Halfway house for Villa

Dave Woodhall watches as Villa beat Albion in the first leg of the Championship play-offs.

By my reckoning Jack Grealish first touched the ball after one minutes seven seconds on Saturday. The first foul on him was at one minute nine seconds. It wasn’t the last.

Villa started the game off well and could have been a goal up less than a minute after that first Grealish touch but the cutting edge was missing. Then on sixteen minutes came the sort of incident that changes seasons, when Glenn Whelan’s miskick let in Albion for their opener, and if their tactics were obvious from the start they were reinforced from then on.

Then again, Villa didn’t exactly make life difficult for the visitors. Whelan apart, some of the most reliable members of the team were having off-days. Tyrone Mings was winning the ball as often as usual but losing it a fair bit while John McGinn was virtually anonymous. Albion’s counter-attacking looked dangerous and talk at half-time was that we needed more drive and pace in the side. The answer was clear, and came midway through the second half with the arrivals of Conor Hourihane and Andre Green.

The first key moment of the game came with sixteen minutes gone; the second turned up with sixteen remaining (give or take a minute). Jack Grealish collects a ball, gets closed down and in attempting to make room for himself draws out two markers, leaving Conor Hourihane with no Albion player within ten yards. It takes a special talent to pull off such a move and deliver the perfect ball.

Twice this season everyone in the crowd has known that the ball’s going to end up in the back of the net before it even reached the goalscorer. The first time was Jack against Derby. This was the second.

From then on there was only going to be one winner. Grealish gets the ball again, and quite where the controversy comes from I don’t know. Not one Albion player complained to the referee and you can watch as many replays as you like, from as many different angles and at any speed, but you won’t see Kieran Gibbs touch the ball before he touches Jack in any of them. 2-1, and still more to come, with all four sides of Villa Park the loudest they’ve been for a long while.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it forever – our support gets unfairly criticised at times and like all crowds we have our quiet periods, but on a day like this there’s nowhere like Villa Park anywhere else in the world. You can spent £800 million on a new stadium, you can employ ground-breaking architecture, you can give it state of the art facilities, but you can never buy it a soul.

I’ll concede that the Abrahams challenge was debatable, but karma.

Albion had been time-wasting when there were still two hours of the tie left, which has to be a record, and only had themselves to blame when the referee finally ran out of patience and Dwight Gayle was the man who took the yellow card that had been imminent for some time. Gayle only had himself to blame when he slid in for a ball that he had no hope of reaching and collected a second booking.

And there was still time for Dean Smith to show what kind of footballing philosophy he has. There can’t be another manager on earth who in stoppage time, with his team winning, would bring on another forward. May he never change.

So, Villa take a one-goal lead into the next chapter of the longest-running feud in world football. The game on Tuesday is guaranteed to be a feisty affair; us and the Albion have been knocking lumps out of each other for 140 years and that’s not going to change now. In the final analysis, when they scored we had 165 minutes to get a goal back. We’ve got two and if we don’t get to Wembley we’ll have no-one to blame but ourselves.