Depth chargers

Dave Woodhall watches Villa beat Burton Albion.

I suppose that when you get something as strange as playing Burton in the league you’re bound to get some odd sights. For example, we had almost all the away supporters, once they got off their coaches, heading straight into the ground, meaning a queue stretching down Witton Lane almost two hours before kick-off. One of their number announced proudly that he used to be “a United fan” before his home town team started doing well. It wasn’t necessary to ask which United.

Cynicism/arrogance aside, the biggest news pre-match was that Villa Park was a sell-out for the first time in years. In the end a crowd of 41,337 was a bit less than the ground’s capacity but a lot of the shortfall was down to some of the corporate seats being empty – a sign that for those who see football as an extention of their business dealings the Premier League is the only show in town, even at Christmas. Whether their absence is a good thing or not is another part of the “Promotion, yes or no?” dilemma.

There were a few factors in the size of the gate. The game being held on Boxing Day helped, as did our recent good form at home. I also think that a significant number turned up because they want to say in future successful times that they were there when Villa played Burton – and with just a reputed 600 tickets available for the return there was no other way of making sure you can see the two teams in league action. To put the size of the two clubs into perspective, Villa will take more in gate receipts this week than Burton will all season, yet at the start of the game there were just eight league places between the sides. However Burton end the season, they can be proud of their achievements over the past decade.

For much of the game the question of whether or not Villa would be best served by going up in May seemed immaterial. An early goal from Leandro Bacuna had seemed to set them on the way to a straightforward win, but a stunning equaliser from Jamie Ward (Villa supporter, ex-Villa player, Christmas scriptwriting isn’t all about pantomimes) and Burton spent far too much of the game on top with Vilal struggling to find any momemtum.

Eventually, Villa’s strength in depth proved, as Ross McCormack scored with twelve minutes to go and despite Jordan Ayew yet again doing his best to throw the points away in stoppage time, Mark Bunn pulled off a fine save to give a fifth straight home win.

If Villa are going to go up, or even get into the play-offs, players such as Bacuna, McCormack and Bunn will prove every bit as important as the more established regulars. No matter what the level, the successful sides are those who can bring in replacements, whether for the odd game or off the bench, as good as the first-choice starting line-up. From Christmas onwards strength in depth becomes increasingly vital, and with the January sales about to start Villa should begin to make their resources count.

Six points off the play-offs with a difficult home game against Leeds to come. It’s shaping up to be an important few weeks, even though most of the games Villa are due to play don’t look as interesting as this one.