Hammers to Fall

By Dave Woodhall.

Saturday was a weird day. First I had the pleasure of having my pleasant half-dozing journey down to London disrupted by a bunch of Manchester United supporters who got on at Leamington and made sure everyone in our carriage and probably the rest of the train knew who they were, where they were going, what country they were off to next, how they were getting there, what they’d done in every other country they’d been to and what their club had won. And they wonder why they’re hated.

Then, disruptions on the tube meant a roundabout route from Marylebone to Upton Park via Canning Town, an (inadvertent) long walk and bus journey. This, coupled with problems on the M1, meant more than a few Villa supporters missed the opening few minutes, by which time we were one down thanks to those two inevitabilities, slack marking at a corner and Robbie Keane. The strangest thing of the lot is that I wasn’t too concerned because I’d been absolutely convinced all day that we’d get something out of the game.

West Ham were well on top for much of the first half, but just when I was starting to wonder whether my intuition was having an off-day Darren Bent scored twice in quick succession. Unfortunately only one of them counted, but it was enough to take us in at half-time level and happy. Intuition back and working.

The second half was one-way traffic, with Villa unable to get the ball in the net through a combination of near misses, last-ditch defending and top-quality goalkeeping. And then with a minute or so to go, the inevitable happened. West Ham get a free-kick, Thomas Hitzlsperger, former Villa player and renowned dead-ball expert stepped up….and missed.

With everyone in the ground trying to persuade themselves that a draw would be a good result Villa go down the other end, Ashley Young crosses and Gabriel Agbonlahor heads home a stoppage-time winner. Everyone else is going mental while I just smiled at the inevitability. I knew. Well done to the team, who all put in a solid performance, and also the manager, who was big enough to realise he had to make a few changes in the past couple of weeks and did so. The turnaround in attitude since that Wolves disgrace has been phenomenal and just goes to show what this team might be capable of.

Funnily enough, those Manchester United supporters weren’t on the train home.

Anyway, the three points we got at Upton Park took us to forty, which is usually the relegation safety mark although God knows what’ll happen this season. Even more amazingly we’re now ninth in the table, heading a group of seven clubs with two points between them. One more win should see us definitely, unquestionably safe and with FA Cup finalists Stoke up next at Villa Park, we may well be looking at a straightforward and panic-free end to the season sooner than anyone could have expected. In fact, it would be ironic if, after all the arguments, bitterness and the abuse aimed at Gerard Houllier, his first season ended with Villa finishing higher than we did in Martin’s O’Neill’s first.