A full house and fond farewells before the countdown..
Steve Bruce fielded his best eleven against Derby County on Saturday, for what might prove to be a dress rehearsal of the play-offs in a few weeks time. Villa conceded early after a mistake by Neil Taylor but rebounded to dominate the game and create numerous chances which went begging. Lewis Grabban scored the vital equaliser which kept Villa’s little unbeaten run going and a very decent team performance kept the faithful’s hopes alive, that Villa are in the right mood to progress to Wembley, and hopefully, beyond.
Bruce had rested his high-mileage men for the Ipswich game and was hoping that a refreshed Snodgrass and Adomah would increase Villa’s intensity against a resurgent Derby side, which had recovered from a run of three losses by beating champions Wolves in their previous match. Villa looked to be nailed on for fourth spot at the kick-off but the Villa faithful were dreading a fall off in form as the play-offs approach. With Villa facing the stiff challenge of a trip to Millwall on the last day of the season, the fans were desperate for Villa not to spoil the end-of-season Villa Park party by losing. The performance was enough to leave the fans satisfied and the knowledge that with slightly better luck it might have turned into a substantial win, made for optimism. A stand-out contribution by Jack Grealish and the return of Alan Hutton both added to the positive mood.
The occasion also had historical significance in that it marked the departure of Villa’s all-time leading Premier League scorer, Gabby Agbonlahor. Gabriel by name and fallen angel by reputation, Gabby miraculously defied his limitations to score 73 goals for Villa and earn himself three England caps. Big goals against big teams and local rivals under Martin O’Neill ensure that he will always be associated with the happy times of that promising era, but his fall from grace under subsequent managers sadly taint what should be his legendary and iconic status. His loss of the support he enjoyed from O’Neill affected him badly during a time when the club was on the skids. History subsequently proved that no single player could have remedied Villa’s demise but many thought Gabby should have done more. I tended to see his lack of professionalism as a symptom of the club’s decline and not the cause. On Saturday he got a respectful round of applause he from the fans, which some thought was more than he deserved. I will always remember his great days with delight. History will record that he did some great things for Villa but his failings will always follow in parenthesis.
Villa were looking a bit untidy during the opening minutes and after some indecisive head-tennis in the middle of the park, Derby intercepted and slipped a ball down the outside of Neil Taylor on Villa’s left. Derby took it to the byline and Taylor, caught in two minds, failed to get it clear and it was slipped inside for the unmarked Jerome who curled it inside Villa’s far post. Nil-one and not the start the faithful were hoping for. On twenty minutes applause rang around Villa Park as the fans paid tribute to those who had passed away during the season. A touching moment with a surprising number of young faces amongst the fallen.
Villa had made a quiet start and created their first chance coming up to the half-hour when Adomah chased a John Terry down the left wing and sent in a cross which Grabban somehow headed over. Then Derby built nicely and set up an excellent chance for Jerome who headed straight into arms of Johnstone. Villa came very close when a pass inside by Snodgrass to Grealish, was exchanged with Grabban, and Grealish took it on his chest, charged into the six-yard box, and Carson was forced to save with his feet. Villa built again through a charging Hutton. He fed Grealish who set up Hourihane for a shot hot the latter’s connection was not quite sweet enough to stretch goalkeeper Carson. Some superb sustained pressure from Villa, with Grealish slipping a delightful ball to Adomah whose cross was cleared, but Villa sent it back in and Grabban diverts it with his head onto the bar, when it might have gone in. The half-time whistle blew and the Villa contingent were wondering how many chances would they need to score a goal.
Villa started the second-half on the front foot but their first attempt at penetration ended with a Derby breakaway led by ex-Villa man Weimann, who produced a fine cross-field pass to Lawrence whose shot Johnstone could only parry, and the rebound was launched into touch. Villa built again from midfield and Hutton was sent away down the left, he shrugged off an attempted rugby tackle from Lawrence and sent in a cross which was knocked back to Grealish by Kodjia, and our Jack fired over. Villa continued to move the ball quickly and Derby were desperately chasing. Grealish won the ball with a physical challenge on the edge of the Derby box, fed Snodgrass whose cross was nudged for a corner. A short corner between Hutton and Grabban built the pressure and a Hutton cross to the head of Snodgrass set up a chance for Hourihane, close in, who mishit his volley down into the ground and it bounced over the bar. A Snodgrass charge and cross was headed against the post by Jonathan Kodjia. Grealish was body-checked on the edge of the area. Snodgrass sends in the kick but it rebounded off the wall and his follow up shot was tipped over the bar by goalkeeper Carson but nothing was given. A very tidy exchange between Elmo, Grealish and Onomah moved the ball to Grabban, who, twisting and turning created himself a crossing opportunity, which he overhit and it was headed away for a corner. Grealish took the short corner and got it back from Hourihane on the edge of the penalty area. Our Jack jinked into the area and back-heeled it back to Hourihane, who fired in a rasper which Carson could only block. It fell to John Terry, who, cool as you like, rolled it to Grabban to fire home. One-one.
Villa coming from behind has been a rare thing this season and so the draw brought satisfaction, while the determined and spirited performance seemed to bode well for the obstacle course which is the play-offs. Villa must now take their determination to Millwall for a high noon encounter in the loud and intimidating cauldron known as the Den. Millwall would need to score ten goals against Villa to overhaul Derby but I am sure they will be as determined as ever to finish off their season with a win, after coming so close. Villa can’t be caught and can’t improve their position with any kind of result and so it would seem likely that Bruce will rest his key players for this one. Villa’s main concerns will probably rest elsewhere, as to which, of either Cardiff or Fulham will finish second and third. I have my own idea of who I would prefer but can’t bring myself to say which, out of superstition. Whatever the final outcome, all I can say is that it has been a grand season and it has been a very long time since I enjoyed one better. Thanks Villa, it has been great.
Keep the faith!