Aston Villa and the season of frustration

Villa draw with Sheffield United; Dave Woodhall ruminates.

When the fixtures were altered there was a general moan that this one was being shifted to Friday evening. Not only is it always a pain when we lose a Saturday afternoon game but Friday is invariably a horrible time to get anywhere and doubly so at this time of year, when shoppers, traffic and finished-work-for-the-holidays revellers get in the way of decent, honest folk making their way to Villa Park. It wasn’t as though it was a particularly important match, or so it seemed at the time.

Then events got in the way and Aston Villa v Sheffield United took on an importance no-one could have predicted. Us, with fifteen straight home wins and the chance to go top for the first time since 2011, them bottom of the table, which is why there was such anticipation leading up to the game as Sky could never have dreamed of. Unai Emery did his best to add to the excitement by picking from his injury- and suspension-hit squad as attacking a line-up as he dared, presumably with the idea of hitting the visitors from the start.

And once the fireworks and mobile phone lightshow had settled down, hit them Villa did. Ollie Watkins had a penalty claim turned down because the foul on him wasn’t clear and obvious enough. Moussa Diaby and Ezri Konsa also had good chances, but despite Villa’s pressure there were still no goals at half-time.

Villa finally went ahead after 59 minutes, when Ollie Watkins won the ball back well and squared for the unmarked Leon Bailey to hammered home. Unfortunately a minor touch a long time earlier was clear and obvious enough for the goal to be disallowed, which given the gap between supposed foul and the ball hitting the back of the net made yet another mockery of VAR. Still, Hawkeye and all that so we should be grateful.

Villa continued to have more of the play but in this situation you know what’s going to happen and you’ve got a far idea of whos going to be at the centre of it. Bad marking and we were a goal down with three minutes to go.

One advantage of the recent rule changes we’ve had to endure is the length of stoppage time played, particularly after a referee has had to take so long over a decision, and in the eighth added minute Douglas Luiz’s cross was met perfectly by substitute Nicolo Zaniolo. All season he’s been promising to get a spectacular goal; this one might not win any awards but it was vital.

And the run ended in a way that many of us thought it might. Villa should be beating Sheffield United and on another time we would have. One day a referee will have the nerve to tell the VAR officials that he’s the one in charge but that referee will not be Anthony Taylor. Above all, though, Villa Park is now a ground where the opposition will come solely to defend the point they started with and hope they might get something more. In its way, that’s as much of a compliment as any of the praise the team have been receiving this season.