Crunch time cometh..
Villa’s visit to Millwall turned out to be much as hoped for and predicted, as Steve Bruce’s re-jigged team got the result he demanded, by reaching the final whistle without picking up any injuries or disciplinary points. With the spring sunshine raising temperatures it proved the perfect afternoon to be bringing a satisfying season for both clubs to a close, and a very pleasant afternoon for the Villa contingent to bask in the renowned Corinthian spirit which Millwall are famous for. As expected Villa were a little less than the sum of the team’s parts. Both sides lacked the right quality in front of gaol and the game was ultimately decided by the referee when he awarded Millwall a penalty, a decision which fell somewhere between soft and dubious. Millwall spurned two good chances as Villa pressed and enjoyed even more generosity from the referee. Then just to make sure Millwall got full reward for their brilliant season, the referee’s assistant got in on the act and awarded another penalty, which was dodgier than a Canary Wharf tax return. Only a spectacular double-save from Mark Bunn kept the score at one-nil. Villa weren’t bad but lacked the intensity and incisiveness to make their pressure count. Onomah had another good game. Villa’s substitutes increased the pressure but didn’t come close enough to change the score. It wasn’t much of a game but there was huge consolation to be had in the knowledge that Villa had completed the ninety minutes unscathed.
By Sunday night the day’s results left the top of the Championship table looking very much as it started. With the only surprise being Fulham’s drubbing by SHA. Fulham played the same team which beat Millwall and Sunderland and so they were definitely after that second-place finish. Having taken it for granted that Fulham are the best team in the play-offs, their loss at Blues was a bit of a shocker. Derby’s convincing win at Barnsley, who had revived their survival hopes by a surprise win away to Brentford, seems to suggest that they are the dark horse in the mix. But, as expected, Villa have a tough and intriguing double-header with Middlesbrough to sort out before we start worrying about Fulham and Derby.
Whenever such crucial encounters are thrown up by the vagaries of football you can’t help but search the memory banks, or what’s left of them, and try and reconstruct the shared historical relationship between the two clubs and look for portents of possible outcomes. Middlesbrough have definitely been very significant in terms of modern Villa history. The most significant thing I can remember is that Villa winning their 1980-81 league title was more or less decided by Villa’s and Ipswich’s results against Middlesbrough. Villa beat Middlesbrough 3-0 at Villa Park in late April and Ipswich lost 2-1 to Middlesbrough on the last day of the season, a week later. Also, in season 1988-89, Villa scraped a 1-1 draw at home against relegation rivals Middlesbrough when Stuart Gray scored an 89th minute equaliser. Graham Taylor’s Villa avoided relegation by a single point and Middlesbrough were relegated. The Graham Taylor legacy was thus enabled. Then back during the early noughties Middlesbrough owner Steve Gibson so admired the Villa team he bought the whole defensive spine, in Southgate, Ugo and Boateng. As a result Middlesbrough went on to win the League Cup and qualify for Europe. So, whether karma, synchronicity, or just plain old superstition, the historical links between Villa and Middlesbrough seem to exist. Or, at least they do in my imagination.
As for this season, the honours have been more or less even, if you count Middlesbrough’s 2-0 win at Villa Park in the Carabao Cup. But the league games have mostly been in Villa’s favour, in that Villa totally dominated them at Villa Park, but could not to get the ball over the line, with Scott Hogan memorably blocking a goal-bound shot on the Middlesbrough goal-line and both teams reduced to ten men. Villa did better at their gaff, for Tony Pulis’s first game in charge, and took all the points, with a diving header from the Snodmeister, and in the absence of both John Terry and Christopher Samba. Middlesbrough’s stats read W22, D10, L14. Villa’s reads W24, D11, L11. Players who have played for both clubs, are: Adomah, Gestede, Adama and Downing. Villa have a squad of thirty compared with Middlesbrough’s squad of 22. It is a pity Villa can only field eleven at a time. It is going to be close and it is going to be tough. So, come on Villa!
Keep the faith!