Villa won 4-2 at Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, watched by a slightly bemused Dave Woodhall.
I want to start by taking about something other than the match. Steve Bruce has had a difficult few weeks, and anyone with a shred of decency will have sympathy for him; coping with the death of a parent is bad enough without having to do so in the intense media glare and pressurised atmosphere of football management. Read his interview in the Times last Friday and you can only have the utmost respect for someone who is going about his business with dignity and not a little courage.
I like to think that Aston Villa are about more than football. The club should be about behaving with dignity and while that’s difficult in the maelstrom that is the modern game, Steve Bruce has shown in the past few weeks that he’s worthy of being called an Aston Villa man.
And with that, onto the trivial matters. I’ve talked before about routine two-goal wins. Villa might have won by two goals at Hillsborough on Saturday but the way the team went about it was anything but routine.
There was the usual roll-call of the sick and the lame at Bruce’s press conference on Thursday, although for what seemed the first time since Florence Nightingale was in charge of the casualties, a couple of the doubts made it onto the team sheet. That was probably just as well, because the side the manager picked raised enough eyebrows without a couple of his less controversial selections having to be left out on top. With Sheffield Wednesday on the crest of a slump and with even more players out than we had, Bruce’s choices seemed to take the initiative away from the Villa and back towards the home side.
To no-one’s surprise Villa went a goal down early on, but fought back and Lewis Grabban’s second goal in a week should have been the signal to kick on and win the game. But the Villa can never be so straightforward, and that familiar scenario of an opposition corner in stoppage time had a familiar end product.
2-1 down and with little idea of how we got the one, never mind how to get another couple, Villa started the second half in much the same vein as they’d played much of the first. Alan Hutton added to the injury list while Josh Onomah, whose selection was the source of much bemusement and who had done little to answer his critics, was replaced by Keinan Davis, one of the earlier doubts but who had improved enough to give half an hour in which to salvage the match.
Davis may become many things in time but at the moment it’s unfair to rely on him as a matchwinner yet within seven minutes Villa were level thanks to a far post header from Glenn Whelan that, as was pointed out later, goes a small way towards wiping out the nine years of misery he was a direct cause of. Not that I’m bitter, bear a grudge, or anything.
Villa rode their luck a bit, or if you prefer a lot, after that, one particular goalmouth scramble that was eventually cleared coming direct from a parks pitch, before a thumping volley from Conor Hourihane that might not have been as spectacular or as well-received as the one a fortnight ago, but might prove much more vital. That’s Hourihane’s ninth goal of the season; I can’t recall the last time a Villa midfielder got into double figures but the answer ‘David Platt’ might not be far off the mark.
What had happened so far was proving Bruce’s doubters wrong and the final act of the game showed that I’ll never get the knack of understanding this game, a fact I’ll happily admit on a day like this. Three minutes into stoppage time and Robert Snodgrass has the ball in the corner, surrounded by Wednesday defenders. I’m screaming at him to keep it in the corner but instead, the useless great eejit ignores me, beats them all, gets into the box and is bodychecked in a manner that an American footballer would have been proud of. Penalty, 4-2 and how anyone could have complained about the unfairness of the decision was beyond all rational thought.
And that was it. It was far from a vintage performance, but it was a vintage result, which at this stage is all that matters. Three points, winless run over and in terms of what it might mean, possibly the most important victory of the season. Under Bruce we’ve had the nasty habit of lengthy winning streaks being followed by relegation form. We can’t afford that again and we’ve got two winnable games coming up to see us into what could be a massive clash with Wolves in better shape than they could be. And I wouldn’t have said that at 3.45 on Saturday afternoon.