Dave Woodhall has an afternoon to remember.
Lovers of vintage comedy will remember Bilko, the story of an incorrigible sergeant in the US Army during the fifties. One of the episodes was called Bilko’s Perfect Day, and it told the story of what happened when the gods of fortune decreed that for 24 hours everything would go right for him. Unfortunately, Bilko didn’t realise until a few minutes to midnight so by the time he’d managed to find a horse race somewhere in the world to bet his savings on, he was too late.
I had a day a bit like that yesterday, except I realised it a lot quicker than Bilko did.
Drive down to Wembley, park up in a side street next to the tube station, find an amazingly quiet pub then smoothly into Wembley. Decent view behind the goal, Villa supporters are in good voice, the teams come out and that realisation hits you that it’s not a dream, you haven’t imagined the past six weeks, the Villa are playing at Wembley. In the FA Cup. How did that happen?
Anyway, the match. Sadly Gabby failed his late fitness test so Jack Grealish was playing with Charles N’Zogbia alongside Europe’s most in-form striker. Also drafted into the team was Nathan Baker, replacing Ciaran Clark and both looked good in the early stages until Baker’s (inevitable) injury threatened Villa’s momentum. Liverpool score, that seems it but rather than buckling, Villa get back into the game with Grealish and Fabian Delph setting up Benteke for his ninth goal in seven games.
If I had a worry at half-time it was that Liverpool seemed more organised, with Villa looking to rely on flashes of inspiration. It surely couldn’t last.
And it didn’t, because from the start of the second half Villa were clearly the better team, and before too long they were, incredibly, ahead. The combination that brought the first goal also contributed to the second, this time Fabian Delph finishing. If there’s a more improved player in the country over the past two seasons I can’t think of him – there was a time when I struggled to regard Delph as part of the Villa first-team squad. Now he’s captaining the team on the road to glory, following in the footsteps of Dennis Mortimer, Kevin Richardson and Andy Townsend, to name the most recent.
Well on top, Villa could have added had the game wrapped up but the best chance fell to Kieron Richardson, who with the best will in the world will never be a natural goalscorer, while Benteke was denied a run on goal by an inch-perfect tackle.
The players tired, Liverpool poured forward and now it was time for the supporters to finish the job. All afternoon we’d been in full voice but now, when we were needed most, thirty thousand voices helped carry eleven exhausted players over the line. Tim Sherwood, who’d spent much of the afternoon motionless on the edge of his technical area, arms folded and looking like a teacher who’d been roped in to look after the school team in his free time, waved his arms, encouraging one last effort from everyone.
Those of us who hadn’t suddenly realised they needed to visit the toilet, or stretch their legs, or do anything to relieve the tension as the clock ticked agonisingly slowly, redoubled our efforts as the final stages of the drama unfolded. A offside goal, a goal-line clearance, some old bloke in a Liverpool shirt hitting a freekick from the edge of the box safely at Shay Given, then the referee blew his whistle for the last time and Aston Villa are in the FA Cup final.
I’ll say it again. How did that happen?
Individual players are difficult to pick out, although Ron Vlaar deserves praise for helping keep Villa’s defence together during the brief period when Liverpool looked like running away with the game. Tom Cleverley has had a lot of criticism this season, not least from me, but he and the not quite as maligned Ashley Westwood allowed Villa’s attacking players to get forward. Then there was Jack Grealish, 19 years old, with a handful of first team appearances behind him and a massive future in front of him.
And a word or two for one other individual. Stevie Gerrard, if by any chance you’re reading this and you’re looking for something to do on cup final day, don’t bother coming rounds ours. We’ll be out.