Villa get back on track with a 1-0 win at Swansesa that has Dave Woodhall thinking back.
Boxing Day fixtures are often a time for nostalgia, and this one reminded me in a way of a game with Arsenal, 24 years ago. Back then Brian Little had replaced Ron Atkinson as manager less than a month earlier and there was still plenty of discontent at Ron’s dismissal – it was the only time I can remember when Doug Ellis reads the mood of the Villa supporters totally wrong.
In fact, anger at the sacking was so intense that even the arrival of one of our most popular players of all time had failed to silence the antagonism. Incredible though it might seem now, there were some who were only too quick to damn Little and all his works.
We drew 0-0 at Highbury on Boxing Day 1994 against an Arsenal side who were a long way off the team they had been under George Graham and were to become again with Arsene Wenger in charge. It was ninety of the most tedious minutes ever endured and on the way home our coach divided into two bitterly bickering factions, the differing opinions centring on this being a point that might prove vital at the end of the season and those who said they’d rather get relegated than put up with much more of what we’d sat through.
Move forward to 2018 and although the argument won’t have been so intense – I don’t suppose many of the Villa supporters who travelled to Swansea would rather have lost in a pulsating end to end thriller than come away with the hard-fought win that the Villa did get – the end result was much the same.
Villa, in the much-used phrase, won ugly. The presence of Glenn Whelan in the team yet again was testament to the fact that this was never going to be a match for the purist. Dean Smith must have realised that we can’t hope to outscore the opposition every time and presumably entered the Liberty Stadium with the idea that a point would be useful and anything else a bonus. It’s the philosophy that ultimately did for Steve Bruce but there’s nothing wrong with it every now and again.
Anyway, Swansea had most of the possession in the first half although they didn’t have many clear chances while John McGinn in particular should have done better when Villa countered. Villa, with the manager changing the formation on the hoof in a way we’ve not seen for many a long while, improved after the break and went a goal up when Yannick Bolasie’s through ball gave Alan Hutton the opportunity to cross for Conor Hourihane to head home.
Swansea came back into the game after that but didn’t really show much danger until a pointless challenge led to a stoppage time penalty that was well saved by Orjan Nyland. He’s come in for some criticism but credit where it’s due, Nyland was on top form today.
And so it was three points on Boxing Day, a time of the year when Villa traditionally struggle. In 1994 the point earned at Highbury did indeed prove the difference between relegation and staying up. The following season, of course, saw Villa scale heights not seen since, finishing fourth in the Premier League (a place above Arsenal) and winning the League Cup (beating Arsenal in the semi-final) with Little regaining his rightful place in the pantheon of Villa greats. We may look back and regard the two (at least) points Villa were a bit fortunate to earn here thanks to Messrs Hourihane and Nyland as equally important.