Dave Woodhall endures an afternoon at Villa Park watching Stoke, and looks forward to more enjoyable times to come.
It’s fair to say that there wasn’t much pre-Christmas joy abounding outside Villa Park before the match on Saturday, despite the unexpected sunshine which lifted temperatures from freezing to just very cold. The reason for this apprehension was mainly down to the opposition.
Stoke City arouse many passions amongst supporters, and few of them are positive. They play a nasty, negative breed of football that depends not so much on bending the rules but on breaking them so often that the referee stops noticing. They’re often compared to the Wimbledon of old but that’s unfair on Wimbledon, who were competing with clubs that had much bigger support back in the days when gate money made up a larger proportion of a club’s income than it does now. Stoke have bigger crowds than teams such as Swansea and Albion, they’re in their fifth season in the Premier League and their commercial income is as big as most. There’s no need for them to behave like they do.
Rant over, and onto the match. Villa were never intimidated, despite another attempt at fielding the youngest team in history. In fact they gave as good as they got and more. The defence was solid and midfield is almost there. There was, yet again, just one problem and everyone knows where that is. In an attempt to rectify the situation Darren Bent came on, but looked ineffective. Stoke, meanwhile, seemed happy with the point they started with almost from the first minute. They had one worthwhile shot all game and that threatened the top tier of the North Stand more than it did Brad Guzan’s goal.
The match staggered to its conclusion, a goalless draw that had seemed likely a long time before the final whistle. Four games unbeaten, only one goal conceded but only one win as well. A couple of weeks ago I thought Villa’s most urgent need was some steel in the centre of the team. The way they coped with Stoke (and Arsenal the previous Saturday) showed that this may not be so important after all. I still believe that Villa are a couple of signings in January away from a decent side. I’m just not sure which couple.
And onto the week’s forthcoming attractions. Norwich on Tuesday in the League Cup is a bit of a journey into the unknown. Both sides could conceivably put out weakened sides; Villa because we’re too close to the bottom three for comfort and Norwich because they’re the sort of club who still regard the Premier League with open-eyed wonder and consider anything else to be a worthless distraction. However, Paul Lambert would have to be blind, deaf and a bit daft not to know what happened when Villa have fielded a understrength team sin knockout competitions over recent years. Thousands of us will be undertaking a lengthy, expensive journey a couple of weeks before Christmas; we won’t take too kindly to watching the reserves.
After that comes Liverpool away, which used to be about as appealing as watching Stoke, but for different reasons. These days a trip to Anfield is just another away game. Villa are capable of winning both here and at Norwich. Now that WOULD set up a Happy Christmas.