The ever-changing game

Dave Woodhall reflects on Villa in the FA Cup and the passing of two claret and blue greats.

I may as well start with a cliche: The FA Cup ain’t what it used to be. Third round day (NOT weekend) used to be the most wonderful time of the season, when dustmen and brickies played on the same pitch as world-famous internationals then rosy-cheeked rascals in parkas ran on at the end of the match. Unlike many golden eras, that one actually happened and the proof is there on YouTube.

There are many reasons why the cup has lost its romance, and most of them can be linked back to the Premier League Uber Alles mentality that’s spread throughout the top divisions. Championship clubs are desperate to get there, clubs that are in it already are even more desperate to stay. Even sadder, this influence has permeated to supporters; while those of us of a certain age will hold no truck with the idea, we’re in a minority. Anyone who has started to get into football over the past twenty-odd years, and even though I loathe the Premier League and all it stands for, I have to accept that it’s sparked a boom in attendances over this period, will very likely have seen the past weekend as some sort of Winter mini-break.

21,677 tickets were sold for Villa’s defeat to Peterborough. Take away the visiting continent and you’re looking at about half our average league gate, and although the chicken and eggesque debate about whether the crowd was so low because of the weakened team or vice versa could continue forever, I honestly don’t think that if Steve Bruce had announced at the start of the week that he’d be fielding a full-strength side there would have much difference to the eventual attendance.

Those who were there saw what was a virtually second-choice XI, with only Conor Hourihane and Keinan Davis definite starters had this been a league game. When Davis scored after seven minutes the line-up appeared to have been vindicated, but whether Villa thought this would be a romp and switched off, or whether they just didn’t fancy it at all was irrelevant. Peterborough were in control for most of the remainder and only Jed Steer kept Villa in front at half-time. Ironically, the visitors’ direct tactics were far more Bruce-like than Villa’s attempts to walk the ball into the net, which themselves may have been hampered by a pitch that was in the worst condition I’ve seen for years.

It might have been better had we conceded because then there might, possibly, have been a change in attitude at half-time but as it was nothing altered until Peterborough’s inevitable equaliser with fifteen minutes remaining – a further irony being that the goal came during Villa’s best spell of the game. The arrivals of Jack Grealish and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy were to no avail, Villa’s defence dozed off for the visitors’ second and no-one outside the North Stand had much interest by the time their third went in.

The recriminations will doubtless continue all week and only be resolved on Saturday when we play at Forest, who had their own bit of cup glory on Sunday afternoon or, more likely, at the end of the season.

The past few days has also seen the sad deaths of Villa legends Alan Deakin and Nigel Sims. I can’t claim to have ever known Nigel, but I did met Alan on several occasions and such was his gentlemanly demeanour that I can’t think of him as anything other than Mr Deakin. Had injury not curtailed his career there was a good chance that he would have played for England, even allowing for the anti-Midlands bias that discriminated against many local players before and since. “It was harder to be dropped from the England squad than to be selected for it in the first place,” he later said ruefully.

After leaving football Alan worked as a welder, including a time at Gimwell Engineering on Witton Island. He knew, as did most of his contemporaries, that once their playing days were over they would have to find a ‘proper’ job. He was both grateful of the chance to play football and considered himself lucky to be in work from then on.

To finish on another cliche, modern players of the quality of Messrs Sims and Deakin will earn more in a week than their predecessors did in the whole of their careers. They’ll be rich, they’ll be loved and admired by supporters of whoever they happen to be playing for this year. But like the Premier League compared to the FA Cup of old, they’ll never earn the same respect. They’ll never make grown men misty-eyed and they’ll not be spoken of with reverence half a century hence.