Villa beat Barnsley 3-1 on Saturday, with Dave Woodhall looking around.
I’ve seen some remarkable transformations in my time, but rarely have I seen anything so dramatic, and to date so effective, as what’s happened to the Villa since Boxing Day. Back then the team were clueless, or abject if you prefer, in getting hammered at Brentford in a match when we only came second because the officials weren’t up to much, the fifth game in a winless streak that was sending us tumbling towards mid-table and Steve Bruce towards the Job Centre.
Four weeks later and we seem to have become not only the form team of the division, but for half an hour at least on Saturday we’d been reincarnated as Newcastle circa 1996, gung ho attitude, defensive frailties and all.
Scott Hogan started proceedings with two goals that showed how, for all blistering pace, breathtaking ball control, an explosive shot and being deadly in the air are important, a striker’s greatest asset is the confidence to believe that every time he touches the ball it’s going to end up in the back of the net. the first was the result of a perfectly-timed run to get on the end of an equally perfect through ball from Elmohamady, the second a good header from a corner.
Of course we just had to let Barnsley back into the match with a bit of slack setpiece marking ourselves, but no matter because while Hogan is getting the recent headlines and John Terry will always be the centre of attention wherever he goes, Jack Grealish is quietly turning into the player everyone hoped he would be.
David Platt once said that his greatest ambition in football was to make a run that Gordon Cowans didn’t spot, and while Platt would now probably deny the existence of Sid, Villa Park and his entire domestic career 1988-91, both men would have been proud of the way Jack and Conor Hourihane linked up for Villa’s third. When Grealish laid the ball off there were nine opponents in the penalty area, yet his ball control and Hourihane’s running created the chance that the former Barnsley player put away with ease, and without none of that ‘Don’t celebrate scoring against your old team’ nonsense that’s far too prevalent these days.
While another Bristol City-type exhibition looked on the cards for a while there were no more goals in the first half, and the closest either side came to scoring in the second was when Hogan hit the post. Villa were ropey for a while in that second period, which just goes to prove that we’re not yet the finished article, but that’s a minor concern when for an hour we were as good as we have been for many years, and this on a weekend when almost every other result could have been hand-picked for us.
Of more concern is the state of the Villa Park pitch, which once more cut up badly and is now starting to draw unfavourable comments from many quarters, and with good reason – we regularly have enough casualties as it is without the pitch making it easier for a player to get a serious injury.
But there’s still a long way to go and despite losing on Saturday, Wolves still look uncatchable. Then, so did that Newcastle team I mentioned earlier. And I can also remember Wolves looking similarly set for promotion in 2002, only to lose out in the final weeks of the season to a local rival.
Finally, I can’t let the events of the weekend go without mentioning Villa Park’s tribute to Cyrille Regis, which like everywhere else was a fitting homage to a great man. What a pity, then, that the passing of Nigel Sims, who made over 300 appearances for the Villa, won the FA and League Cups and is regarded by many who saw him play as our greatest post-war keeper, wasn’t marked in the same manner. I’ll reserve criticism because the Sims family might have wanted it that way, but if not it seemed a curious omission for a club that, even in the worst times, have always had a good record of doing the right thing in such circumstances.