If we thought that things couldn’t get any worse performance wise, following last weeks tame and extremely disappointing second half surrender at Craven Cottage, then we were in for a very rude awakening during the first forty-five up on Teeside, in our final away game of the 2008-09 campaign. While during the second period we upped our game a little at The Riverside Stadium, and showed a slight improvement as the game progressed, we still failed to reach the heights, and in truth, it was still I’m afraid, another case of points being tossed away, as opposed to returning home to Brummagem with a point gained.
When the final whistle sounds next Sunday afternoon to signal the end of the Newcastle United game, I will have been fortunate(?) enough to have seen first hand, thirty seven of our thirty eight premier league head to heads (I sat out Chelsea at The Bridge), so I can safely say that I really have experienced the good, the bad, and at times, the indifferent of the football served up by our club this season, and rest assured, what was served up first half at Middlesbrough, was definitely down there amongst the indifferent.
I know that in recent weeks, virtually everyman and his dog has been only too ready and willing to put forward personal opinions, as to why the claret and blue bandwagon lost a couple of wheels and came off track, following the 2-0 victory at Ewood Park back in early February. I daresay that everyone’s views carry some merit, but to dismiss our loss of form and confidence, as merely being down to the end result of a very long and arduous campaign, would I believe be somewhat wide of the mark, and in the short run would be just a convenient excuse to allay fears that there really isn’t too much wrong with the current squad and set-up at Villa Park. That I would respectfully suggest, would be a big mistake.
One thing is for certain, namely that Martin O’Neill has a very important summer ahead of him, not only in replacing Martin Laursen and presumably Gareth Barry, arguably our two most influential figureheads, but also in reshaping the current squad, adding quality in depth to ensure that come next August we are in a position to seriously challenge on four fronts, and also face up to the task of bringing shape and balance to the squad, to ensure that the sight of James Milner lining up at right full back, or Emile Heskey parading or doing whatever it is he supposedly does, out on the wing, is not repeated again in the height of battle during ’09-’10.
More in depth discussions on what we need to do, how, and why, will I have no doubt fill the excellent Vital Villa 100% Villa forum throughout the summer months, so I’ll spare you having to sift through my moans and groans right here and now, and revert back to my brief, which is to give you my take on our performance up on Teeside, as we took on Gareth Southgate’s relegation threatened Middlesbrough.
When Boro turned us over at Villa Park earlier in the season, I certainly never expected to see them in such a precarious position when we journeyed up to The Riverside Stadium, at a time when the fat lady would be preparing to sing, to herald in the final days of the current campaign. We certainly hadn’t been at our best that day, in fact had gifted them that late, late winner, but Boro had looked competent enough to at least hold their own in mid-table, maybe even good enough to finish top-half if they could improve on their goalscoring potential. Then again, as we slipped to our first home defeat of the campaign, did I think that we would for so long seemingly threaten to be serious contenders for a top four finish come the end of May? No, you know, I don’t think I did.
We left Brum at 9.30 a.m. to enjoy a leisurely trek up to Teeside, with plenty of ‘goings-on’ to mull over and debate as the miles rolled by, arriving in Middlesbrough city centre just after twelve noon. Car parked, and it was off to lubricate the old vocal chords before we helped cheer Mart’s lads on to a long overdue away victory. Whilst most travelling Villans (and once again we were there in numbers) always seem to congregate in the big refreshment house on the corner, opposite McDonalds, we’ve always preferred ‘The Hogs Head’, a little further up the High Street. Good beer, easier to get served, and friendly clientele. Apart from a Villa victory, what more could we ask for? The stadium is only about a ten-fifteen minute walk alongside the railway line from The Hogs Head, so even if you leave the premises a little the worse for wear, as some of our fellow Villans most certainly did, its impossible to get lost, and even if you have to crawl all the way from the pub to your seat, it isn’t an impossible task.
True to form, Mart’s starting line-up sobered a lot of us up. With no Luke Young, James Milner no less lined up at right full-back, while Carlos Cuellar replaced Zat Knight alongside Curtis Davies. Nicky Shorey kept his place at left back, no reason in my book why he shouldn’t have done, while up front John carew started as our central striker, with Emile Heskey out to prove himself as the new Garrincha, by operating out wide.
Our starting X1:- Friedel: Milner, Cuellar, Davies, Shorey: Young, Barry, Petrov, Heskey; Agbonlahor, Carew:
On the bench:- Guzan, Gardner, Clark, Sidwell, Reo-Coker, Knight, Delfouesno.
There was a pretty decent attendance on hand, although the stadium certainly wasn’t full. Excellent numbers travelling up from Brum though, many wearing fancy dress garb, and also a national flag of Denmark was in evidence, in honour of course of Martin Laursen.
Boro certainly made the more livelier of starts, and it was only after ten minutes or so that we enjoyed our first real sight of goal, Gabby firing though straight at the home keeper, when he perhaps ought to have done better.
Within a couple of minutes of that half-chance, we were behind. Stewart Downing, who had started brightly, had an effort charged down, Tuncay superbly netting the rebound with an overhead kick, that I have to say was definitely one of the better finishes against us this season. 1-0 to Boro, and their tails were well and truly up.
We were all at sea, shades of the second half at Fulham last weekend. We just couldn’t get a grip of the game, and Boro were looking more than capable of extending their relegation battle until the final weekend of the season. We had certainly offered nothing to suggest that the home side weren’t going to collect the much needed three points.
Their hopes though suffered a huge blow when their main playmaker Stewart Downing was injured in a collision with Stan Petrov, and despite initially making attempts to continue, the England winger finally had to retire from the action, being carried off and replaced by Marlon King.
Still though we struggled for possession, and then when we actually had the ball, it did us no good because we simply hadn’t got a clue of what to do with it.
We won a couple of corners, but they came to nothing, but at least news from Goodison Park had us cheering. West Ham leading 1-0. Well, we couldn’t cheer the efforts of our own claret and blues, why deny ourselves the opportunity of applauding a ‘success’ achieved by east Londons claret and blues?
Brad made a good stop from a Hoyte effort to keep the scoreline at 1-0, at least for the time being, but it was pretty obvious that if MON couldn’t rally the troops during the half-time interval, then this was going to be a very disappointing result, and a severe blow to our chances of finishing fifth. Boro were certainly very well deserving of their half-time lead. It had been another Villa no-show.
Into the second forty-five, and with the lads attacking ‘our end’, we had high hopes of a much better showing. We certainly looked more interested since the break, which begged the question, ‘Why hadn’t we been up to the task from the very first minute’?
We experienced two yellow cards in the space of a minute, Gareth Barry and James Milner, bookings clearly born out of frustration.
A couple of minutes after the bookings though, we were level, that man John Carew (well seriously, who else?) firing past Brad Jones in the home goal. The game looked there for the taking now, with Boro rocked back on their heels, lacking confidence, and without Downing, any real quality.
Jones saved from Ashley Young, and repeated the action a few minutes later when Ashley was clean through on goal, looking odds on to put us 2-1 up.
On seventy minutes though Ashley left the field injured, to be replaced by Nigel Reo-Coker, and perhaps with him, went our best chance of securing all three points. Gabby though had a header cleared off the line, before Jones denied the same player again by saving with his legs.
Emile missed a decent opportunity, while at the other end Tuncay headed over when he looked odds on to score.
So in the end a result that really satisfied neither side. Perhaps if we’d have performed first half as we had done after the break, then maybe we’d have taken all three points, but of course ‘what if’s win you nothing. Looking at things another way, a better team than Middlesbrough would have had the three points wrapped up by the break, so that really balances out the ‘what could have beens’.
So there we have it. Ten away wins for the season, with a total of thirty-two points picked up on our travels. We scored twenty-seven goals, conceded twenty-seven. Overall its been a pleasure following the lads away from Villa Park, particularly when we were racking up those consecutive away victories. Sometimes, admittedly the performances didn’t match the result, but winning ten away games in the premiership has been a tremendous achievement, and shouldn’t be downplayed or overlooked.
Right, here we go. Before I love you and leave you for the final time this season, my markings out of ten for our lot:-
Friedel – 6
Milner – 5
Cuellar – 5
Davies – 5
Shorey – 6
Petrov – 6
Barry – 7
A. Young – 7
Heskey – 4
Agbonlahor – 5
Carew – 7
Reo-Coker – 4