Dave Woodhall watches as Villa beat Derby County 4-0.
Yes, it seems that one player does make that much difference.
The return of Jack Grealish had been heralded for days by the Villa’s marketing team (it might seem a bit small time but if it sells tickets then job done) and his appointment as captain seemed to place further pressure on him as the last remaining hope for the season.
Lesser players might have struggled under the weight of expectation. Two years ago Jack himself would probably have found it all a bit too much. It took barely a couple of minutes to show that not only have we got the best player in the Championship but he’s also now an inspiration. It’s not just what he does, but what he allows others to do. With Grealish close marked others, most notably Conor Hourihane, have more freedom to get forward and more time on the ball.
Jack’s first significant impression came after nine minutes, with a tremendous lofted pass that split the Derby defence and although Tammy Abraham’s initial shot was saved the ball fell for Conor Hourihane to put Villa into the lead.
By then Villa could have already scored a couple and there were still more chances missed until Abraham put Villa two up after 32 minutes. Another incident made all the headlines but for me this was a goal of equal quality – three first time passes out of defence, Ahmed Elmohamedy galloping upfield to hit a perfect ball for Abraham to run onto unmarked and tap in from five yards out.
A minute before the break and Abraham did well to win the ball in the air and lay it off to Hourihane for his second and that was it for the first half, or so it seemed. Into stoppage time and a corner from Glenn Whelan goes beyond the penalty area and straight to Grealish. From the instant he made contact it was only going to end up in one place – in fact, it was headed for the back of the net from the moment Whelan hit the corner.
Four up at half-time and that was game over, although this is Villa Park 2018-19 and anything can happen. But Derby were totally demoralised, Villa could and should have scored another two at least but sat back and settled for what they’d already got. The only setback was the sight of Tommy Elphick being stretchered off after going down with no-one near him. Other clubs might bemoan their luck with injuries but it’s difficult to imagine any other casualty list as lengthy or caused by so many different and innocuous reasons.
After that Tom Carroll came on for Grealish and although he’s clearly nowhere near the influential figure of our new captain, leader, legend he looked a useful enough figure to have on the bench. It’s good to have such strength in depth and it makes a change to wonder whether to stick with a winning formation or bring back a previous mainstay of the side after suspension in John McGinn.
Almost every Villa player with the exception of Jed Steer could have put in a claim to have been man of the match. Glenn Whelan did what he does best; win the ball, keep it, give it to a teammate who can do more with it that he can. Tyrone Mings is growing in stature with every appearance and Kourtney Hause is unrecognisable from the shambles of a few weeks ago. It was noticeable that the Villa defence were passing the ball around with confidence again, and that Hause was able to slip into Elphick’s position with assurance.
The play-offs are still a massive ask, and Villa probably need to win at least nine out of the remaining eleven matches to stand any chance of finishing in the top six. But on this form, anything’s possible.