Ah, the good old days between Christmas and the new year. The smell and the taste of the festive season, very much still in the air.
A kind of excitement, a laid back feel good factor very much in evidence, and for the football lovers amongst us, plenty of going`s on, talking points, and hours upon hours of the beautiful game to feed our frenzy, with talking points galore, to keep us interested and fully focused.
The January transfer window is about to be flung wide open for any interested parties, or managers with cash to spend, while the third round of the F.A.Challenge Cup awaits enticingly, just around the next bend. The days are often somewhat bleak weather wise, the streets gray, the wind often hard and cold, with the rain all too often threatening to turn to sleet and snow, but it wouldn`t seem right if it were any different. And no one seems to care anyway. We`ve got a massive diet of football to feast ourselves upon, why allow the elements or other outside topics, to intrude upon and into our happy festive spirited lives? All that can surely wait until we return to the workplace, the days when we return to normality and reality.
Many of us, not yours truly I`m sad to report, haven`t reported for work since maybe the 23rd of December, and wont be returning to the grindstone until Tuesday of next week, so it has certainly been a time for recharging the batteries, while taking stock of all that has taken place in the first half of the premier league campaign in general, while focusing on the events that concern and relate to our beloved Aston Villa Football Club in particular.
Strange that we kicked off 2011 at Stamford Bridge, and now the curtain came down on our twelve months of football, with a return to the very same venue. We performed admirably back in January, returning to Brum with a much needed point, following an encouraging performance that saw us draw 3-3. We hadn`t won here since May 2002, when on the season`s final day we turned on the style to win 3-1. On occasions we`ve played well here since, but had to return to B6 with merely a point, and then on the other hand, there was that afternoon back in 2010, March I think it was, when we received something of a spanking. My claret and blue memory control ensures that I`ve forgotten the score line that day, so lets just say we got beat, and leave it at that.
Been a funny old twelve months for our club hasn`t it? Definitely an eventful year, if not a satisfying one. We all have our thoughts and opinions relating to what has taken place, and we all are no doubt looking forward to 2012, hoping that come next December, indications and definite signs are clearly evident to all Villans, that the grand old club is very much back on track, and that the much talked about ‘bright future`, is indeed more than just empty words, that fuel thoughts of what to many right now, appears to be, little more than an inaccessible dream.
That next summer is going to be a very, very important few months for the club, is I think, obvious to us all. However, I deviate, so back on track I hastily go, and remind myself that the game at Stamford Bridge included, we have twenty very important premier league games ahead of us, twenty games before the Villa Park hierarchy can gather as one, and discuss, debate, and decide, where it is exactly we go from here, and how we intend to achieve those goals.
Wouldn`t mind being a fly on the wall at that little gathering. Wouldn`t we all?
Anyway, destination Stamford Bridge, and the usual four of us piled into the old jalopy, clutching our £55 tickets (well, its only money), ready for our trip down to the Fulham Road, SW6. Yours truly was the days designated driver, which suits me fine, if only because my efforts behind the wheel today, ensured that I can kick back and relax next weekend in the backseat, when we begin our march to Wembley at the Memorial Stadium, Bristol.
Stamford Bridge is not a difficult drive nowadays, M40, M4, park at Earls Court, its our regular and standard procedure for games at Stamford Bridge, or Craven Cottage, that is unless we are stopping off at my Fulham supporting buddy and his good lady out in Twickenham. Today we are not. Straight there, straight back, before seeing in the new year at friend Gary`s home back in dear old Sutton Coldfield. So, fingers crossed, a very good day ahead of us we hoped, with much celebrating upon returning home.
All four of us have been boosted and encouraged by the last two performances, Arsenal and Stoke, definitely improved showings on what had gone before. No, we are not shouting from the rooftops just yet that Villa are back, because we all know full well that we`re not. Personally I think that we got a lot of undeserved flak for our showing at Stoke. I thought we played well. I actually enjoyed the game, and witnessed some encouraging signs. That`s just me though, and as the wife all too often reminds me, what do I know?
George Ivan Morrison (better known as Van – can you believe this guy is now sixty six? I still see him as the fresh faced lead singer with ‘Them`, back in 1964) and his solo albums ‘Astral Weeks`, ‘Moondance`, and ‘Avalon Sunset`, were providing the ‘sounds` as we hit the M40 and decided it was time to put our money where our mouths were, and throw our fivers into the prediction kitty (£40 for the successful predictor today – there was no winner following the Stoke game, we had all gone for the Villa win). For the Bridge though, Andy a 3-2 Villa success, Neil 2-1 to us, Gary a repeat of last season`s 3-3, yours truly a 1-0 claret and blue success. Yes, you`re right. There`s no logic to our predicting, nor is there ever a method to our madness. Funny though that we were all genuinely confident. Mind you, as I said, we journeyed to the potteries in confident mood too.
Stamford Bridge is the only ground that Chelsea F.C. have called home, since their formation back in 1905. In fact whereas most clubs were formed, and then began looking for a place to call home, Chelsea were the opposite. The owners of the land initially offered to lease the stadium to Fulham, but the Cottagers weren`t interested. Consequently the owners decided to go ahead and form their very own football club to occupy their new ground. Talk about taking the bull by the horns, eh? As there was already a football club named Fulham in the borough, the founders opted to adopt the name of the adjacent borough of Chelsea for their new club, having also considered names such as Kensington FC, Stamford Bridge FC and London FC.
I must admit that its now quite an impressive arena, capacity of around 46,000 I believe. The Bridge was much redeveloped in the Ken Bates era, when many additional features were added to the complex, including two hotels, restaurants, bars, apartments, and the Chelsea Megastore. It`s not in our opinion the most atmospheric of stadiums though, certainly not from our experiences of visiting here down the years. I`d put the crowd in the ‘quiet` category. Even in recent years when they`ve found themselves with quite an attractive and impressive product out on the pitch, they hardly become vocal in their support. Somewhat surprisingly, they don`t make much noise, and if you can actually get a goal ahead, start to control the game, they switch from quiet to mute. Maybe they think the same about us when they visit Brum B6?
The four of us made our first visit to Stamford Bridge back in the mid-sixties. It was late in the season from what I can recall, and we somewhat surprisingly won 2-0. I say somewhat surprisingly because if I remember correctly, we finished that campaign in our usual lowly first division position, whereas Chelsea enjoyed quite a successful season. If I`m right, and I think I am, then it was a late April, early May game, just a few weeks prior to World Cup ’66 kicking off.
Anyway, back to the present, and after parking our car out by Earls Court, we made our way to the stadium, after enjoying a period of refreshment with fellow traveling Villans, where needless to say, all things AVFC were discussed.
Once again a more than decent Villa turnout, plenty of regular faces, smiling faces at that, from Villans who clearly fancied our chances of getting something out of the game. The vibe was positive, and I`m pleased to report that. It was certainly a different mood from that that we find portrayed on the fan sites, where sadly negativity appears to be the order of the day. Mind you, upon making our way to our seats inside the stadium, I was greeted by the gent sitting in front of us, with the words, ‘Hey, last two times I`ve sat close to you guys, we lost 4-1 at Manchester City and 2-0 at Spurs`. ‘Third time lucky` was my retort. ‘We`ll come good today`.
Into action, the Big Eck sent out the following troops (no Steve Staunton today, sorry guys), Brad Guzan, Carlos Cuellar, Richard Dunne, James Collins, Stephen Warnock, Marc Albrighton, Stan Petrov, Cieran Clark, Charles N`Zogbia, Stephen Ireland (who I`m pleased to report was magnificent throughout, and boy have I been waiting to say that since the day he arrived) and Gabby Agbonlahor.
On the bench, awaiting the call to arms, Andy Marshall, Gary Gardner, Andy Weimann, Barry Bannan, Darren Bent, Nathan Delfouneso, and Alan Hutton.
We looked tight and disciplined as the game got underway, definitely an encouraging start. We weren`t afraid to push forward either, with Stevie Ireland looking for the ball at every opportunity, and Gabby looking full of running, well capable of giving John Terry and co a very testing afternoon.
At the back we looked solid, and Brad Guzan`s safe handling ensured that he continues to be a more than capable deputy for the injured Seamus Given. I must admit that I had concerns when Shay picked up his injury, never really being convinced with Brad whenever I`d seen him perform in the first team starting line up, or for the reserves, but give the guy his due. He looks comfortable and confident.
Our early promise though took a blow in the 20th minute, when Dunney made an unnecessary and clumsy challenge on Drogba inside the box. From the resultant penalty the Chelsea striker put the home lot 1-0 ahead, but even then, Brad Guzan very nearly pulled off the save. It was close, the ball seemed to go under him, but we were behind.
Would claret and blue heads drop? No siree bob, they wouldn`t. We were unfortunate to be trailing, but definitely looked to have enough about us to get back into the game.
Six minutes later, we were deservedly level, Stevie Ireland scoring his first goal for the club. Charles N’Zogbia got to the byline and cut the ball back for Stevie. His initial shot was blocked (handled) on the line by John Terry, but our ex-Manchester City star was alert enough to react immediately, and force home the equaliser. Would have been interesting if we hadn`t have scored, Stephen`s first effort was definitely handled by Terry. Would a penalty have ensued, a possible sending off too? However, matters not, we were level, and the players and the traveling Villans celebrated accordingly. I got a nice hug from the chap in front, while reminding him that today would be different from The Etihad Stadium and White Hart Lane. I think I`ve made a new friend. Mind you, he hugged and cuddled someone else when goals two and three went in, so maybe not.
Anyway, back to the football, back to Stevie Ireland, and lets hear it for the Shisha pipe.
Terry was booked for hammering into Gabby, and still we continued to look the more likely team to grab the go-ahead goal. I`d seen promising signs at Stoke on Boxing Day, and we were definitely building on that solid performance. We ventured forward at every opportunity, getting the ball to our lively forward trio of Gabriel Agbonlahor, Stephen Ireland, and Charles N`Zogbia, who to me is really starting to get his act together. We look a different team when our two main flair players, Ireland and N`Zogbia are on top of their game.
Into the second period we moved, and we continued to remain a threat. James Collins almost bundled home Charles N’Zogbia’s free-kick, although I`m not convinced that James knew too much about it.
Ten minutes after the break we spurned a glorious opportunity to take the lead. On the break we exploited a three-on-one to release Gabby, whose finish was sadly too close to Cech, and the chance went begging.
Frank Lampard was thrown on by Villas-Boas, but still we gave as good as we got, defended stoutly, and caught Chelsea napping when we broke with pace. Our best showing of the campaign to date? I think so.
Mata looked a class act for the home team, but it has to be said that this was one of the poorest Chelsea teams I have seen in years. Villas-Boas has a lot of work on his hands to turn them around, but like the Big Eck here at Villa Park, you have to wonder whether he`ll be allowed the time. Supporters, no matter which club they follow, are extremely impatient individuals, wanting success now. Mind you, many more results and performances like The Bridge effort, and Alex will certainly be around for a while. Good Luck to him.
Sturridge was replaced by Fernando Torres, and the Spaniard almost made an immediate impact, sending a slightly deflected effort from thirty yards crashing against the bar, with Brad well beaten. A lucky break for us, but hey, we deserved it.
Carlos was booked for a heavy tackle on Didier Drogba, conceding a free kick in a dangerous area, a free kick that once again was capably dealt with.
We then had a Chelsea fan ‘invade` the pitch (a one man ‘invasion`), seemingly with the sole intention of hugging John Terry. Just as I had done to the guy in front of me. It seems that it was a man-love day.
Drogba fired Torres’ clever through ball wide, and Bosingwa then came on to replace Ferreira for the final 15 minutes, and immediately tested Brad from 30 yards out. Chelsea were starting to press, but in truth we looked competent and comfortable, but appreciating our knack of conceding late goals and throwing away points, we, the supporters, started to get slightly twitchy, if not edgy. Oh we of little faith, we had nothing to worry ourselves about.
Darren Bent and Gary Gardner, for his debut, came on to replace Marc Albrighton and Charles N`Zogbia, two Villans who had given their all. Having watched Gary from the Bodymoor Heath days, through the youth and reserve team ranks, I was delighted to see him deservedly earn some first team minutes on the pitch. He has what it takes. A tremendous prospect.
Six minutes from time our new year celebrations began early.
Ciaran Clark was allowed to carry the ball forward unchallenged, and Cap`n Stan ran into space between Luiz and Terry, and deliciously (good description that) finished past Cech. 2-1 to the Good Guys. Players and supporters launch into mass celebration mode.
But we weren`t done yet. Stan limped off injured to be replaced by Barry Bannan, and three minutes later it was game over.
Frankie Lampard, who has stuck the knife into us many times down the years, had his pass intercepted by Stevie Ireland, who burst forward and squared for Darren Bent to beat the onrushing Peter Cech. Good work by Stevie, unselfish too, he could very easily have gone for goal himself, but he had the awareness to feed Dazza, who was better placed to finish Chelsea off.
So 3-1. A fine performance. Everyone played their part, but special mentions are due to Brad Guzan, Stephen Warnock, Stan Petrov, Gabby, and our undisputed man of the match, Stephen Ireland. Those five really stood out for me.
We deserved the win. We were the better team. Now of course we have to build on this result, see off Swansea City on Monday, and take it from there.
All of our failings and problems haven`t yet disappeared, of course they haven`t, but lets take immense heart from the performance and the result. The lads did us proud. Some very good individual showings, and a solid team performance. Maybe 2012 wont be so bad after all?
Well, thanks guys for being with me these past twelve months, thanks for reading my ramblings, and thanks for your responses. Have yourselves a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2012.
Oh, and Come On You Lions!!
Glensider at Stamford Bridge
Ah, the good old days between Christmas and the new year. The smell and the taste of the festive season, very much still in the air.