I HAVE MET A NICE ASTON VILLA
Mickey Blue Eyes
Back in 2011 I posted a "controversial" piece titled I Have Never Met A Nice Aston Villa. After Saturday's home match I am pleased to say that has changed. Guests Paul and Gary, big Villa fans, take a bow because you are a credit to football and your club. Would that we could see and hear more like them everywhere in the game. I hope we can meet again.
Actually, we were all guests of Mally in Box 10......Blue Kipper boys and the inimitable Peter Mac included. You would like Peter a lot: he nicknamed me "Harry Potter." You can't beat great food, good wine and good company, though inexplicably a few miscreants seemed to prefer sump oil Guinness or even banjo pluckers cider. Moreover, your correspondent watched with a drooping jaw as a series of Everton Greats dropped in to visit said Mally: Howard Kendall, Martin Dobson, Joe Royle, Ken McNaught, Mark Higgins, Jim Pearson and Graeme Sharp. Add to that the visits of Tony Morley, Tony Bellew, Eric Bristow and Keith Deller and you can see why I was slightly dazed. And it wasn't just the rising tide of vino.
Mally, fanatical Lancashire Liebestandarte, had planned to grow a beard and make Nicolas Anelka's vile quenelle salute; fortunately for decency, the night before Mally forgot the correct beard trim setting on his razor and had to shave it all off, so we never did see his nascent version of French fascism. So I got the first blow in by showing off an old Soviet Army hammer-and-sickle star lapel badge......Occasionally karma is on the side of the good guys. The rest of the pre- and post-match stuff disappeared in a welter of singing, dubious language and other disgraceful behaviour. I did my best to protect the ears of Lauren who was waiting-on, but sadly I failed. There was, I fear, a lot of falling from grace by others. But I behaved impeccably. Some of us have to preserve the good name of the club.
By the time kick off rolled around I was warm and fuzzy inside but needed to apply the full overcoat and scarf treatment before heading for the outside armchairs. The game was deluged by wind and rain showers that sleeted back into the seats, which meant the wimps in the party cowered inside behind the glass shield. Only a few of us stayed outside for the entire game - well, you've either got it or you haven't. Kipper sat next to me and Joe Royle joined us for a spell, knowledgeable both, great match companions. It was all heady stuff.
Which is more than you can say for first half play. Kipper got it right: "This is hard work." Joe made some pungent professional points that wouldn't even occur to the rest of us. Pre-match I forecast we would lose 2-1, bearing in mind the total rout we suffered in the derby game, our worst in thirty years. I figured it was asking too much to recover from that pasting without half our best players. The team balance would be all wrong, and Villa had done well in some recent away matches. I wasn't glum or defeatist - take each game as it comes is my motto - just unusually slightly pessimistic. So after five minutes McGeady cut inside from the right and hit a left foot shot that bent goalward from the angle of the penalty area, hit the 'keeper's right post and came out. Immediately I brightened. Funny things, moods.
Then the half settled down into a scrappy hit and run affair with occasional flashes of quite brilliant skill in horrible but invigorating conditions. At such times you have to admire the sheer professionalism of dedicated players. Our Boys produced two or three dazzling moments that showed they hadn't lost it, while Villa broke quickly without ever looking really threatening. Meanwhile the ball skidded all over the place and hung in the wind when it got above head height. You had to make allowances. But plainly slow build ups still irritate an English crowd.
Conditions and naiveté played their parts when we let one in just over the half hour. Ross Barkley slipped and hesitated in midfield and lost the ball to their man near left centre mid on the half way line. It was the mistake of a young man still learning and still recovering from a toe break; I am willing to bet you won't see it happen too many times after this consequence. Their man played it forward to their big striker, a few paces on and he slid a perfect pass right side to the same player on a forward run to near the goal line. And from an acute angle he hit a ground shot Tim should have saved. Instead it 'megged him. My forecast loomed. I said, "We need Pienaar on or we won't break these down." Sausage, who for some reason doesn't like the little South African, said from the lingering depths of cider, "You must be joking." I didn't argue with him. There's no point.
Half time, warming coffee and cheese went down very well. It was all a long, long way from a plastic cup of hot Bovril in my beloved spot in the Street End. But these days nobody except the most stupid gets despondent when we go behind. Usually we'll give it a good go whatever happens. Nevertheless the game had gone the way I guessed it would, so my hopes lay in the substitutions which El Bob is rather good with. Suitably reinforced, I went back outside with Kipper. For a while we were the only ones in the seats. Wimpishness still ruled behind the glass.
Stevie Pienaar came on as half time sub for an ineffective Ross Barkley and yet again changed the pattern and tempo of the game. Later, Steven Naismith and Tony Hibbert subbed for young John Stones and Aiden McGeady, both of whom had had a torrid time fitting in, possibly because both were in positions not their best. Stonesy looks to me like he needs a bit more muscle mass - he's still a bit gawky, still growing, like a rooky Andy Murray - and play at centre back where he can be more his classy self. McGeady I don't know enough about. Time will tell. The aggregate effect of the subs was to force Villa into siege defence for almost the entire second half.
Of course most of our attacks came down the left courtesy of the Bainsey-Peanuts combination. In this game Pienaar played mostly left centre mid while Bainsey went wide; time after time they caused havoc in the adolescent-looking Villa defence. It must be unnerving for a young player to face them in this form. Meanwhile, Hibbo shored up the defence on the right and snuffed out anything that threatened from that side. Mirallas, previously wide left, went through the centre with Naismith. The balance was much better, El Bob right again.
Still, we had some chances spurned. Osman missed two. The ball kept whizzing in from the left, over, behind or just short of an attacker. As time ticked by you wondered if we might subside with the weather, or what kind of magical trickery would be needed to break down Villa's massed defence. It was like Rourke's Drift at times. When the equaliser came it had the deceptive simplicity all true professionals have you saying, "I could do that." Except, of course, you couldn't, otherwise you would be out there doing it instead of kidding yourself on a computer keyboard. Witnessing and doing are separate functions.
A quarter of an hour from the end we finally made a well-deserved breakthrough when Naismith bagged one. We were seemingly permanently encamped in their half when the ball ping-ponged around before finally landing at Gareth Barry's feet, slightly right centre mid. Villa were pushed back so far he had time to kill it, look up, roll it forward for better contact, and then deliver a casual looking ordinary ground pass left of the D to Pienaar, who looked straight across at the Upper Bullens Stand while flicking it sideways and forward into the penalty area. Villa's poor kids all went with the look while Naismith went after the ball, got clear and slotted from dead centre past a helpless 'keeper. Now then.....fifteen minutes left. The pressure gauge went up again.
Five minutes from the end the inevitable happened and we got a winner. By this time Villa were almost out on their feet while Our Boys looked as fresh as daisies. Enemy tiredness told when someone gave away a weary and needless free kick almost thirty metres out, left of centre. Bainsey faced it straight on goal, Mirallas on the left at an angle. Kipper said, "Bainsey's gonna do this one." I said, "I don't think so. It's Mirallas." It was Norwich déjà vu. Mirallas sent it around the same parabola and into the same place on their 'keeper's right. Nobody in the world would have stopped it. I nearly jumped over the main stand. So did the Street End. A few minutes later Naismith missed a clear header, dead centre, edge of the goal area. He headed straight at the 'keeper. The only closing scare came with a cross from Villa's left that Tim Howard leaped and gathered in melodramatic fashion, enough to set off "Yew-Ess-EY!" in the bleach....sorry, seats.
So...another win, again the hard way. But after Tuesday's disaster I would have taken a winner off somebody's arse pocket. We needed this one, badly.
Back in the box, Paul and Gary of Villa congratulated us like the gentlemen they are. Paul, it turned out, was on Everton's books as a youngster, but Howard Kendall let him go. Which after a while was enough to start a marvellously slurred out-of-tune chorus of Please Release Me as alcohol rendered its post-match invoice. At which point I made my excuses and left Mally and the boys to whatever lay ahead. I could guess. I considered myself lucky to get out alive.
Out in the emptying streets it seemed somewhat colder and more rainy. Up to my ears in scarf and overcoat, waiting for a taxi, I wondered how anybody could possibly play good footy in that. Sometimes we take too much for granted. Warm home and hearth - you can't beat it. And if El Bob can motivate Our Boys again there won't be many who beat Us in the remainder of the season. Optimism back, bring it on whatever the weather.
Now that Klutz of Gunsels Transfer Month is over we can stop laughing at hysterical loonies and get back to real football. Until summer, anyway.