The ghost of pre-Christmas past

Dave Woodhall looks back at one Villa game fondly, and at another one less fondly.

13th December, Arsenal at home. I was looking at the big screen in the North Stand car park before the match on Sunday afternoon, and as ever old games against our upcoming opponents were being shown. As expected, the game that took place on this date in 1998 played a major part.

If you were there, or even if you were watching on TV, you’ll never forget it. Like this afternoon, Villa were two down at half-time but the similarities ended there. In 1998 manager John Gregory went for broke early in the second half, bringing on Stan Collymore who had one of those days when he wanted to play. They didn’t happen very often for him at Villa Park but when they did, I can’t remember any other result than a Villa win.

The 2015 vintage Villa side doesn’t have a Stan Collymore to call on from the bench. We certainly don’t have a Dion Dublin, who scored twice that day. If we did, or even if Villa currently possessed a goalscorer of the ability of Julian Joachim, who got the opener in that memorable encounter, the team might not be marooned at the foot of the table. They might even have got something out of the game against an Arsenal side who went top of the table without looking particularly impressive, or even really breaking sweat.

Villa’s troubles continue, made worse by clubs immediately above them finding some form. An in-depth description of what’s wrong would take too long to list so the short version will have to suffice – defence isn’t good enough, attack certainly isn’t good enough and midfield lacks both invention and defensive cover. Put these together and against a team of Arsenal’s class the result is inevitable. That in itself isn’t fatal, but far too often this season the team have played equally badly against opposition far inferior to a side who have just qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League for the sixteenth consecutive year. And that’s why we’re in the position we’re in.

Individually, I still believe enough of the players Villa can call on are good enough to be doing much better than they are. What’s lacking is organisation, effort, motivation, a desire to sweat blood for the cause, and it doesn’t help when Reme Garde makes some baffling decisions. Brad Guzan must have to commit murder to be dropped, there must surely be a better left-back than Leandro Bacuna, Libor Kozak’s continued absence is mystifying, as was why Adama Traore, the only player at the club with the ability to run at defences with anything approaching dangerous intent, was kept warming up until the 88th minute.

When I left the ground after a 2-2 draw with Sunderland in August I was in a reasonably optimistic mood. Even though the team had dropped two points they’d had enough chances to score a hatful and there seemed signs of progress. I didn’t think we’d only get one more point at home before Christmas.

The current siotuation is now so bad that even a point away from home is no use. Looking ahead, Villa’s next game is at Newcastle, who still harbour that grudge from 2009, so it would be a difficult enough game even without their recent improvement. To echo the words of a former manager, we go again. And, very likely, again.

On a happier note, that game in 1998 was, of course, marred by the tragic accident to paratrooper Nigel Rogoff, whose updated story was covered in the Birmingham Mail before the game. Now there’s a genuine hero.