Third time lucky

Dave Woodhall on Villa’s Championship play-off final defeat to Fulham.

I had a very nice burrito on the way back from Wembley. The same thing happened after the cup final three years ago, and much as I like Mexican street food I’d like the highlight of the next trip to be a bit more football-orientated.

I’m trying to stretch this out a bit because there isn’t a lot to be said about the match. Steve Bruce’s team selection was the same as he’s picked for months when he’s had a full squad to choose from and although there’s a lot to be said for continuity you can argue that this is the stage for someone previously unheralded to make a name for themselves – shades of Graham Fenton in 1994 and Jack Grealish at the 2015 semi.

Grealish was, of course, playing on Saturday and he was his mercurial self. There are many new stats and records being set all the time in football, and Jack seemed on his way to breaking another during the first half – the player most fouled during a match at Wembley. One challenge in particular was brutal but Grealish carried on regardless, refused to lose his temper and came close to scoring what would have been one of the great Wembley goals. If he keeps up the improvement he’s shown throughout 2018 there’ll be a top-class player there, although whether he’ll fully develop wearing claret and blue is another matter.

It wasn’t really a game of two halves, because Villa were never good enough in either of them. For the first 45 minutes we were far too predictable, playing deep and lacking any sort of initiative. Fulham dominated midfield, helped by some outrageously lenient refereeing, and deserved to be a goal up at the break.

For twenty minutes after that Villa were improved without really having any chances to show for it. Maybe Bruce should have made substitutions during this time although it’s a difficult call when the team are on top. Fulham’s belated sending-off benefited them more than it did us, as sometimes happens in such circumstances. The break in play helped them, they adapted better than Villa did to the changed circumstances. Their gameplan was similar to Villa’s in the second leg against Middlesbrough – let the opposition have the ball in the areas where it doesn’t matter, because they don’t have much idea in those where it does.

With Grealish running out of steam, Robert Snodgrass tightly marked and Albert Adomah continuing his recent poor form, Villa can’t have any real hard luck stories to fall back on. There were no wonder saves, no hairbreadth-away finishes and no that-could-have-gone-anywhere deflections. The game ended, the players, some whose Villa careers are now over, slumped to the floor and we finally heard what thirty thousand clappers sounds like.

Ultimately, Villa didn’t win the game for the same reason they didn’t get automatic promotion – they, or rather the manager – weren’t adventurous enough when it counted. That final in 2015 wouldn’t have been ours no matter how well the team played because Arsenal were on top form that day. This one was a different story. The Villa we saw for maybe a quarter of the season would have beaten Fulham but this one was nowhere near.

Where that leaves the team and Steve Bruce is a question that only the board can decide. But, whatever the decision, it has to be done quickly. For the past two seasons let the frontrunners of the division get into gear a month before we did and that can’t happen again. Whatever happens during the summer we won’t have the money to spend that we’ve enjoyed previously and without the luxury of that particular double-edged sword everything has to be done right. In the words of one fortunately ex-manager, we go again.