With the season about to reach its conclusion Stacy Murphy looks forward.
From reading the H&V forum over the last few days it seems I’m not the only one who doesn’t want this season to end. Winning for Villa hasn’t exactly become a habit (at least not yet) but the team mostly refusing to give as much as a millimetre if it might lead to the concession of a goal has become a thing to behold. Just seven conceded in fourteen games since the beginning of March, and only four of those from open play, is a massive turnaround from the stewardship of Steven Gerrard where at times it looked like we would ship a goal from every opposition attack. Even the three draws in that run would probably have been defeats in any of the other top flight season since the turn of the millennium (there’s a word you haven’t heard in a while) particularly the point gained after going behind at Brentford. Of the two losses only at Wolves have Villa looked like they wouldn’t find a way back into the game and even then, created a couple of clear-cut chances which were poorly executed at the crucial moment.
In the most recent game at Liverpool it could be argued Villa were lucky to come away with a point given the nature of the home side’s disallowed goal but then the referee proceeded to play almost infinite stoppage time to allow Liverpool time to find a winner yet still Jurgen Klopp (who I only realised is called Bingo because of his likeness to a Banana Split in the last week and not, as someone suggested to me, an obscure minor character from Rupert the Bear) still moaned about the lack of extra minutes. It did occur to me that, had he not been serving a touchline ban, whether the number on the board at ninety minutes might have been nearer twenty than the ten and a b which were played.
As well as finding a previously undiscovered resoluteness Villa have also unearthed an ability to ‘turn up’ for the more crucial games. The dismantling of Newcastle and holding a mirror up to Tottenham’s awfulness being the most obvious two. After watching both games the only surprise in each was that the scorelines weren’t more emphatic. In the Spurs game if first-half chances had been taken our record Premier League win (7-1 over Wimbledon in February 1995) may have been in danger. Being generous to the North Londoners I don’t think they ever seriously had any chance of replacing Wednesbury Old Athletic in the Villa record books (if you don’t know look it up).
Coinciding with the run Villa have been on has been the impressive form of Douglas Luiz, John McGinn and Tyrone Mings as well as a goalscoring streak from Jacob Ramsey. The first three, of whom two were on the bench on the opening day at Bournemouth, seem to have become intent on showing the previous manager where he went wrong game after game. When asked to name a player of the season I found it really difficult to separate the Brazilian midfielder and the England centre back (I eventually went for Mings solely for the way he dealt with Gerrard’s “Look me in the eye”” statement). Both must be close to international recalls along with possibly a first call up for Ramsey.
While listening to one of the now dozens of Villa podcasts it was suggested that the development of Jacob Ramsey, at the age of only just 21, is ahead of that of that other academy graduate, I forget his name, but we got a lot of money for him a couple of years ago. I can see that point and it had occurred to me as it is difficult to see a ceiling for a player who has played 100 top division games and has now started scoring goals while surging from midfield.
On the subject of goals, they seem to have dried up a bit for Ollie Watkins. After a scoring burst of eleven in twelve games Watkins hasn’t netted in the last six, His workrate though has allowed others to get on the scoresheet but it would be a pity after the excellent half-season he has had since the World Cup if Ollie doesn’t get the one goal he needs to achieve a season best tally in the top division.
It isn’t all about those best performing players though. Much of Villa’s resurgence is down to the manager and the diligence of at least one of the owners in getting the right person for the job. Unai Emery seems to be all consumed by football much in the way many of us are but with far more tactical acumen. His re-moulding of the Villa side which capitulated at Fulham in October is almost miraculous and the extra ‘something’ he has extracted from the players has been a highlight of not just our season but the English football season as a whole. Emery has taken players who looked destined for other, lesser things and re-built them with Ezri Konsa being a prime example. As a fan I cannot thank Nassef Sawiris, as well as to a lesser extent Wes Edens, enough for appointing Unai Emery and Emery himself for re-invigorating Villa this season as it has been as unexpected a rise up the table as the title challenge of 1989-90 was under Graham Taylor.
And so to the final game. We don’t actually need to beat Brighton, should Leeds beat Spurs and Brentford not beat Manchester City, to claim the last European place but a win would guarantee qualification for the third season of the Europa Conference League. What we do need is another performance like those against Newcastle and Spurs which have helped put us in this once extremely unlikely position.