Captain, leader, legend

Dave Woodhall watches as Villa beat Derby County 4-0.

Yes, it seems that one player does make that much difference.

The return of Jack Grealish had been heralded for days by the Villa’s marketing team (it might seem a bit small time but if it sells tickets then job done) and his appointment as captain seemed to place further pressure on him as the last remaining hope for the season.

Lesser players might have struggled under the weight of expectation. Two years ago Jack himself would probably have found it all a bit too much. It took barely a couple of minutes to show that not only have we got the best player in the Championship but he’s also now an inspiration. It’s not just what he does, but what he allows others to do. With Grealish close marked others, most notably Conor Hourihane, have more freedom to get forward and more time on the ball.

Jack’s first significant impression came after nine minutes, with a tremendous lofted pass that split the Derby defence and although Tammy Abraham’s initial shot was saved the ball fell for Conor Hourihane to put Villa into the lead.

By then Villa could have already scored a couple and there were still more chances missed until Abraham put Villa two up after 32 minutes. Another incident made all the headlines but for me this was a goal of equal quality – three first time passes out of defence, Ahmed Elmohamedy galloping upfield to hit a perfect ball for Abraham to run onto unmarked and tap in from five yards out.

A minute before the break and Abraham did well to win the ball in the air and lay it off to Hourihane for his second and that was it for the first half, or so it seemed. Into stoppage time and a corner from Glenn Whelan goes beyond the penalty area and straight to Grealish. From the instant he made contact it was only going to end up in one place – in fact, it was headed for the back of the net from the moment Whelan hit the corner.

Four up at half-time and that was game over, although this is Villa Park 2018-19 and anything can happen. But Derby were totally demoralised, Villa could and should have scored another two at least but sat back and settled for what they’d already got. The only setback was the sight of Tommy Elphick being stretchered off after going down with no-one near him. Other clubs might bemoan their luck with injuries but it’s difficult to imagine any other casualty list as lengthy or caused by so many different and innocuous reasons.

After that Tom Carroll came on for Grealish and although he’s clearly nowhere near the influential figure of our new captain, leader, legend he looked a useful enough figure to have on the bench. It’s good to have such strength in depth and it makes a change to wonder whether to stick with a winning formation or bring back a previous mainstay of the side after suspension in John McGinn.

Almost every Villa player with the exception of Jed Steer could have put in a claim to have been man of the match. Glenn Whelan did what he does best; win the ball, keep it, give it to a teammate who can do more with it that he can. Tyrone Mings is growing in stature with every appearance and Kourtney Hause is unrecognisable from the shambles of a few weeks ago. It was noticeable that the Villa defence were passing the ball around with confidence again, and that Hause was able to slip into Elphick’s position with assurance.

The play-offs are still a massive ask, and Villa probably need to win at least nine out of the remaining eleven matches to stand any chance of finishing in the top six. But on this form, anything’s possible.

One thought on “Captain, leader, legend

  1. This game was more than just a convincing win and a great performance. Games like Saturday’s stand out and endure in the memory as a piece of football education which teaches you so much about the game and the men of flesh and blood who play it. A football team is a machine of nerves, sinew, muscle and bone which runs on belief, which is the elusive ghost in the machine. When the belief runs out teams stutter and fail. When it returns they purr like precision machinery.

    It was with this in mind that the club built up the expectations with the return of Jack Grealish. This was as important for the players as it was for the fans. Some fans claimed to be embarrassed by it but really they were just offering themselves the security of a little insurance just in case it turned out to be an anticlimax. It put a huge amount of pressure on our Jack and the question was whether he could carry such a weight of expectation. You could easily believe that the manager had held Jack back until his hunger and fitness were ripe for such an occasion. The manager chose well. It turned out to be the right day and the right opposition to make it the sort memorable day, which will live long in the memory.

    For those old enough, there have been days like this before. Days when the arrival of a single player has transformed a team. Each will have their own treasured example. Now a new generation have theirs. The only question is whether Jack can sustain it. I think he can and it seems that each time he’s been out injured, he’s just come back with even more hunger to excel and to succeed. Belief is everything and by Saturday’s evidence every player looked like they believe.

    37,273 fans believed enough to turn up on Saturday which more than justified Villa’s pre-match build-up. There will be even more who will claim to have been there in the future. It didn’t take long before it was obvious Villa were to carry on in the same spirited fashion they had left off at in Stoke. The passing was crisp and Villa’s first-touch looked assured. Hourihane had already missed a decent chance created by a delightful combination of Hause and El Ghazi, when the rout began on nine minutes. Grealish was given time and space to get his head up, as he turned and sent a high defence-disconcerting pass over the top for Tammy to run on to. Carson parried Tammy’s hook but it fell to Hourihane who slotted home. Derby held out for another 30 minutes but after a quick sweeping move, Elmo curved a killing pass Didier Six-style behind Derby’s defence and Tammy slid in at the far post. Villa entered the comfort-zone on 44 minutes via route one, after Steer launched it long and Tammy collected his own header, charged forward and set up Hourihane for his second. With minutes to go, many were thinking it’s all over, but the best was yet to come.

    With the crowd starting to think about bogs, booze and Bovril, El Ghazi charged down Villa’s left and his firmly hit cross rebounded for a corner. Whelan took the kick and with what looked like a wedge-shot onto the green, he found Grealish perfectly, who put his laces through the ball and it flew into the top-corner, leaving Carson to stand with his hands on his hips, wondering what had happened. It was a great goal but I think Whelan deserved most of the credit for such a perfect assist. There was only one thing to do before half-time: go absolutely nuts.

    Dean Smith’s half-time talk went something along the lines of, the job’s done, the points are won, so let’s show we can defend. Even as Villa tormented Derby by letting them chase the ball around the park, Villa still managed to create a couple of chances but Carson saved well. The only real downside of the second-half was Elphick getting stretchered off, after something went pop in his ankle, when his boot got stuff in the turf. Villa lost yet another defender to injury but the real downer was the fact that Elphick should get injured when he had just begun to enjoy top form again. Football can be a cruel game.

    It was a great performance by Villa, which arrived just in time to offer some reassurance, for next week’s away visit to St Andrews. It seems certain that it will be an entirely different sort of game and Jack Grealish will probable need body armour to come through unscathed. On yesterday’s evidence Villa look more than capable of winning it. UTV!

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