It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Villa played Manchester United at the weekend and didn’t lose. Dave Woodhall comments on a memorable occasion.

There are two things that always seem to happen sometime in mid-December – the papers will report record retail sales and Villa will lose at home to Manchester United.

It probably isn’t true, but Villa always seem to donate their annual three points to the Biggest Club in the World at this time of the year; maybe it’s because it always seems to be a horrible grey day when they arrive at Villa Park accompanied by their usual circus of media sycophants, daytrippers and the morbidly curious.

The game used to be played out in three parts –Villa match the visitors without really threatening, they gradually step up a gear with the arrival of two substitutes (usually featuring Ryan Giggs in a cameo role) and they got two goals in the last fifteen minutes. Occasionally Villa would take the lead only to capitulate late on but the end product was the same.

In the past three or four years the situation has changed. The heroic failure has happened once, but usually it’s just a ninety minute damage limitation exercise. Last Saturday’s patched-up Villa team was expected to follow the same pattern against a United side that had won their previous six league games.

I’m not going to say they were desperately unlucky, dominating the game before falling victims to cruel luck. In truth the match was fairly equal, but that in itself was to Villa’s credit given such factors as form and the relative strength of the two teams.

Christian Benteke showed that he’s back on form with a wonderful goal and although nobody expected Villa to hold out unscathed until the end, the expected capitulation didn’t happen. nited’s equaliser strengthened the team’s resolve, they were galvanised again by the ludicrous sending off of Gabby Agbonlahor and for the rest of the game players and supporters were united in a way that hasn’t happened too often lately but when it does provides Villa Park with one of the great atmospheres of English football.

It also showed, once again, that Villa supporters are not unrealistic. We don’t expect to win every game or to witness Total Football. But if we see unanimous effort and attempts to play the game as it should be played, we’ll respond positively.

What was particularly heartening was that Villa came into this game on the back of a defeat, which under Paul Lambert has usually been the cue for another horrendous and often record-breaking sequence. Now we can look forward to a run of games that might, just possibly, provide a springboard to go forward. Looking up the table there are at least half a dozen clubs who, on Saturday’s showing, Villa don’t have to fear – provided they continue with that spirit and that intent.

Benteke did well, Fabian Delph slipped back into the team as though he hadn’t been away and as I seem to keep saying, Carlos Sanchez continues to improve with every match. I also make regular comparisons with past history, and I can remember that Graham Taylor’s purple patch came after he changed to playing three at the back in order to accommodate an injury-prone 29 year international central defender returning from another lay-off. We can but dream…