Winter blunderland

Dave Woodhall on Villa’s defeat at Bolton, and comparisons with days gone by.

I may as well kick off with a brief snatch from my Mastermind specialist subject , Recollections and Comparisons from Aston Villa History.

Round about this stage of 1989-90 the most unlikely title challengers of all time went top of the league after a stunning 2-0 win at Spurs. Their team of hard workers outplayed an expensively-assembled collection of star names and looked unbeatable. Three days later they lost 3-0 at home to Wimbledon, went down 2-0 at Coventry a week after that, and never recovered. A lot of theories were put forward for that particular fade-out, but my pet one is that the team got to the top of the summit, looked down and froze.

Since then, we’ve had a few similar cases where the Villa have got themselves into a good position only to suffer some inexplicable setback. Ron Atkinson’s Premiership-chasers never got over the draw with Coventry and the events that unfolded elsewhere a few hours later, John Gregory’s epic start fizzled out after an FA Cup defeat at home to third division Fulham and ironically both bosses said things that I’ve repeated before but which bear thinking about now.

Ron once said that the hardest task for anyone in charge at Villa Park was persuading people at the Villa that the club could win trophies, while the newly-crowned Indian Super League-winning manager spoke of the belief that the good times would always end sooner rather than later, and of his belief that getting rid of that mentality was the key to success.

A lot of people say that Villa managers struggle with the weight of expectation that comes with being in charge of such a big yet perennially under-achieving club. I’m not sure – I think it’s more a case that repeated failure to capitalise on the start of a good run has imposed a built-in fatalism that it’s all going to go wrong any minute now, and such prophecies have a habit of becoming self-fulfilling.

All of which brings me round to the events of the past week, and in particular the match at Ice Station Bolton on Saturday night. As with the game against Wolves, it was on TV so there’s not much I can add to what’s already been seen, heard and said about it. Bolton coped with the conditions better, their tactics were more suited, they adapted better.

Once they scored, we rarely looked like equalising and what threat we did have was individualistic in its approach and came in isolation. Yes, you could argue that the way Bolton play was always going to be the more successful on a pitch where the first substitution was that of a white ball for a yellow one, but Villa should have been able to do a lot more than they eventually did.

If QPR on Tuesday night was the Wimbledon to last Saturday’s Spurs, this was Highfield Road, but without the amusing one-way hatred. At least Villa finished runners-up that season, and it ended in the best away trip I’ve ever been to. Another season where we finished in second place, and probably more relevant to this argument, is our previous promotion, in 1987-88.

It was again at this time of the year that we went through a bad run, with six defeats in nine games including three away at fellow promotion challengers and the others at home to sides we should have been hammering, culminating in getting beat by Oldham, who had a habit of being involved in those end of season collapses.

Maybe it’s old age playing tricks, but I can’t remember much in the way of recriminations back then. We knew it was down to all of us, we regrouped and with the aid of some improved performances and a bit of good fortune in other results, Graham Taylor finally dragged us over the finishing line in triumph. There’s the straw – get clutching.