Aston Villa and the grand finale

Dave Woodhall gets his breath back after watching Villa draw with Liverpool.

As the whstle blew for half-time I thought that if I’d been a neutral I’d have really enjoyed the first half. As a Villa supporter I hated every second of it. There was plenty of drama, excitment, skill and controversy but there was too much at stake for enjoyment.

The last home game of the season shouldn’t be on a Monnday night. It should be a nothing on it stroll on a warm Saturday afternoon when nobody is all that bothered except for keeping one eye on the scores elsewhere. It shouldn’t be a wet, dismal Monday night with Villa playing understudy to the opposition manager. That’s one reason to hate modern football.

There was a boost before the kick-off when Emiliano Martinez and Youri Tielemans were named in the side and with all the flamethrowers, intro music and flags waving (another reason to hate modern footbal) we were set for a memorable occasion. Sixty-seven seconds later Martinez was picking the ball out of the back of the net after putting it in there. I can’t say too much because he’s saved us on many occcasions but it was a definite blow.

Ten minutes later Ollie Watkins was pulling the ball back for Tielemans to put Villa level with a beautifully placed shot from ffiteen yards out. Another ten minutes later that hill seemed to get steeper as Liverpool went two-one up and despite a lengthy VAR check (yet another reason to hate modern football) and one of the great misses from a yard out that was how it stayed until half-time.

The second half began and Liverpool got a third from the sort of header that whoever got it might score again in his career but you wouldn’t put money on it. Villa then pulled a goal back with Ollie Watkins’ twentieth of the season but VAR (another reason). Tielamans went off, to be replaced by Nicolo Zaniolo while Liverpool were able to bring on three substitutes with 73 caps between them and another Premier League regular (one more reason).

By now Villa, who had battled all night, were clearly on their last legs. Tielemans had given his all and a bit more, John McGinn was finding something from somewhere, but it all seemed to no avail. Villa’s recent luck was summed up by Zaniolo going off injured, which is probably the last time he’ll be seen on the pitch, when Jhon ‘anything might happen now’ Duran was about to replace Moussa Diaby. Calum Chambers came on for Douglas Luiz, another who’d left everything he had out there. There were ten minutes left…

Now, you can say this is fanciful, or melodramatic, or whatever but I swear that looking away from the ground you could see the slopes of Aston Park beginning to fill up. Peter Morris’s old ghosts were assembling to do what they’ve done so many times. Ramsay, McGregor, Hunter, Spencer, Hampton. Waring, Walker, Houghton. Dixon, Aitken, Saunders, Barton, Taylor. The Villa needed them and they responded. Suddenly Liverpool were up against more than eleven opponents; they were competing with 150 years of football history.

Chambers picked up a loose ball, laid it off for Duran and suddenly it all seemed possible. Two minutes of normal time left and Diaby, who’d been destined to be taken off had not fate intervened, picked up the ball im midfield, hit it in the direction of Duran and somehow the ball spun over the keeper and into the net.

In stoppage time Diaby brought out a wonderful save and a penalty shout was turned down but either of them would have been just too perfect. After all, this is the Villa and we don’t do easy. Despite the timing, despite the weather and despite everything else it had been an occasion for the ages. If I’d been a neutral I’d have really enjoyed it. As a Villa supporter I loved every second.