3 points can do a lot for the soul. It can do a great deal for ones mood as well. Stood in the sunshine ahead of the Newcastle clash a positive feeling seemed to be emanating from the gathered masses. A win for Villa calms the nerves, renews the faith and restores the pride.
(This was only broken by yobbish Northern behaviour that saw some of their finest shipped straight back to Scotland after making the journey having experienced “the sun” for the first time.)
That aside it was great to stand outside the Holte End in the glorious weather and soak up some pre-match atmosphere. The drawbacks of modern stadia and the UK’s dismal climate really puts the lid on shared tension until during the game. However, of those mingling around the steps of the Holte, the pressure and concern was on all of the faces in claret and blue.
Villa began the game in a similarly nervous fashion. The first twenty minutes was a tale of disjointed play (by both sides) and the initial signs were of some concern. The back four did little to inspire and Newcastle could have done better in the early stages after Collins dived in high up the field exposing Villa to an unsuccessful counter. Joey Barton could easily have stuck a dagger (not that I would suggest he would ever do that) into our survival hopes after he finished abysmally with a diving header wide when a goal looked more likely. In short, Collins’ defending remains of immense concern.
These scares seemed to rouse the players and whilst being against the run of play, Villa took the lead. Young was tripped by dirty and foul mouthed Barton. An inswinging ball from Young from the free kick was flicked home by Collins with a glanced header. A massive goal in the light of the results that weekend and Blackpool’s defeat to Arsenal earlier that day. Villa Park breathed a sigh of relief.
Villa could have extended their lead further before the break. Downing broke free down the left and floated across a dangerous cross that was just beyond the advancing Bent. The clininal striker was unaware the ball would have gone onto Agbonlahor’s head who would surely have header home from all of 4 yards. Still, Bent continues to show his worth in each and every game in front of goal.
Then some of the usual controversy – or bad luck – depending upon how you look at life. Good work again by Downing found the indifferent Jean Makoun. He showed fine technique to twist and turn his way free from scrambling defenders and found Bent with a perfectly weighted ball, incising through the heart of the Newcastle centre halves. Villa’s most expensive player buried the chance, only to realise the flag was raised. It looked a dubious call live, TV replays confirmed the linesman to be a plum.
Villa went in at the break to cheers – the effort and endeavour in the heat was just what was required. The Wolves game seemed like a distant nightmare. However, the general murmur was that a second goal would be needed to seal the points.
The second half was a strange affair. Newcastle didn’t really threaten and looked a really average outfit. For all of the bleating that the predominantly silent Newcastle fans made, I would be thoroughly embarrassed if Villa put in such a gutless, passionless showing away from home. If Newcastle harbour ambitions greater than scraping by in the Premiership then they will need to ship out most of what was on display. Enrique was skillful but lacked an end product. Barton runs and runs but with much of the same problem as Enrique. I cannot remember any other Newcastle player. Genuinely. It is rare that you never see a player in an opposing team whom you might want in your own. Newcastle are evidently the exception to the rule. Just awful.
Special mention should be made of Stilyan Petrov. Villa’s captain of recent years has taken a fair share of stick this season. Whilst he has always given his all, Petrov’s legs seemed to have abandoned him and his card had appeared to be marked as he dropped to the bench in recent fixtures.
However – Petrov’s performance on Sunday was nothing short of superb. Agbonlahor gained rightful plaudits for his running, but Petrov’s range of passing and breaking up of the play was the international quality that has been missing this season and which had often been taken for granted in previous years. He seemed fitter, sharper and played very much as a player who’s loyalty lies with the club. Petrov stole the show with sublime, controlled football – and he will prove an incredibly difficult player for our club to replace both in terms of class and commitment.
Stan soon released Gabby with a pass early in the second half – Gabby chose to shoot after bearing down on the dodgy Newcastle ‘keeper Harper – who parried away the curled effort. Villa remained under relatively little pressure, but the second goal would have been welcome.
Villa continued to maraud. Agbonlahor found Ashley Young, who played ever so deep for the whole second half, Young advanced and released a low drive that Harper dived low to palm wide. The referee to the bemusement of all awarded a goal kick. There were a few bizarre decisions like this. Each stranger than the next.
Makoun had had an offish day and was replaced by Reo-Coker. The first sign that we were going to batten down the hatches for the draw. There were no complaints here with Jean II playing a few loose passes and seeming to struggle with the Premiership pace in the warm afternoon sunshine. Walker made way for King Carlos, again to shore things up as Walker struggles with confidence of late.
And then came a bizarre move that arguably could have cost us the points. Agbonlahor was replaced for Robert Pires. Now. To those that booed – and you know who you are – hang your heads. You were the minority and are clearly braindead as we attempt to retain our top flight status. Booing, well, it defies belief and all logic..
However, Pires came on and to say he was pedestrian is offensive to those that can walk. Whilst there are things he can bring to a fixture that is leisurely (e.g. Blackburn in the Carling Cup) – when we are looking to remain solid – with an outball – this is the wrong move. Pires struggled to chase down play. He lost possession as we sought to catch our breath and made embarrassing efforts to regain it. It was truly as though we had ten men on the field.
That, however, isn’t Robert Pires’ fault. It is the managers. Houllier’s baffling tactical decision at a crucial part of the game, in such an important point in Villa’s season raises serious questions. It unbalanced an already fragile tactical Villa set-up and gave Newcastle the belief in the final few minutes that they might be able to steal a point from a match where none seemed possible just a few minutes before. As all that witnessed it can verify, we went from complete and utter control to disarray. Only the Villa.
Being a Villa fan is fraught with danger and it stared us in the face on 90 minutes. Friedel made two good saves as affairs started to look like they might turn on their head. Then evil overlord Joey Barton stood over an ominous freekick. All held their breath, grown men closed their eyes, women and children wept. The free kick beat the wall, dipped as though suddenly afflicted by gravity on an immeasurable scale, Friedel stood motionless and the net rippled. Fortunately for Villa it was the top of the net.
As the full time whistle blew a massive step had been taken in securing Premiership football next season. Next up Villa face West Ham with the possibility of going into the top ten. Newcastle..Newcastle, an outsiders bet for the drop? What a funny old season it has been.