Dave Woodhall on Villa at the weekend.
Some years ago I wrote about the differences between when I first started going to the match and now, or rather whenever it was when I wrote that piece. I came to the not exactly surprising conclusion that most things have changed. Some of them are obvious – daft kick-off times and all-seater stadia for example. But even things which might seem the same have also altered.
For example, the game is no longer really 45 minutes each half. Whereas you used to get maybe 30 seconds added if there’d been a particularly lengthy break for injury, now the second half of almost every game has at least three or four minutes of stoppage time. Maybe it’s a bonus because the tickets are so expensive. In the same way, it’s not really eleven a side anymore either. Back then substitutions were rarities, reserved for serious injuries or really appalling performances. Now you’ll get two or three from each team coming on in an attempt to change the course of the game.
Which leads us to the events of early Saturday evening (another horrible kick-off time), when the Manchester United circus rolled into town complete with a travelling army of day trippers, tourists and one-off visitors wanting to know which building the Holte End is and where they could source organic latte. Or similar.
Villa played beyond our wildest dreams for fifty-odd minutes, matching United and going into a two goal lead courtesy of Andreas Weimann, aided by the artistry of Stephen Ireland and the physical presence of Christian Benteke, the next Holte End Hero. Then our eleven tired, their substitutes were much better than anything we could bring on and you know the rest. I could also say that in addition to their fourteen players on the pitch United had another one blowing the referee’s whistle but that would sound like the typically bitter jibe of someone who’s just seen their team lose. So I’ll say it anyway; while there were no overtly blatant injustices I can’t remember a time all match when Villa got the benefit of a debatable decision. United’s first and third goals, on the other hand, were unlikely to have been scored by visitors to Old Trafford.
Positives can be taken from this game, not least that there’s a side gradually taking shape here. Benteke has star quality and also possesses that indefinable something of which legends are made. Andy Gray and Peter Withe had it, Darren Bent doesn’t, which is why he’ll be forgotten when his predecessors are still being talked about in hushed tones. Benteke could become a big star with a bit of luck and the right handling. Weimann shows signs of becoming his ideal partner while Ashley Westwood refuses to be overawed by any occasion.
The most frustrating part of the afternoon was that had Villa played like this all season they would be a lot higher up the table than they are now. With Manchester City away and a home clash with Arsenal coming up things might get worse before they undoubtedly get better, but the future’s definitely bright.