Its been in excess of fifty years since the F.A. Cup was last paraded through the streets of Brummagem, and almost forty years since four sprightly teenagers last ventured into Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium, the purpose then a midweek Third Division game that ended in a 0-0 stalemate. Time has moved on, and much water has passed under the bridges of those teenagers, but a bitter cold Sunday morning saw those very same four ex-teenagers back on route to The Garden Of England, to witness our F.A. Cup third round tie against The Gills.
We recalled our last visit to the Medway town, an uninspiring performance by the lads in claret and blue, and as one of my companions chirped, ‘If we couldn’t score against, and beat them that night, with Andy Lochead and Bruce Rioch in the team, what chance do we have today?
Smiles all round, but of course this 2008 version of Aston Villa Football Club is far, far removed from the team we supported wearing the claret and blue that night, our status in the domestic game so much higher today. Then we were battling to get out of the old third division, on equal footing with our opponents that night, the top flight of English football and a return to past glories looking a million miles away. Whereas today we proudly sit fourth in the premiership, harbouring serious hopes of competing in next seasons European Champions League. How times change.
Still, the F.A. Cup remains the one major domestic trophy I have yet to see us win, so as you can imagine I was heartened by Martin’s decision to send out as close a full strength team as possible. I didn’t want to even remotely risk the prospect of another Queens Park Rangers Carling Cup humiliation.
As it happened Mart made just three changes from the team who were victorious up on Humberside, Luke Young, Gareth Barry, and Gabby Agbonlahor enjoying a Sunday off, and we lined up as follows:-
Brad Friedel, Nigel Reo-Coker, Zat Knight, Curtis Davies, Nicky Shorey, James Milner, Steve Sidwell, Craig Gardner, Stan Petrov, Ashley Young, Nathan Delfouesno. subs: Marlon Harewood came on Nathan Delfouesno on 70 mins.
A strong enough line-up to see off the pride of Kent we all agreed, a belief that proved to be well-founded, but certainly not without the odd scare or five along the way.
I’m starting to feel almost embarrassed and apologetic when writing these away reports, having to explain away that while we hadn’t played well, we have yet again taken home the spoils. Long may it continue though, at least that will mean that come May, our goals have been achieved.
After the initial opening skirmishes, we took the lead on twelve minutes, Jimmy Milner, whose birthday I am reliably informed it was (if that`s not in fact true, then blame the young man who stood in front of me), played a neat one-two with danvilla2’s favourite player, Stan Petrov, before curling a gem past the Gillingham keeper.
Instead of us stepping up a gear though, pushing on and adding to our lead, Gillingham took the fight to us, and although never testing Brad at all, certainly had the bulk of possession.
We had the opportunity just before the break to make the game safe, Milner sending in a delightful ball that was just begging to be put away, but young Delfouesno volleyed his effort over the top.
1-0 ahead at the break, and comforted by the knowledge that Mart would no doubt give our lads a gentle kick up the rear, we enjoyed the half time banter convinced that the second half would be a lot more convincing for us, and that we’d move on comfortably to a two or three nil victory.
That wasn’t the case though, and the second half began as the first half had left off, with us on the back foot. Twelve minutes in, and the home side were level. A long clearance from their keeper was flicked on, and their leading goalscorer, a nippy little individual named Jackson, sent the ball past Brad to send the home lot delirious.
Game on, with a few worried faces on both the Villa bench, and amongst the travelling contingent.
Fortunately the goal did seem to wake us up from our slumbers, and we started to push forward, without however managing to really look convincing.
Ashley was experiencing one of his more frustrating afternoons, and we simply lacked both spark and invention. A replay was starting to look very much on the cards, the last thing this depleted squad needed.
Then with around ten minutes or so left, Ash broke into the box, went to ground following a somewhat innocuous challenge, the referee immediately pointed to the spot, and our chance had arrived.
After some debate as to who would take the spot-kick, up stepped our ‘Man of the Match’ James Milner to finish with aplomb. Happy Birthday Jimmy. I’ll raise a glass or two in your honour later this evening.
So that was it. 2-1, job done. As far as enjoying a decent F.A. Cup run goes, you need the luck of the draw on your side, a few breaks here and there, and the ability to ground out a result when not at your best.
No, it wasn’t vintage Villa, far from it. Yes, The Gills probably deserved a replay at least (mind you, Brad didn’t have to make a save all game – apart from the goal!!), but know what? We won, we’re through.
Now bring on Cheltenham or (oh no!!!!) Doncaster Rovers. I’m Up For The Cup!!
Right, marks out of ten, as voted by the four bad lads:-
Friedel – 6
Reo-Coker – 5
Davies – 6
Shorey – 5
Milner – 7
Gardner – 6
Petrov – 6
Sidwell – 5
Young – 5
Delfouneso – 6
Harewood – 5
O’Neill (for keeping us amused with his touchline antics) – 10