Aston Villa and the predictably lacklustre return

Villa beat Newcastle 2-0, as Dave Woodhall watched.

For the first time since 2009 the run-up to Villa v Newcastle wasn’t overshadowed by a (now decade-old) banner. Instead we had the return of Steve Bruce, who received neither the rapturous applause his media mates think he deserved nor the sort of vitriol that led to his suitcases bouncing down Trinity Road thirteen months ago. Instead, Bruce was afforded a slightly polite but mostly apathetic reception from another sell-out Villa Park crowd on a damp November Monday night – the sort of conditions that “Does he fancy it?” were made of.

And the answer to that one was that Villa certainly did fancy it. The scene, and the contrasting style of both managers, was set when Villa’s first twenty-three touches of the ball traveled less total distance than Newcastle’s third. Recent results showed the importance of this game, the visitors’ improved form implied that getting the three points wouldn’t be easy.

Except it was. I can’t recall an easier game for a long while, neither can I remember one where Villa were so totally in control for so long. Newcastle were the poorest side I’ve seen at Villa Park since, well, since Villa too many times to mention, but on a night when points were so important the quality of the opposition is a minor concern. Anyone worrying about where there might be three teams worse than the Villa would certainly have seen one of them tonight, at least until Bruce gets his inevitable next pay-off. On the subject of managers, this was perhaps the first time Dean Smith hadn’t outfoxed his predecessor – he didn’t need to.

For all Villa’s possession there wasn’t much goalmouth action during the first half-hour before two free-kicks around the penalty area in four minutes saw Conor Hourihane and then Anwar El Ghazi scoring. The first was cleverly worked by Hourihane and Grealish, the second was helped by the sort of marking we also got used to watching Bruce’s Villa.

Two up at half-time, and the nerves began to jangle a bit at the start of the second half, when Newcastle finally started to play. That only lasted a few minutes and Villa were well on top again, which is how the situation stayed for the rest of the match. John McGinn missed what seemed a good chance, Wesley did the same with an absolute two yards out sitter, and if both had gone in the scoreline wouldn’t have been unfair.

The game was seen out without fuss, the visitors had given up hope long before then and it’s a toss-up whether their supporters are now as vitriolic towards Bruce as they are towards Mike Ashley. And because we won and I’m feeling generous I’ll say they brought impressively large numbers for a televised match on a Monday night.

To mention individual players, Jack Grealish was awesome; hitting passes, ghosting past defenders and all over the pitch. On this form there can’t be a better English midfielder, or for that matter many in the Premier League from anywhere else on earth. Conor Hourihane had one of his best games for a long while, Frederic Guilbert is shaping up to be the best Villa full-back in years while Ezri Konsa lived up to the Bloke Behind Me’s confident prediction against Wolves in the League Cup that once in the team he’ll be hard to remove.

The league table is looking a bit better now, with Villa not only moving away from the drop zone but also to within striking distance of another group of clubs. We’ve got some tough games coming up, but before then there’s a trip on Sunday to another run of the mill mid-table side where we should be looking to get something.