Grounds for improvement

Villa drew 1-1 at Stoke, and Dave Woodhall ponders.

Some clubs will always be associated with one manager, no matter how long ago it was that they left or whatever’s happened since then. At Ipswich it’s Bobby Robson, Leeds have Don Revie and both Nottingham Forest and Derby will always be Brian Clough’s teams.

The man forever linked with Stoke will surely be Tony Pulis. However many managers they’ve had before or since, Stoke and whatever name they choose to call their ground now will always be Pulisville. It’s a horrible place in a horrible area where horrible football is played, regardless of who’s in charge and who’s playing it. Nobody looks forward to a trip to Stoke, and not in a good way.

And particularly not when injuries, suspension and sheer ineptitude reduce your team, particularly in midfield, to a depth not plumbed since the days when George Ramsay was wandering Aston Park looking for a team who might be a man short. It was no great surprise when Villa went a goal down, in the aftermath of what might be a season-ending injury to Alan Hutton. The real surprise was that they didn’t concede any more before half-time.

Well, that and the fact that after the break Villa came out and looked like they wanted to make a game of it. Anwar El Ghazi has summed up this season – full of ability but only rarely showing it and usually performing somewhere between anonymous and abysmal.

With an hour gone he went on a blistering run and laid the ball off, admittedly a bit fortuitously, for Albert Adomah, his chief rival for the title of Mr Under-Achieving 2018-19, to equalise.

Villa were on top from then on against a Stoke side who seem to have come down to the Championship with all the confidence and team spirit of Aston Villa three years ago, and the only reason we failed to get an unlikely win was Jack Butland in the Stoke goal, who pulled off a string of quality saves, not least from Tyrone Mings in stoppage time.

Comparisons with Gordon Banks on a day like this were obvious, and on that subject well done to all concerned for the tribute paid to one of football’s true legends. A minute’s silence is always more sincere than applause, and worrying that it might be disrupted does no favours to the basic decency of football supporters as a whole.

In the end it was a draw that absolutely, definitely and finally killed off any last hopes of a play-off place. But it was also a draw that showed Villa are capable of improvement, that our defence is starting to look a bit more cohesive and that when the Villa put their minds to it, they can still play a bit.

There’s still a lot to put right, and Dean Smith knows that better than anyone, but maybe there are also a few grounds for optimism. And whatever grounds they might be, they’ll be better than the bet365 Stadium.

One thought on “Grounds for improvement

  1. I am not sure why Stoke is so depressing but it is, even in unseasonable balmy sunshine. You need grey drizzle to really appreciate the full grim reality. I am not sure it is entirely due to Tony Pulis or because the city’s best days are a long way behind it, both economically and in terms of football. Prominent in football history for its association with the likes of Stanley Matthews an Gordon Banks, famous in terms of social and scientific history for its links with Josiah Wedgwood and Charles Darwin. These days it seems ironic that a city famous for its piss-pots, now hasn’t a pot to piss in, in this post-industrial age.

    It would seem that Stoke City F.C. confirmed Darwin’s theory by evolving a “pragmatic” style of football which adapted to the economic environment the club found themselves in, which sustained them through a decade in the Premier League, a Cup Final appearance and a short sojourn into Europe. But having remarkably reached so high, they hubristically demanded greater things, which brought on a bout of sackitis, and culminated in their relegation to the Championship back in May, with 33 points which made their failure quite moderate compared with Villa’s egregious 17 point total, back in 2016.

    So bearing in mind that Stoke had finished two points ahead of West Brom, who are doing quite well, and the fact that they are still luxuriating in the temporary abundance of the parachute-payments, it was possible that an under-strength, out of form, Villa team, might be in for a torrid afternoon. When Stoke scored a tap-in on five minutes, it very much looked like all our worst fears would be confirmed. With the goal being coincident with Alan Hutton going off, with what looked like a bad injury, I couldn’t help wondering whether it had been Villa who were cursed by the gypsies, instead of those other lot.

    In the post-match interview Dean Smith described how he had been unhappy with the body-language of his players when they lost the ball in the first half, which was roughly what the fans had thought, but was expressed in rather stronger language, at the break. Gladly the fans heroically held their nerve and were rewarded with an entirely different Villa in the second-half.

    Early on, Villa dominated but didn’t create anything to embarrass Butland’s Banks impression, in goal, but then Villa got their reward on the hour, when El Ghazi did a trick and revealed Stoke’s lack of pace on the right of their defence and earned himself space enough to put a pass across the edge of the Stoke box, where Albert Adomah finished with cool precision, which even Gordon Banks wouldn’t have kept out.

    It was a great joy and relief to see last season’s top goal-scorer notch his first goal of the season. Villa might have gone on to win the game but for the sort of goalkeeping which earned Butland his nine England caps, and some lenient refereeing, as Stoke showed more and more of their famed rough side, keeping Villa out.

    It was not a vintage Villa performance by any stretch of the imagination but considering the long list of absentees, it was a great point well-earned by Villa. UTV!

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