Dave Woodhall eventually watches Villa lose at Shrewsbury in another friendly.
I can never understand why there are so many pre-season games these days. Some time in the last century players would roll up from their summer holidays a couple of weeks before the season was due to start, go down the M5 with half a million other Brummies at the beginning of August and have a couple of run-outs against Torquay and Exeter, before coming back to play a previously unknown crack Eastern European side (Eastern European sides were always ‘crack’ – it was the law) in front of seven thousand vaguely interested customers on the Saturday before the fun began.
Now it seems that they’re barely away a month before we’re off again. Saturday gave an excuse not only to get away for the afternoon but also to visit a new ground, the wonderfully-named Montgomery Waters Meadow at Shrewsbury. It sounds like a billionaire American industrialist, but that’s the most interesting thing about it.
Shrewsbury’s old Gay Meadow was a classic lower divisions ground, of the type that started to disappear post-Taylor report and when property developers began to realise that there was money to be made in re-designing all aspects of the leisure industry. The new one is bland, functional, has no architectural merit whatsoever and there’s no way it could ever capture the imagination in the same way that Gay Meadow, or any other proper football ground, could. You can get a coke, a pie and a decent view but you’ll never lose your heart to a place like this. Then again the new Holte End will never evoke the same memories as its predecessor, either.
It’s also a pain to get to. Two miles out of town, and one of the ridiculously large number of police that greeted Villa supporters arriving by train could at least have told us that there were no buses. So, an half-hour wait for the most extortionately-priced taxi this side of Moscow and when I finally got there the first thing that greeted our arrival was… a picture of Graham Turner on the wall of the main stand. He might be a Shrewsbury legend but I’d rather not be reminded of his existence, thank you very much.
As expected, most of the attention was focused on new Villa captain John Terry. Seeing him wearing the armband seems to indicate that Terry will have a bigger role to play in the forthcoming season than might otherwise have been thought, and despite the low-key nature of the game his assurance stood out. One moment showed the difference between Terry and the dross we’ve been watching for too long, when he won a long ball with ease in the air and without looking, placed it first-time into the space where he instinctively knew his left-back would be.
Unfortunately, Terry spent too long playing in a team who knew where they should be and what they should be doing so his sideways header was into a bit too much space until Neil Taylor realised what was going on. He’ll learn.
Villa were okay defensively, far too deep in midfield and only Andre Green showed much imagination going forward. In the early part of the game they seemed much improved for the runouts on Wednesday night but sat back in the second half, particularly after a glut of substitutions. There wasn’t much of interest happening on the pitch and the only thing worth noticing was the ever-increasing amount of stewards in front of the Villa supporters – clearly there’s a big demand for uniforms at sporting events in Shropshire.
Of course, whenever the match seems to be fizzling out you can rely on the Villa to let in a couple of goals and so it proved. Henri Lansbury pulled one back with a penalty right at the end, and even the massed ranks of the Shrewsbury Town Stewards (their numbers peaked at an impressive thirty) failed to prevent a lone invader from getting on and running the length of the pitch. I’m not sure if he was technically ejected, as the final whistle blew before he left the ground; personally I’d give him a job on the coaching staff as he made the only decent run from deep we saw all afternoon.
It’s Walsall on Tuesday night. Another new(ish) ground but one we’ve played at more often than any other since it opened in 1990 if you include reserve games and a little-remembered match in 1994-ish when for some reason we had a first team game there against another crack (former) Eastern European side. Fitness is starting to become less of an issue so maybe, just maybe, Steve Bruce will let the players get forward a bit more. And England might win the second test.