Villa won 3-2 at home to Burton Albion, with Dave Woodhall watching.
During his incredible first ten months as Villa manager when he could do no wrong, John Gregory said he was always being asked what would happen when the good run ended. His reply was “Why do people at this club think it has to end? When I crack that I’ve cracked this club”. Unfortunately Gregory never was able to crack that feeling. The good run did end, and despite his best efforts those good times never returned while he was in charge.
I was reminded of Gregory’s words in the run-up to Saturday’s game with Burton Albion. They’re bottom of the league, having the kind of season that often happens when a team gets promoted way above anything they’ve experienced before and against the odds manage to stay up one year only to fall away the next. Villa are on a run of form we haven’t enjoyed since those halcyon Gregory days yet there was still an air of apprehension, a feeling that something was bound to go wrong, just because.
Maybe that feeling spread to the players because for the first twenty minutes or so they were distinctly off-form. There were too many sideways passes and loose balls, more mistakes in that time than in the previous five wins. But eventually class began to tell, summed up by the wonderful sweeping move movement that saw Scott Hogan in the right place to tap in his fifth goal in five games.
Another goal in the second half from Albert Adomah should have paved the way for a comfortable cruise to the final whistle but instead Elmohamady scored a belting volley at the wrong end to set a few nerves jangling. Jack Grealish’s goal two minutes from time should, again, have meant that anyone who nipped off early to beat the traffic needn’t have worried about missing anything but another defensive error in stoppage time made for a final couple of minutes that were a lot more uncomfortable than they should have been.
It was a below-par performance, which was reflected in the crowd’s opinion at the end – more one of relief than of celebration. But against that, 3-2 was about the worst we could have got given the way the game went. Jack Grealish had a blatant penalty denied a minute before Burton’s first goal; had it been given it would probably have been 3-0, game over and they certainly wouldn’t have scored. We’d have celebrated a comfortable victory and everyone would be happy.
As it is, a few questions still remain. Are Villa stating to feel the pressure? Is this good run maybe coming a bit too early? it’s daft to say you’d rather not win games when the chance comes, but in the years I’ve been supporting the Villa we always seem to do better when the pressure’s off. Promotion in 1975 came on the back of a post-Christmas run when the rest of the world were watching Manchester United race clear at the top of the table while six years later Ipswich had been anointed league champions right up until the moment we stole the title from them.
In contrast, our challenges in 1990 and 1993 seemed to end roughly at the same time that we realised there was a chance we might win the thing, while our previous promotion in 1988 saw the team staggering over the line after looking impressive until the final weeks. Of course what happened then bears no reflection to the current situation, but it does show that over the years Villa have never been comfortable in the spotlight. Maybe that’s why the feeling that Gregory talked about is so hard to shake off and why, maybe, a less than convincing win over Burton might be a useful reminder of what’s in store ahead of the battles to come.