Villa win the Championship play-off final and Dave Woodhall can finally celebrate.
When I was a bit/lot younger Villa invariably lost to the Blues, while anyone who drew us in an FA Cup quarter final had as good as received a bye into the semis. Now, it’s almost thirty years since we lost at that stage of the cup (much good it’s done us) and seems nearly as long since our neighbours took three points from us.
Then again, I can remember a time when we had a good record in Wembley finals, which is why Monday’s play-off against Derby was bound to be an angst-filled occasion.
The background to this game is always particularly annoying for anyone who clings to the quaint, old-fashioned idea that football is about sporting prowess; virtually every preview talks about how much money is at stake, with the actual achievement almost a sideshow. And we also had John Terry v Frank Lampard as another angle, although this did neatly take the pressure away from Dean Smith and the players.
These minor gripes aside, it was as good a day as you could wish for. There was a real sense of purpose before the game. Derby supporters were enjoying their big day out while we seemed more focused on getting the job done. This attitude was equally apparent from kick-off, with Villa well on top throughout the first half. Three minutes before the break Ahmed Elmohamady’s cross found Anwar El Ghazi at the far post and Villa were in the lead.
Ten minutes into the second half and Villa were two up, when John McGinn was the first to react to a deflected shot from El Ghazi with a header that Derby keeper Kelle Roos will have nightmares about.
We should have had a third, Jack Grealish trying to square the ball when he had a clear shot on goal being the most obvious chance, but that other great Villa tradition, that they never do things easily, had to come into play and not only was a goal conceded with seven minutes to go, but Tyrone Mings went off injured at the same time.
Kourtney Hause, though, slotted into defence perfectly and although seven minutes of stoppage time seemed to last for hours, there never appeared to be any hint of panic or of last-ditch defending. The game was seen out with every player in the team doing what had to be done, the final whistle came and the celebrations could begin.
All the players have their own story, but Dean Smith’s is perhaps the most poignant of all. His journey to this place is well-known and he now joins a list of legendary managers – Eric Houghton, Ron Saunders, Ron Atkinson and Brian Little – who have lifted a trophy at Wembley. Of course, their achievements were far greater than his, but the words ‘so far’ have to be added here. Looking at what Smith has done in such a short time, and given the resources that Messrs Edens and Sawiris could provide, you can only wonder how long it will be before another trip to Wembley and another chapter in his personal success story.
In normal circumstances you can only try to imagine what Dean and Jack Grealish must have been feeling as they danced round the pitch in front of another 38,000 Villa supporters, but in this case you know, because it’s the same that every one of us would be like if we were manager or captain of a successful Villa team.
Villa would probably have needed more new players had we stayed down than we do now. It seems that we’ve finally worked out how to use the loan system properly and I don’t think any of the loanees who played on Monday would be out of place in a Premier League squad. Or maybe our owners will finance a Manchester City-style overhaul and the Villa team in August will be totally different to the one we’ve seen this season. It will certainly have a far different attitude to the shower that slunk out of the top flight three years ago.
And so we say farewell to the Championship. It was (almost) fun while it lasted but while new grounds and better supporters were enjoyable enough, the overall experience was like Weston. It’s nice enough for a bit but you wouldn’t want to live there.