there wasn't a great deal to report. Signs of Ashley Young regaining some form and the usual excellent defending from Villa apart. Until 45 minutes and 47 seconds when Everton got a decent goal - an attack down their right, a cross held up by Yakubu, and knocked back for their unpronounceable full-back to hit past Friedel off the post.

At half time the limping James Milner, who had looked a bit knackered anyway, went off and Big John came on, with Gabby taking up the wide right position.

It worked immediately. Nice play by Heskey, Ashley and Warnock saw the cross played in low, Gabby shot, the keeper saved, but Carew tapped in the rebound. All square and game on.

Villa were better in the second half - at times in the first I was wondering why exactly I do pay so much to go around watching them play - few tricks and little in the way of treats - but the second half reminded me why. Without ever being on top, we were certainly having a good go, as were Everton, I suppose. Petrov had a powerful shot deflected just over, and there were a few close things at both ends.

The game heated up first when Cahill chopped down Ashley Young, then again when [insert name of unpronouceable full back] lunged in on Petrov and was sent off for serious foul play. The Everton crowd roared their disapproval, but given the way the ref had given out some soft bookings to Villa earlier on, they didn't really have much to complain about. I did worry that he'd jump at a chance to even it up and send one of ours off, and Cuellar who had had an excellent game gave him the chance with a missed tackle over on the far side. Normally I doubt it would have been a booking, certainly not for a player already harshly booked, but anyway, off he went.

Finally, in a decent atmosphere, the two teams had a last go at trying to win it. Stan, clearly still suffering from the two-footed horror lunge of that full back chappy, was replaced by NRC at the same time as the sending off of Carlos Cuellar.

The (almost) full moon put in an appearance, the floodlights had the players casting shadows, but there was no spooky recurrence of the last minute nail in the coffin we saw a year ago, though there was 4 minutes of injury time.

Fans and players applauded each other at the end of the game, as seems to be the way these days - and nice to see it is too.

Some Marks.

Brad - 6 - not much to do, truth be told.

Carlos - 7 - would have been more if he'd managed to stay on the pitch. Played well, though.
Dunne & Collins - 7. James Collins was perhaps the pick of the two, but they're a top pair.
Steven Warnock - 7 - He's looking a really good player.

Milner - 5 - looked a bit tired, unsurprisingly, and went off injured at half time.
Stan - 7 - excellent
Steve Sidwell - 5 - industrious, but I think we need more from him.
Ashley Young - 6 - a welcome improvement from Ash. He played with more confidence and did less moaning than recently.

Emille Heskey - 6 - He plays for the team and held the ball up well. I just wish sometimes, he'd really say to himself "I'm having that ball" rather than just closing a player down without actually committing himself to get the damned thing.
Gabby - 6 - worked hard and used his pace well.

Sub Carew - 6 - had his shirt pulled in a tussle out wide, somehow got the foul given against him and got booked for kicking the ball away. It's noticeable how often he gets fouled, but gets nothing given his way. No wonder it drives him mad. Took his goal easily enough.

NRC - only on for a few minutes.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Four seasons in one day - Wolves Away Report

Another bleary eyed trek to the local station while the more sensible remainder of the world snoozed comfortably on in the land of nod. It can only mean yet another early o'clock kick off time in association with Sky blasted telly.
After the train journey down I managed to inveigle my way into a very decent "No Away Supporters" boozer for some breakfast sustenance, to give me that Golden Glow. From the pub it was just a short walk to the ground and my seat in the Lower Steve Bull Stand. Pre match there was a touching tribute to the sadly lost Paul Birch and then it was on with the game.

Almost immediately Gabby was clean through, but weakly rolled the ball straight at Hennesey. Wolves, after that early fortune, then set about making sure that they were first to every ball and that Villa didn't settle.

With the same starting team as last week Villa were getting over-powered through the middle and Carew was getting overwrought at the way he was being penalised for every 50-50 tussle with his marker. Despite Wolves greater purpose they weren't really that much of a threat. Neither keeper was much troubled by the results of all the scuffling going on in front of them. There were throws into the box, balls into the box, fouls and tackles, but nothing actually happened.

I felt secure in the solidity of our defence, disappointed by the lack of creativity or quality in much of our play and frustrated by the form of several players. Ash is somewhat off the boil, Siddy was not tying up in any meaningful way with either Stan or the rest of the team. The effort was there from all of them, but no cohesion. And then it rained on us.

At half time the sun came out and happily it remained out for the rest of the game, I feel i was equally indignant at the whole early start to proceedings and simply deigned that it would turn up at its own time, thank you very much, not that of the cursed broadcaster.

The second half saw MO'N change things. We went 4-5-1 with Milner moving to the centre, Gabby to wide right and big John being the target. It worked. Villa got a reasonable hold of the game, Wolves lost any sense of threat and it was really only some incompetent officiating that was holding us up. Milner, Warnock and at last Ashley, were putting good balls into the box from wide, though to be fair Wolves defended well.

With about 15 or 20 minutes left MO'N swapped Emille on for Carew and that worked too. He profited from good midfield play, got away down the right and crossed low into the centre where Gabby held off and turned his marker before scuffling the ball into the net. Unfortunately the Wolves managed to regroup and pretty quickly were given a penalty for a tackle by Sidwell. I was surprised it was given, but admit my view from right on the halfway line, low down was far from ideal. It was scored well and the Wolves fans started to make some proper noise. Duly inspired, their team regained the momentum and spent the remaining 10 minutes of the game pressing for a win. Villa held out fairly comfortably, but it wasn't pretty.

I don't like these early kick off games, I doubt anyone does, other than some bean counter at Sky. I can't imagine players like them because you rarely see a cracking performance from anyone. So honours fairly shared, Wolves now have a couple of solid results against Everton and ourselves and Villa continue a solid start to the season. That was it, really. Solid, unspectacular and so I went back to the pub.

Some marks
Brad - 7 good.
Carlos - 7 a pretty good performance
Stephen Warnock - 7 also good, got booked for eventually losing his cool with the idiot linesman
Dunne & Collins- 7 each. Dunne looked shaky early on, but recovered. Collins just looks a very good buy.
Milner - 7 invaluable, the inheritor of the secret of perpetual motion .
Stan - 6
Sidwell - 4. Things didn't go right for him, after last week's excellent work.
Ash - 5. Like the post office, his delivery is off at the moment
Carew - 5
Gabby - 8 MotM for Villa because he was the one constant threat

Sub Emille was not on for long but did well for the goal.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Throwing Bones - Blackburn Away Report

As Summer fades and Autumn approaches, time once again to make the short trek to Ewood for my local game against Blackburn.

What ensued wasn't at all encouraging for the long nights ahead.

The day started well enough with a short train ride to Blackburn, a pint of proper beer and a corned beef butty in a proper pub, and then a taxi to meet Drat and Chris at the Fernhurst, where more beer was consumed, and tales of Elephants in Nairobi and drudgery in Chelmsford were exchanged.
We saw one Villa fan have a near miss, when he walked behind a Police horse at just the wrong moment - the horse was perhaps passing advanced judgement on the game to come later. Happily the Villan in question avoided the yellow jet of the Horse's scathing verdict.

Anyway, on entering the ground and clambering up to the top tier, for our over-priced £35 seats we were in place to see the Villa make a fine start to the game. Barely 2 minutes gone and Big John flicked on, Gabby was clean through, and his scuffed shot trickled into the corner of Robinson's net down the far end. Excellent.

The team was pretty similar to last week's, but with Fabian Delph in for Sidwell, and NRC back on the bench, after his time on the naughty boy step.

For the next 20 minutes or so, Villa looked comfortable enough, without really excelling. Delph showed some nice touches, Milner was involved a lot and we were on top, but gradually Blackburn, with their big bones style started to exert some pressure, and defenders had to block and tackle - Steven Warnock in particular made one fine last ditch block.

We had some chanes, or half chances on the break, but nothing really to trouble Robinson. And then a cock up in the VIlla defence. A corner not properly cleared, Blackburn chipping the ball back into the box, it bounced, bounced high, but Friedel didn't come and neither Collins nor Dunne dealt with it and in popped the giant Samba to tonk the ball into the net from about 7 yards. Messy.

The second half was poor, very poor. Delph was soon replaced by Heskey, for some reason - perhaps for fear of Blackburns high balls into the box, which we weren't dealing with comfortably at all - but the resulting shake up with Milner going into the middle, Heskey to the left and Ash to the right didn't make us any better where we lacked in terms of control. Too often Stan was left isolated in the middle with players all running away from him. Ash was quiet, Gabby not particularly involved and we tended to lump the ball a bit towards Carew, for him to flick on hopefully. It was tedious and predicatable, and easily dealt with by the Rovers.

They were equally tedious and predictable - very similar to how Bolton used to be - hard working, big boned, hard in the tackle and in the ref's face a lot.

One of their players was sent off for a second yellow and no-one could argue - he chopped down Milner with a late tackle for his sending off.

You couldn't tell, though that Blackburn had a man less. Villa were not looking in the mood to make the advantage tell, and there was a real lack of quality in too much of the play.

In these circumstances there's always the risk of a mistake costing us, and so it did - a ball into our box, bouncing again and Dunne, I think it was, though it may have been Collins, seemed to misjudge the bounce and then handle the ball under pressure. Penalty, easily tucked away with maybe 2 minutes plus stoppage time of another 4 minutes to go. We didn't look like pulling the score back, and deservedly lost, not so much because Blackburn were better, but because Villa were so inept and so brain dead at times.

The pick of our players was probably James Milner, but to be frank none of them played all that well, the team lacks guile in midfield, and seemed to have just two tactics - hit it up in the air for big John, or knock it wide and hope, to quote an old cartoon, "[and then a miracle happens]".

I fear for our prospects based on recent performances - not so much because of the results, but because the team is lacking cohesion and imagination. We're solid, hard working, effective at times, but there's little entertainment or vision to my eyes at least.

This might all seem overly negative, and perhaps it is. There are causes for hope - Gabby scoring regularly, the talents of Ash and Milner, and Delph has definite promise, while the rest of the team is "solid", but I do feel that unless someone has a special game, up front, we're very much looking a mid table side in the way we play and perform.

Some marks, for fans of inaccurate assessment:-

Friedel - 6 - one excellent save in the second half

Carlos - 5 - looked like a centre half out of position
Collins - 5
Dunne - 5 - both he and Collins looked more discomfited that in previous games.
Warnock - 6

Milner - 7 and MotM for Villa
Stan - 6 - needed more help, especially when Delph was taken off
Delph - 6 - some promising play, but looks a bit lightweight, unsurprisingly given his age
Ash - 5 - not on song today

John Carew - 5
Gabby - 6

Sub Emille Heskey - came on, fell over, people laughed (Blackburn fans, that is) - he's not settled at all at VP, and the substitution didn't work out for MO'N.

Some work needed on patterns of play and such like, I'd say, in the week.

One last comment - ticket prices - this is starting to really hack me off now. £35 quid for this one, £38 for Wolves, £48 for small heath and so on. Even tickets at Villa are expensive, now, for much of the ground. It's too much, too many games are moved for TV and clubs are stretching loyalty to breaking point.

I know they "have" to do it, because of players' wages, because fans demand signings and all the rest, but dear me, I just can't square up what we get with what we pay.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Sentimental Man - Gareth Barry, adios.

What to make of GB's departure to Man City?

Firstly the pros and cons.

My view is that the timing (and the money for all concerned) is right, not just in terms of it being early in the window, leaving plenty of time for a replacement(s) to be found, but also in terms of both the career of GB and the evolution of the Villa side.

Along with Martin Laursen, Gareth was a class act at Villa. He was for a long time the only class act at the club, though in recent times, Ashley Young, Laursen, Mellberg at his best and maybe Stan Petrov have all added to the mix. His are big boots to fill. But at the same time, Villa had become kind of set in their way of playing, and this perhaps contributed to teams "working us out" and led to our recent poor run.

I also feel that's Gareth's statement that he was worried about becoming stale (read "has never known anything but Villa") is a very pertinent factor. It can't fail to have an effect, all the chats with players from other clubs, at England squad meetings, in terms of wanting to see and experience life more widely than at Villa. This would lead to stagnation and a loss of drive, I feel, once you feel you've accomplished all you can envisage at one club.

For City, he is exactly the type of player they lacked last season - they had plenty of attacking verve, especially at home, but sorely lacked any stabilising calm away from home. They were very much all or nothing. With GB there, I feel they will fare much better due to his use of the ball, his nous of where to be when the ball is with the othr side, or other players in his own team - he often seems to be a move or so ahead of other players.

So with money to burn, City did the deal properly and neatly, unlike that clown Benitez last summer.

Villa get a very good fee for a player with just 1 year left, and just 6 months till he could have started talking to other clubs about a free transfer. And once that happens, the mind is completely gone and players get unsettled.

The reaction from fans has tended to split 2 ways, with no middle ground.

Some have said "greedy judas" and others "he deserves the chance to move, the time is right, let's get on with life". I'm in the second camp.

I guess, sadly, he'll get abuse when he comes back. It's the way of these things. It doesn't always happen like that, but mostly it does. And there's no logical way you can work out what will happen - the grounds for the abuse/cheer decision are complex and often wildly illogical.

Some players such as Paul McGrath, Sid, Brian Little...will always, always be lauded. Others, like Southgate always jeered by some. There is no logic, because much of what happens is based on sentiment. Whether that be sentiment as sympathy, if that's the right word, or sentiment because the player was a winner, or because they were unarguably in a league of their own, or sentiment because they've gone somewhere "unapproved of" by the fans. Go abroad, and you'll probably stand a better chance of a good reception, go to a club who are "hated" and you'll get loads - Yorkie to Man U springs to mind.

There's also the "spurned" feeling that comes into it. "He spurned our affections" - even when the affection is not actually spurned, there's no shrift given to genuine words uttered at the time of the move, such as those in his letter.

Olof showed the best way to leave, perhaps. Go abroad, generously thank the fans - I've proudly got the shirt he gave me on the wall. It helped that he was a fine player, too, with a disdain for small heath.

It's also true that so many players move, or are moved, that pretty much all scenarios have been acted out many times before. There's an established ritual to be gone through - media phone ins, local paper letters pages and the like practically beg for the more excitable responses from fans - whether that be the tearful kids (or men and women if you 're in Newcastle) or the foaming rage of the caricature supporters the media lazily resorts to.

In the case of "club's best player moves to rivals" then there will nearly always be strong antipathy, no matter whether the jeerers would have done the same thing, had they a chance to do so. But we fans don't get the chance. Fans and players are different beasts entirely. Employees and spectators are so different in so many respects. I fear Gareth is going to cop for this "crime"

What I can say is that, for me, while GB was at Villa he did himself and the club proud for the vast majority of the time here. The odd youthful indiscretion apart, the odd willful war with a manager over style of play and some very ill advised foot stamping last summer, aside.

As you'd expect, he learnt from all of those things. A sign of his game and personality has always been to learn new roles, new approaches, and always on his terms.

Perhaps by chance he stayed when he might have left just before MO'N came in 3 years ago. We both benefitted from that piece of luck. He got his career re-invigorated on the back of the hyper enthusiastic clean broom, and Villa got him playing in a way that got the team really flying.

Villa will, of course, move on, whether up, down, or sideways, but squads continually evolve - changing for one reason or another all the time. To think that anything in football is permanent is a mistake.

I can't say that after watching him all these seasons that my reservoir of feeling about Gareth Barry is anything than hugely in the plus side, and for that reason I won't be one of the ones who will give him stick next time our paths cross. 

He says he'll always look for Villa's results first, and I'll certainly be watching his progress with interest. 

Cracking player, and by all accounts a good egg. He did Villa proud, overall. That's got to be worth something in the sentiment stakes, surely.

I hope in the years to come you appreciate the fortune you had in playing for and Captaining Aston Villa Football club and that you remember us with pride and affection, and I hope too that we can feel the same affection towards your time here.

Good luck fella.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

North Sound Off - Bolton Away Report

Not a great game today at the Reebok. it was a case of one team pretty much aiming at getting a point, to ensure they live to fight another year, and the other team, Villa, sort of not wanting to lose, but not being good enough, or motivated enough, or coherent enough to win. So a fair result in the end.

It's a far cry from the earlier season away games, where a vibrantly attacking Villa side with pace and power were on such a roll. Today was pretty evenly matched, no one standing out, no one looking that good, or that bad, though a few didn't impress.

It seems Villa have settled for the fact that they won't get in the top 4, Europa League is all but assured, so there's really only the fear of a rollocking from MO'N and from the fans to play for.

We missed some pace today - with JC and Emille being Boltonesque in their styles both sides had a similar approach in many ways. Sure we had wingers in Ash and Jimmy, but neither lit the game up. Cahill for Bolton, Zat for Villa mainly did the heading away and clearing and the other players fought for some kind of ascendancy, with none really mastering it for long. Petrov for a while, GB, too for a (different) while looked classy, but then Bolton would have a spell.

At the back CUrtis was a mixture of good play and skittishness - the confidence isn't really there at the moment. Nicky Shorey looked comfortable, despite Bolton's tactic of putting Davies up against him, aerially. Brad was fine, Emille disappointed - not seeming quite sure as to what his role was supposed to be - playing behind Carew, he seemed a bit out of place. In the first half I felt he worked intelligently, but as the game wore on, he became a bit ragged in his play.

So basically it wasn't a great game. We scored just before half time, a cross from Ashley Young possibly just touched by Carew, but more likely just avoiding all efforts to touch it, and creeping in at the far post, down the far end.

The second half saw Villa start brighter, a tad more confidence in their veins, but then a poor challenge for a header from a free kick, and an unmarked Trotter on the penalty spot lashed through Friedel.

Half chances and efforts at both ends, much labour, some occasionally fussy refereeing and linesmanship, though the ref was OK and may well turn out to be a good 'un loger term - he looked new to me.

Villa fans were there in good number, Bolton fans weren't. The sun shone, then it rained, then the sun shone again.

Nearly over now. It's like everyone's just waiting for it to stop.

Some marks

Brad - 7 - confident

Carlos at RB - 6 - solid
Zat - 7
Curtis - 5
Nicky Shorey - 6 - fits in now. Comfortable.

Jimmy Milner - 5 - not much end product, but good work-rate (as ever)
Stan - 6
GB - 6
Ash - 6 - end product again, lacking.

Emille - 5 (nathan 5)
JC - 6

MO'N and GB applauded the support at the end, whatever that means.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Little Fluffy Clouds - Man Utd away report

An interesting day in Manchester. On the train on the way, whilst gazing out of the window, up at some really rather fetching clouds - very white, and backlit against a grey black bank of higher cloud by the spring sunshine, I was contemplating exatly what to make of Villa's recent run of results and form. Trying to understand why things have taken such a downwards turn.

Certain factors are fairly obvious - Martin Laursen, who didn't miss a game last season has been absent for a lengthy period, and none of the other centre backs has the same authority. The changing personnel in the back line has demonstrably also led to a lack of understanding, as well as individual mistakes. Another obvious factor is that with Carew having been injured, Gabby's goals dried up, and Emille Heskey has never been a prolific scorer.

Add in the season long absence of another ever present from last season, Freddie Bouma, and the switching around of defenders to try to cover for his absence - Luke Young out of position at Left Back, Nicky Shorey not settling in.

Then again, some of these problems were present whilst the team was on the excellent run of results over the end of last year and the start of this.

So what else? Fatigue? Sheer number of games played by the majority of the players leading to a loss of mental edge and peak physical fitnes. I guess so, though I'm no expert on these matters.

I was mulling all this over in an attempt to try and identify what was causing the problem, so I could work out an opinion on what ought to be done to a) resolve it and B) make sure it doesn't happen again.

Things like the factlet re not winning a game in March for each of MO'N's 3 seasons at Villa point to perhaps deeper issues than just injury and form.

What I do believe is that players should play in their best positions as often as possible - moving players around should really only be done in an emergency, not as a long term thing. Adaptibility is a real virtue, but shouldn't be over-relied upon.

So while for example, Luke Young going to left back for a game or two, as Shorey was off form is fine, in the longer term it creates as many problems as it solves, because there is no-one available as a proper back up right back. For a game or two, again, OK, but to ask NRC, Carlos Cuellar, Craig Gardner or anyone else to perform at the level required of a top level right back for game after game is asking rather more than is likely to be achievable. Particularly when it also makes a mess of the centre of the defence, ever changing pairs.

There are many advantages to a tight knit (smallish) squad, but these advantages can become disadvantages over time - complacency due to lack of competition for places can evolve from everyone playing regularly together. An injury in one position means 3 or players changing round.

Fortunately at this point the train got to Manchester and I went for some food and beer.

Some time later I made it into the ground, took up my over-priced seat position and watched a really entertaining game of football. Writing this long after the final whistle has gone, and if anyone reads it, you too will know the score, will have seen the goals and highlights on the box - anyway, the impressions I took from the game were pretty optimistic. Yes we gave away a daft first goal - Milner mainly, and Friedel slightly to blame for getting themselves in a mess. That Villa had been much the better side up to that point was galling. The goal also saw the first instance of many of refereeing incompetence on the day. Though not related to the goal as such, as the players were lining up the wall and so on, ref Riley decided Milner was too close and booked him. Milner returned to the identical position he had previously been in with no action taken. Meanwhile Ashley Young was closer to the ball and...sigh...he's just no good, Riley.

Happily, Villa didn't go to bits as they had at Anfield, but kept attacking United, and some superb play by Barry followed by Carew easily beating the defender saw us deservedly level.

At half time we were thinking that this was as well as we've played at Old Trafford for a good while, and that united were looking, with the odd exception (Giggs, Evans) pretty rubbish (by their standards).

The second half saw the pattern continue - United couldn't cope with Carew, and when he crossed, again our man, Gabby this time, beat the defender and nodded in.

Further incompetence from the officials saw definitely 2 and maybe 3 occasions when Villa got clean through - Gabby and Ashley - being pulled back for offside, or the ref not allowing advantage and so on. A third goal and we'd have definitely won.

As it was though, United got the next goal, Ronaldo again, somehow squeezing a shot into the corner, down the far end. Possibly it had been coming, as their pressure was building, but equally, Villa might have scored on the counter and got out of sight.

You know what is going to happen next in this type of situation at Old Trafford 2-2 and a few minutes left - the ref will add on a lot of "time added on for Ferguson", the crowd will pressure the lino and ref, as will the Red team players, and Villa will do really well not to wilt.

They scored with maybe a minute of the 5 minutes added on, left.

Game over.

For once Old Trafford really did have a good noise from the home fans, as obviously it would under the circs.

Despite the harsh result, Villa had played pretty well. We are scoring goals again, and defended pretty well for the most part, first goal aside. So yes another defeat, but really plenty of signs of hope. They pretty much all played well, they played as a team and looked a threat, as well as looking likely on occasion to concede. Which is pretty much what Villa have been like for most of the time MO'N has been in charge. There isn't a great deal "wrong", but there is a great deal of improvement to do in order to compete with the Champions league teams.

When, as on Sunday, United have 4 of their big name players missing, Villa are a match for them, even with players of our own missing, but then Rooney, Berbatov, Ferdinand and Vidic cost how much between them? - must be knocking on for £100 million.

I have no idea whether Villa, even if they could afford to buy that sort of quality, would be able to attract such players to VP, or even if MO'N would want to go for "big stars" in that way. But in the recent run of games, when we've played Chelsea, it was Lampard and Anelka that combined to score the only goal, with Liverpool it was Gerrard who was our undoing, and with United Ronaldo scored twice (despite playing poorly).

That type of player is what makes the difference.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Take it as it Comes - Man City away report

From the evidence of last night, it looks like a new phase has either just ended, or just begun for the Villa.

To put it bluntly, the performance in the first half last night was woeful - as bad as anything we've seen since MO'N became manager. Villa were repeatedly torn apart at the back by the excellent movement of Shaun Wright-Phillips and the passing of Stephen Ireland in particular. Carlos Cuellar looked uncomfortable at right-back, Curtis just looked uncomfortable and with City using the width of the big pitch well, our midfield had no grip at all on the game and the forwards were starved of all but the odd hopeful punt upfield to feed upon.

There were several escapes before City did score, from a clear penalty after James Milner, trying to help out Carlos, bundled over SWP, and Elano scored easily from the spot. SWP had already missed one clear chance, and was to miss more before half time.

Eventually, after about 30 minutes, Villa just started to realise that the point of a game of football is that it's supposed to be played by two teams, not just one, and that both teams should be trying to score and win the game. So the final part of the half ended with Villa at least hinting at an inclination that they might be a bit better than the demonstration of relegation class football they had hitherto given.

To absolutely no-one's surprise changes were made at half time. Curtis, who has been looking increasingly shaky for a while was replaced by Big John, with Carlos moving into the middle at the back, and Milner dropping to right back.
Now before anyone starts picking out Davies as a scapegoat, I think it's worth remembering that it's the manager who picks the team, not the players. Were we possessed of a bigger squad, no doubt Curtis would have had a rest as soon as his form started to dip, instead of playing on with a dicky shoulder and an anxious demeanour.

The same applies to Gabby, to an extent - while he looks fit, he doesn't look sharp - but there's not really a ready made replacement for him.

Anyway, the second half performance was much, much better. GB and Stan started to get a fair share of midfield ball, and to use it well. Carew was more of a problem for their defenders than either Heskey (initially now on the right) or Gabby had been. Carlos looked at home at left Ce
ntre back and Villa were taking the game to City. We were on top, but not dominant - City were still breaking and causing threats to our goal, but the game was at least one where Villa were making a fist of getting an equaliser.

Such chances as we did make, however were spurned - a couple of fantastic balls into the box by Ash, one after skinning 3 defenders were wasted. Gabby really, really, should have got on the end of one of them. Another just being 6 inches too
far in front of Carew for what would have been a certain goal, had he made contact. Barry almost scored from a nice dinked ball by Gabby, but Given saved well.

As Villa pressed more and more, City started to break and threaten our goal once more. it was not really much of a shock therefore, when with almost no time left they broke away and got their second - SWP finally managing to bury one of the many chances he'd had.

Thinking back on the game, and recent games and performances, until last night we had not been playing badly, perhaps the luck that we were having a while back has turned, perhaps mental tiredness has seeped into some of the players. But last night the way they started the game was bluntly dreadful. Lacking in thought, togetherness, spirit and fight it was most un-Villa like.

Of course, over a season, all teams will have a spell like this, and will give performances that have the fans and manager scratching their heads and wondering "why?"

Luckily there is now a bit of a gap to the next set of games. In this gap a few things need to happen.

1. Obviously knocks and aches and pains need to be rested up, to recover.
2. A bit of thinking needs to be done regarding when and whether to take people out of the team once or if they start to dip their level of performance. I know we don't have the luxury of a massive squad, and I know loyalty to players is often well rewarded, but the point at which loyalty is responded to with complacent performances needs to headed off before it occurs not after.

3. The team need to be reminded, that as I keep saying to myself "we have good players" - There is a deal of quality in our side, we are not in the top 4 by luck, we are there because we deserve to be, over the season so far, and Arsenal and Everton don't. Let's make sure we do everything to keep it that way for the last 10 games.

4. All team have bad runs. The good ones don't panic when they do and the best fans don't turn on their players or manager during these times.

5. Some thinking about the longer term also needs to be going on. Where do we need to sort things out - for example, we have again played much of the season with no proper right back. Craig Gardner, NRC, Carlos, James Milner have all played in that position. Our true right back plays at left back. OK Nicky Shorey didn't start so well, and Bouma has been a massive miss, but still, for the third season in a row we are relying on players playing in unfamiliar roles to "fill in". Right backs, good ones, are hard to find, Luke Young is one such, but it'd be nice if he could actually play where he does best.

I'll spare the marks, as they wouldn't make happy reading, for about 5 or 6 of the team, at least. City looked pretty decent, it has to be said.

Monday, February 16, 2009

22 Miles Of Hard Road - Everton FA Cup report

So another year passes by and the FA Cup will end up somewhere else. Everton, I hope, now.

Yesterday's game ws much hyped by the media as the game of the round, to be played between two clubs with British managers, British outlooks and in form teams.

Less was made of the absentees from both sides - Emille, Bouma, Laursen, Barry, Reo-Coker and Cuellar for the Villa, and a fair number too, for Everton.

As a result, perhaps of the absent players, the game was always going to be a drop down in quality from the best both the sides are capable of and more a battle of wills and character, plus whatever luck there might be.

As it turned out, Everton deservedly got through to the next round. They had more of the ball, more control over the game and the best performers on the day - Arteta in particular. Villa on the other hand had several players who played some way below what they and we might have hoped. Sidwell in particular hada poor game, Curtis, perhaps hampered by an injury sustained early on was also less than assured. John Carew after his lengthy break was unable to hold on to the ball.

With this weakness right down the (outfield) centre of the team, Everton were able to dominate in the crucial areas.

It's no doubt the case that having been caught both early and late by Villa in the previous game at Goodison, the Everton players would have been well wound up to be "at it" straight away. And that they were. WIthin about 5 minutes they were ahead. A corner taken from in front of us - the ball not in the little quadrant when it was taken - and an effort on gaol which hit Stan Petrov on the line. There was a good case for a handball by Stan, as it seemed to his his arm - echoes of Kevin Richardson 25 years ago - same goalmouth, too. It didn't matter though because an Everton player - Rodwell possibly - lashed the rebound into the net.

Villa though were soon level. Petrov passed nicely for Gabby and his run into the box was ended when their full back tripped him. Penalty. Milner. Goal. 1-1. "We've done it before, we'll do it again" we sang. The away section was nowhere near full - apparently we sent back 1900 of the 5900 tickets allocated. Not surprising when you consider it was the second trip to Lancashire in a week, 5000+ were at Ewood last week, and another expensive trip, with CSKA and Chelsea to come in the next few days was never likely to lead to a sell out. The ticket prices were high, considering the game was on the box on a Sunday, and Everton fans seemed to agree - they didn't fill the rest of the ground either. It really needs looking at - 34 quid, plus 1.50 booking fee is too high.

Back to the game and Everton kept going. Amichiebe was proving a handfull, and his run into the box led to another penalty - Sidwell getting nowhere near to him and bringing him down. Arteta. Goal. 2-1 Everton.

There were a few tasty tackles, some slightly "home-ish" decisions by the ref and a really bad miss by Gabby from a lovely cross by Ash after our best move of the half, but Everton went in for their cups of Isotonic tea deservedly in front.

The second half started like the first. Everton on top. Not many chances came, and Villa began to get into the game and threaten, but poor finishing, or accuracy at least led to several opportunities not being taken. The clearest when Ash put the ball in, SIdwell beat the offside trap, nodded across to Carew who had also beaten the flag, but put the ball behind him.

Everton then scored when Curtis and Zat both managed not to get a touch on a cross, leaving Cahill to scuffle the ball past Brad.

Eventually, as time ticked by MO'N lost patience with Sidwell, Delfouneso came on on the left and though both teams tried to get goals nothing further happened.

In most other years, the defeat would have been harder to take. This season however, perhaps just this one season, as much as SIlverware is what we all want, I feel league progress is crucial. There's a gap in the so called invincible top 4-ness of the Sky teams. That gap needs to be filled by someone else. Ideally Villa, obviously.

We walked back to the pubs and bars, and then the train home. The North West Villans all had a good day out, without being able to celebrate.

Some marks

Brad - 7 - Solid.
Craig Gardner - 6 - he did pretty well filling in at right back.
Zat - 6 - he's pretty consistent now.
Curtis - not on form, maybe hurt, 5
Luke Young - 7.

James Milner - 6 - worked hard, as ever.
Stan - 8 - our Man of the match
Siddy - Well below par - 4.5 Just unable to have any positive effect on the game. Off the pace and substituted (Nathan Delfouneso 6) Siddy will have his day, though.
Ashley Young - 6 - some dangerous balls into the box, but not quite on the top of his game.

Big john - 5 - stuff kept bouncing off him. One lovely flicked shot almost scored in the second half.
Gabby - played in spells, 7.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Barometer - Blackburn away report

After all the talk about the weather this week, a chance to see whether Villa would continue to rain on the parade of the so called big four, or if winter's harsh toll would see us cast adrift.

The morning up north dawned bright, cold and crisp. Sparrows and starlings competed with an evil looking cat in the garden for the seeds of nourishment from the feeder, though I suspect that kitty has it's eyes more on the birds than the chaf - predatory instincts never leave the hungry hunter.

I drank tea and read the paper in the warm before setting off on the short journey to Ewood from my Lancashire home.

The local train got us into Blackburn at lunch time. We met up in the pub with Villans and Rovers from various parts and had the obligatory pre-match pints and chat. In previous years, young James had been able to predict scores and results with an uncanny accuracy. Today he was saying 1-0 to the Rovers, but pressed on the matter he was less certain - "who would score the goal then?" - "Santa Cruz" was the hesitant reply. I detected that he wasn't as sure as as hitherto. His Rovers supporting Dad was confident however - Big Sam 6 games unbeaten and all that.

The bus journey to the ground from the pub turned into a multiple taxi convoy and then a walk as the traffic clogged the streets.

Tickets sorted, we entered the ground to the sight of about 6000 Villans filling the away end and a reasonable turn-out of Rovers in the rest of the place.

The game itself was not by any stretch a classic. In recent seasons Villa have definitely had the upper hand against Blackburn, home and away, but having lived up here for almost 20 years, I've seen a heck of a lot of fruitless trips too.

Nerves were eased after maybe 20 minutes or so. From a corner, taken short, James Milner (who was tremendous throughout) ran unmolested at the Blackburn defence and just lashed a left footed shot from the angle into the top corner, down the far end. Blackburn had been timid and stand-offish giving far too much room and time to him.

With Zat dominant, Gareth Barry and Stan Petrov controlling midfield and the threat from Gabby, Ash and Emille Heskey, Villa were the better side. Brad Friedel who was warmly welcomed back by the Blackburn fans had now't to do.

Gabby had a goal disallowed for what looked a marginal offside just before half time and whilst chances were not exactly plentiful, I felt Villa were definitely the better side, although Mc Carthy and Co. did look to be potentially a danger, the danger never transpired.

A half time shiver and then on to the second part of the game.

Craig Gardner came on at right back for Carlos - presumably injured and several Rovers changes, but really the game carried on as in the first half for the next 20 minutes or so.

It was about this time that the much serenaded John Carew replaced Emille, Gabby dropped deeper and Blackburn started to get some decent possession. In truth they did little with it. Their fans shouted a few times for the things fans shout for, but the ref, (yet again) Steve Bennett wasn't swayed.

As time drifted on, Villa from a corner taken short, to use up time, lost the ball, but Rovers made mess of things, Gabby pounced and smacked the ball past Paul Robinson. 2-0. 4 minutes of stoppage time to see out. Gabby almost got a third, but hit over by an inch.

With the Blackburn fans having departed in numbers by now, we were left to celebrate an astounding 10th away win of the season, noisily.

A walk back into town, a few more scoops and then the train home. Obviously there was a signal failure and a 15 minute wait, making the subsequent beer and curry all the more enjoyable - the long wait adds to the hunger.

If our boys stay hungry, stay as committed and together as they were today, maybe, just maybe....well, anything really.

Villa were effective and efficient today, rather than exhilarating, but they deserved the win, without a doubt. Blackburn seemed resigned to their fate and lacking in any kind of initiative. Please let them stay up - their fans are too decent and fine, the ground too handy to want them to go down.

Some marks.

Brad - 6 - not much to do, truth be told

Carlos - 6 (Craig Gardner 7)
Luke Young - very good - 7
Curtis - 6.5 - soilid
Zat - 8 - he's playing really well.

James Milner - excellent, 8
Stan - quality performance from Mr Reliable - 8
GB - In the best form he's been in this season - 8
Ash - 6.5 - always a danger

Emille - 7. He's a worker and a real team player(Carew 5).
Gabby - 7 - comes alive and then drops off. Good goal.

Praise most of all for the team ethic, the unity and organisation, the collective belief and togetherness. There's a way about Villa now, away from home, which just reeks of solidity and a stronger level than most of the team we play.

I have yet to hear the other results from today, but without tempting fate at all, there's a good case to say Villa's place in the top 4 is totally right, others seem more prone to turmoil and torment at the moment, and despite the absolute collosal numpties who jeered last week at the end of that game, there is a unity at the club from fans to whoever you choose.

Enjoy it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Catch the Breeze - Sunderland away report

After an unfortunate break (for me, if not you) the away match report returns, with news from Sunderland.

Welcome back. Having had to miss a few games after falling off my bike recently, I was looking forwards to the trip across and up to Sunderland.

The drive up was as enjoyable as ever - the scenery in Cumbria in particular is staggeringly beautiful, and the light this bright morning made the place seem like a Kingdom all of its own as I journeyed up the M6. Across the lumpy bit in the middle and then onto the A1(M) and onto Sunderland to meet up with Drat Chris and Kate, as well as another Chris, by happy chance, in a rather excellent boozer.

A few scoops later and it was off to the ground. We found our turnstile by following the noise from those already inside and settled down to watch, for the first half an hour, Sunderland thoroughly control the game. They scored early on, a header from a free kick given when Curtis felled Kenwyne Jones. The finish by the Mackem was Laursen like. Danny Collins the announcer said, and the Sunderland fans sang.
With Curtis looking unsettled by Jones, Gabby isolated and Ashley not really getting into the game, Sunderland perhaps might have scored again on a couple of occasions - one well saved by Friedel, and another hit wide, without Villa doing much in reply, at all.
Us travelling Villans were the quietest we've been for a long time, at this point - there was just nothing to get behind, really, and anger at the sub-par performance decided not to break out - we're still in dream-land.
Eventually though, the efforts of Stan, GB and James Milner seemed to drag the rest up by their boots and for the last 10 or so minutes of the first half we started getting right on top, though again we didn't create much. Luke Young was booked early on, and will I think have to miss a game now.
A chat with Yordi and another with Drat at half time had us agreeing that we'd not played well at all. I felt Siddy just wasn't contributing, and half of the rest of the team were sporadic and lacking drive, really.

The second half was different, Villa picked it up a bit, there was more drive and purpose, though Sunderland continued to push towards our goal. Chances were scarce though, until a break down the right by Ashley, a cross low into the middle and the target of the Mackems ire - James Milner - scored the least spectacular diving header I've ever seen - just sliding on the ground to get his head on the ball and put it into the empty net. He was though "attended to" by a defender. He deserved the goal, and a spot of class had evened things up.

We started posing much more of a threat now we'd got our game together, and several more rapid attacks had Sunderland worried.

At this point, in centre midfield, Ashley dived into a tackle with a Sunderland player. No doubt telly later will reveal the extent of his crime. but the ref was clear - straight red. It looked one of those tackles where stretching for the ball he maybe launched himself "recklessly". There looked to be no malice or ill-intent, but it was careless.
In the long term I think the sending off will be a good thing, though he'll have to miss games, obviously. He'll get a rest, one he probably needs. He'll also hopefully learn that sometimes enthusiasm needs to be tempered with a bit of sense, and finally, maybe there's a risk of over-confidence with him, which a ban might put a lid on.

Gabby was booked for protesting at his mate's dismissal. Sidwell was removed and Craig Gardner brought on. Whether this was tactical, or because Siddy was not able to play as he'd have wanted, I don't know.

20 minutes left to hold on for a point.
To be honest the lack of a man didn't show, as the rest of the team just seemed to "magic" the missing one of their number from somewhere.

Sunderland had a great chance from a Jones header, but it was straight at Brad, and despite the raised atmosphere from both sets of fans, nothing looked like happening, until a long ball down the centre was chased by Gabby, he was sandwiched and fouled by 2 Sunderland defenders right on the edge of the box. It seemed a tad harsh to me, but the ref gave a pen, and after a delay, GB belted it into the net.

Villa saw out the last 10 minutes and a surprisingly low number (3) of minutes of stoppage time without too many panics.

At the end, MO'N and the players were clearly chuffed with yet another away win, as they came towards us and received their merited acclaim. If not for a high quality performance, for one of immense resolution and strong will.

Whatever people say, it's not luck. Gary player had it right - "the harder I work, the luckier I get". And there's talent there too, together with nouse.

The drive back was diabolical - the weather over the A66 was atrocious, wind and a howling gale, but back home safe and warm, it was a good day out.

Some marks
Brad - proper solid - 7. Reassurance is the word.

NRC - He's doing better at right back than I'd have thought possible. 6.5
Curtis - Troubled by Kenwyne Jones, 5. Missed Martin Laursen alongside him to win those headers. Got better as the game progressed.
Carlos Cuellar - Played very well, defensively. 7
Luke Young - Another out of position, but doing it for the team. 6

Ashley Young (he started on the right) - Made a goal, got himself sent off. Can't keep out of the news. 5
Stan - 7. More good play from Stan. Consistent, and didn't go missing as a few did early on
GB - 8. Excellent from the skipper. Joint MoTM
James Milner - 8 Also excellent. Really shoved the jeers from the Sunderland fans back in their faces with a tremendous performance, and not a hint of a reaction to several hefty fouls. Well done Sir. Joint MoTM.
Steve Sidwell. 4.5 - just didn't get into the game at all. Effort aplenty, but the game just passed him by. (Craig Gardner - in his 20 minutes he did fine. 6.
Gabby - Needed more help, but did his job effectively 6.


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