I have opted to give myself nearly 24 hours before sitting down to reflect on the events of last night. I was left utterly broken by the ninety minutes that unfolded and the adrenaline that pumped into my veins kept me awake well into the early hours. It’s a long time since such an important victory has been secured in such quite unbelievable fashion.
“Unbelievable” is not a word I would use flippantly. The game truly met the definition. Namely;
Villa’s starting line-up was, unbelievable.
Gabriel Agbonlahor’s performance was quite literally, unbelievable.
The unrecognisable energy and persistence of Tom Cleverley; unbelievable.
The utter domination of Villa in the first half…
The gut wrenching disbelief that Albion had somehow equalised.
Ben Foster’s crass incompetence throughout..
And that penalty.
Everyone will have their own memories of the night and those are to be savoured. It wasn’t a classic derby, for which I blame both Villa’s need to secure points at all costs and the Pulis approach. But ultimately, who cares? The victory and manner in how it was achieved is what counts.
For all I imagine West Brom fans are delighted to have pulled away from the bottom of the table, their frailties as a team and those of Pulis’ tactics were there for all to see. There is also a telling fact. Villa have only three points more than when Pulis took over and sit just five points ahead. Last night is a firm reminder that they are in the dogfight.
Also, carrying an injury or not, both Albion strikers were static and ineffective. Berahino, for all his clinical appeal, has all the hallmarks of a toxic player to have in the dressing room. Disinterested and anonymous for long periods of the game, it would infuriate me if I were a team-mate or fan.
It was also difficult to see what the visitors game plan entailed. The hoofball tactics, though a source of easy derision for us Villa fans, is also a surefire way of ensuring the pressure comes straight back down your throat. We are best placed to tell you this Albion fans, having watched months of such desperate play under Lambert/McLeish. I lost count of the times that Albion retained possession, only to lump it aimlessly downfield, gifting us the opportunity to re-apply pressure.
It was a gift of a tactical set up which Villa should have capitalised upon to the sum of 3 or 4 goals. At half time many lamented those that got away; Agbonlahor’s effort fumbled between Foster’s legs, the fine Delph strike against the post & another Agbonlahor effort that lacked the pace to dribble over the line. Gabby was tearing Albion apart time and time again, looking potent alongside Benteke. His goal was finished sublimely. As many have commented; for a player with such supreme talent, one wonders why he has chosen to shine so infrequently, particularly in a long period of need for Villa.
However, for all of the joy the lead provided, this missed chances had all the scripting required to set the scene for an Albion equaliser against the run of play.
With the second half came the inevitable.
From a corner the ball was allowed to float across the six yard box towards the back post. Villa’s failure to recognise the danger saw the cross nodded back giftwrapped for Berahino to nod in. Unjustified but unmissable.
At this point the awful reality of our situation set in & having controlled the game with ease, we rocked badly. Indeed, a few minutes of headlessness could have cost us dearer than the points on the night.
Dawson hammered a free header over the bar.
Morrison, having countered into the space left unoccupied by Lowton following a foray downfield, bore down on goal. The Holte End willed the ball anywhere but the net, the goal gaped, the ball was inexplicably squared and Okore atoned for previous errors with an absolutely exceptional interception.
The game then took on a grittier tone. Hutton, a pantomime villain in this derby, had a coming together with Berahino. At the time there didn’t look a huge amount of contact, and the Albion strikers jenga like collapse looked rather silly. Whilst I would still say he made a meal of it, with the benefit of a replay, Hutton did appear to take advantage of having toed out a clearance to leave an impression.
Albion fans will bemoan this as thuggary, and perhaps yes, it can be interpreted as such. However, the perverse truth is that Hutton is technically an excellent footballer who caused Albion no end of problems marauding forward. He controls possession in the full back position, bursts inside, creates space for breaks with width and fights for the cause in defence. Annoying, for all the attempts to brand Hutton as the devil, he’s a talented footballer, who is also more than capable to look after himself.
There was no bigger critic of Hutton than this blog prior to his wake up calls when sent on loan to Mallorca and Bolton. However, he has refound the performances which warranted his original move to Tottenham. Frustratingly from the visitors perspective he is tarnished by the Hutton of old who lunged horribly at Long. Now, he represents the fight and guile completely absent from the Albion team I saw last night.
As the game progressed, and with Foster seemingly intent on bettering Enklemann’s fable, Villa continued to press.
Sherwood once more showed bravery, and unpredictability to his substitutions. The exhausted Cleverley was withdrawn for Bacuna, the equally drained Agbonlahor made way for Wiemann & Grealish swapped for N’Zogbia.
It was positive, unexpected and ultimately lead to our win.
Grealish took a few minutes to settle but made his mark by dispossessing Morrison with a classy turn out of a cul-de-sac. This seemed to ignite a belief that there was something still in the tie.
The chances and pressure didn’t abate, but time was running down.
Bacuna fired wastefully over the bar with a free kick. The Holte End furied.
Grealish side-footed a deep cross straight at Foster when only laces would do.
Delph fired from distance, prompting a desperate spill from Foster. Bacuna’s follow up saved.
It seemed like the very game of football has now determined Aston Villa would never win again.
And then the unforseen, the unexpected, the unbelievable happened. Foster spilled yet another collection into no-mans land within the penalty area.
For reasons known only to Foster, he attempted to beat Matt Lowton to the ball. Lowton made up ground quicker than Usain Bolt, took the touch and was absolutely creamed by the hapless keeper. If one were to personify the definition of “stonewall penalty” then this foul was it.
The roar of the Holte End at the referee pointing to the spot abated to the realisation that Benteke, 24 years old, bereft of any sniff of a goal in weeks, must dispatch the gift.
The seconds that passed were awful. The Holte End’s noise was haunting, grown men looked away, atheist’s renewed their vows to an appropriate God & thousands of collective breaths were held.
I remember two distinct things about the penalty itself. The first, was the fear that struck me upon realising Benteke was going to roll the ball nonchalantly in. The second, finding myself many rows away from where I had been stood just seconds before the run up.
The celebrations were wild, the result essential, Sherwood’s impact, game on game, a growing masterclass.
Bring on Saturday, where if an FA semi final can be secured, our season takes on a wholly new dimension.