Villa beat Brighton and Dave Woodhall is searching out his passport.
It’s the time of the year when we celebrate a few anniversaries; European champions and play-off winners are deservedly remembered but almost as important was the date in between them, when Villa lost the 2018 play-off final to Fulham. It might have seemed the end of the world then, and it certainly did a few weeks later when the news began to emerge about just how much trouble the Villa were in, but while thinking about what might have happened during those fateful weeks is bad enough, the implications of what might have happened had we got promoted are almost as bad. No NSWE, none of the appointments and signings that came afterwards and certainly nothing like the memorable afternoon that saw Villa, yet again, achieving success when it’s least expected.
The afternoon certainly had the feel of a special occasion, with supporters lining the roads around Villa Park to welcome the team coach. I could be curmudgeonly and say that all this orchestration, the smoke, flags, displays, entrance music and flamethrowers aren’t for me. I’d rather go back to the days of Hurricane Smith and spontaneous viscerality, but then again I’d also like to go out for the night and bring home change from a five pound note, and get my hair back into the bargain. Neither of those are going to happen either, so may as well accept that this is modern football and make the best of it.
The pre-match atmosphere certainly inspired the team, what seems to be Unai Emery’s preferred starting XI, except for Lucas Digne replacing the injured Alex Moreno. There are one or two quibbles about that selection, one in particular, but you don’t fix what ain’t broke and it clearly works.
Right from the kick-off it was obvious that this would be another exceptional Villa Park performance. Leon Bailey could have put Villa into the lead early on and the crossbar had hardly stopped rattling when Jacob Ramsey, with four Brighton defenders round him, managed to lay the ball off for Douglas Luiz to open the scoring. Brighton then had a goal disallowed before Villa’s second showed everything that’s been good about the side since Christmas. John McGinn won the ball in midfield, Bailey rolled an inch-perfect pass and Ramsey ran on to knock it into the path of the unmarked Ollie Watkins.
Two-nil and Villa were well in control until a decision best described as ‘inexplicable’ gave Brighton a goal despite three played being offside. It wasn’t the only strange decision the officials made during the match but we’re Aston Villa and we don’t have TV specials devoted to the injustices we suffer. Not yet, anyway.
Two-one at half-time and with Spurs winning at Leeds there were a few more nerves than there should have been. Ramsey could have stopped them but his only mistake of the match came with the goal wide open and the ball at his feet. He almost made amends but his ball into Watkins was a fraction wide. Still, never mind. A one-goal lead is always dicey, particularly when the other results are going against you but Villa never looked particularly troubled and the final action of the match was typical of the way the season had progressed – John McGinn holding onto the ball in the corner as though his life depended on it. Rarely has a manager made such an improvement to a player as we’ve seen with McGinn, and for that matter as we’ve seen with Watkins, Ramsey, Tyrone Mings and just about everyone else in the Villa team. Unai Emery had proved himself able to do more than win football matches; he can transform footballers, just like all great managers can.
It was an afternoon of excitement rather than drama, even if the crowd were bordering on frenzied for most of the ninety-odd minutes. Villa won without much fuss and we didn’t need any supernatural force to drag the team over the line. It was said at the time that we needed a team to get into the Premier League, another one to stay it and a third to move up it. Many more days like this and the next team will be looking to win the thing.