Villa in the FA Cup (cont)

Dave Collett remembers the good, the bad and the buttock-clenchingly pisspoor.

2010 – Blackburn Rovers, Brighton and Hove Albion, Crystal Palace, Reading and Chelsea.

Martin O’Neill didn’t especially need the glamour of a good cup run as the FA Cup hoved into view in January 2010. After all, Villa were well advanced in two cup competitions already, having qualified from the group stage of the UEFA League and had more to look forward to, with a tie against CSKA Moscow. There was also the prospect of a League Cup semi-final first leg looming in the following midweek. The fact that both domestic cup-ties were against the same team, Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn Rovers, added further interest to the forthcoming clashes.

In the end O’Neill went harder, making a mere seven changes from the last league selection, whereas Big Sam named nine new faces. The Villa line-up saw Brad Guzan, already a hero for his shoot-out antics at Sunderland a few weeks earlier, take the gloves from the other Brad, Friedel. The defence saw a rare sighting of the Lesser-Spotted Habib Beye, the massively-industrious Stan Petrov and James Milner were given a rest, while Emile Heskey led the line with promising youngster Nathan Delfouneso at his shoulder.

Ashley Young might have also wanted a breather, though Villa fans would have been happy with the selection when he provided two examples of his craft in the first half, his crosses headed in by Delfouneso and then CArlos Cuellar. In between these goals, however, Nigel Reo-Coker caught Stephen Reid with a tackle in the area and it took a good save from Guzan to deny David Dunn a penalty equaliser. If the second goal relaxed the home crowd, they may have been tempted to get the cigars out when El-Hadj Diouff launched into an assault on Beye that was straight out of the Ben Mee Manual of Fair Tackles. Luckily, for Beye, he suffered no injury from the challenge and the Blackburn player had no sympathy from the crowd for his instant dismissal.

Two goals and a man up, what could possibly go wrong? You guessed it – ten minutes lrft, Nikola Kalinic pulled a goal back and Blackburn sensed that they still had a chance. They weren’t far away from an equaliser as the home crowd communicated their edginess. O’Neill did the time-honoured thing of taking off a striker and bringing on another one. Thus Nathan was replaced by the enigmatically brilliant John Carew. Big John it was who won a stoppage-time penalty after a foul by Gael Civet. Picking himself up he took the shot, scored and confirmed Villa’s passage to the next round.

The draw came out nicely. Brighton and Hove Albion have a bright outlook at the moment, but at this time they were struggling in the wrong half of League One, or the third division as some of us stubbornly call it. One wondered what the level of interest would be in such a game, what with Villa’s other cup matches and a full league programme. However, it was reckoned that if the prices were kept low, say a tenner, there would be a good chance of a high attendance, with both clubs sharing the benefits. Thus it was that Brighton were given the North Stand and brought almost six and a half thousand fans in an attempt to fill it – and plenty of noise with them. The gate as a whole was just short of forty thousand.

The game itself started off as we hoped it would. Marc Albrighton, on his first start, got down the flank and pulled the perfect ball back to Nathan Delfouneso for his fifth goal in seven, to further burnish his growing reputation. Once the celebrations had died down the good news turned to bad. In delivering the cross Albrighton had damaged his ankle and had to be replaced immediately by human dynamo James Milner, whose scheduled rest had to be postponed. Villa kept their lead with little trouble but a half-cleared corner just before the break lead to a certain Tommy Elphick’s half-hit shot sneaking past Guzan for the leveller.

On the resumption, Villa soon re-took the lead from an unusual source. Milner, receiving Guzan’s quick release, went on one of his long-distance runs and knocked the ball out to Downing on the left. His cross was met with a far-post header from… Ashley Young! He had a lot of good moments in his first spell at the club but there weren’t too many of these for the exciting winger. Then there was more Milner magic as a good through ball found Fabian Delph and the young midfielder stayed calm, working his space before slotting past Kuipers in the Brighton goal.

Once again, it seemed we could relax and there was almost another goal to celebrate as Delfouneso bent a shot past the keeper only to see it rebound off a post. No matter, as the game was surely over, but in the first minute of stoppage time veteran striker Nicky Forster slotted a second for the visitors. There were only a few minutes left but Brighton really went for it and their fans backed them all the way, in true cup style. It was more a case of relief than rejoicing when the final whistle blew.

At this point things were starting to become interesting. Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool had all exited the competition and the way to a glorious May day at the Twin Towers (which no longer existed) seemed fairly open, if the draws stayed favourable. Another home tie would have been fine, if only as compensation for the Millichip Years. In fact, we were drawn away to either Wolves or Crystal Palace in the fifth round. A Danny Butterfield hat-trick in a mere six minutes decided that issue and we knew we were headed for Selhurs.

What we would find there was unclear. Palace had just been forced into administration with debts of £30 million. The players might well have been concerned over their immediate career prospects, as indeed would have been the manager whose own job security was on shaky foundations. Still, Neil Warnock had more or less written the book as far as shaking your fist and defying the world was concerned so he may have seen this as fertile ground for winding his team up to an even higher pitch than normal. Spare a thought, though, for the canteen lady who hadn’t been paid for two months.

The fog of uncertainty led to no complacency on the part of the Villa manager, who went with more or less a full-strength side. For the first twenty minutes Villa looked well in charge but then a right-wing corner from Darren Ambrose was headed in by Austrian defender Johannes Ertl to give Palace the lead. This might have been doubled before Villa hit back in similar fashion. Again, it was a corner from the same side, taken by Stewart Downing whose cross was met by the head of James Collins to level matters. Despite this boost, Villa were unable to stamp their authority on the game and went in at half-time wondering what the manager might have to say. Perhaps he would have wanted his five-man midfield to take more of a grip on the match, not withstanding the tigerish tackling of Shaun Derry and the busy, clever passing of Neil Danns. He may have hoped for more impact from Ashley Young, up against the promising right-back Nathaniel Clyne who gave him little room to operate.

In terms of a new approach, the replacement of Emile Heskey by big John Carew was the only change. As the game progressed, the tie continued to be tight. Ambrose gave Villa fair warning with a good free-kick that brought an important save from Brad Friedel. He tried his luck minutes later with another deadball thirty-five yards from goal and struck thejackpot and the back of the net with a thunderbolt that left the stopper helpless. This came with twenty minutes to go and Villa’s unbeaten cup run for this season was in clear danger of coming to an end. Off came Delph, with Delfouneso on to boost the goal threat but in truth little was created. Then, a corner, with three minutes to go, saw another Downing cross met with a diving header from, of all people, Stan Petrov. Level again, with little enough time for either side to post a winner.

Palace must have been frustrated to have gone so close, though their administrator may have been quietly happy to anticipate his club’s share of the replay takings. If so, he kept it to himself. Villa could have done without the replay as well. The date was arranged for the Tuesday before the League Cup final, where we were due to set up against Phil Dowd and his mates. What Villa wanted was a nice, straightforward game with us winning comfortably, allowing the manager to empty the bench and rest key players before the labours of Wembley.

Had Villa taken a few of their first half chances it could well have done. Carew, Young and Agbonlahor all had shots saved by Julain Speroni, who proved himself hard to beat until with half-time we got a stroke of luck. Most felt that a clash between two players near the bye-line should have resulted in a goal-kick. The ref thought otherwise. Over the corner came and Agbonlahor back-headed Villa in front for the first time in the tie.

Such was Villa’s dominance after the break that all three front players might have added to Villa’s lead. Then Palace had a good spell, with Danns firing narrowly wide from a decent chance. Just as in the first game, Villa failed to heed the warning. Alan Lee burst into the Villa box where Stephen Warnock, not enjoying his best form since returning after a neck injury, brought him down. Ambrose stepped up to score the equaliser.

If there was one thing Villa definitely did not need it was the strain of extra time, but that was where things were heading. Then along came Matt Lawrence to lend a hand. With ten minutes to go, he brought Carew down in the box. The big man (bigger than me and you, according to some) picked himself up and dispatched the ball into the net with some vigour. Cue one big sigh of relief. Eight minutes later, the same defender made another foul on the same striker with the same outcome. 3-1, and the tie was decided. That left the Palace bean-counters to figure out how much they were due from a crowd of just under 32,000.

The draw for the quarter-finals had already been held and, once again, Villa could hardly complain at the outcome, an away tie at Reading. Those perusing the Championship table would have seen Reading’s lowly position and regarded the tie as more or less routine. The home side’s cup record told a different tale; Premier sides Liverpool and Burnley plus league high-fliers West Brom had all been swept aside. Martin O’Neill took no risks and fielded his strongest side, with the exception of Agbonlahor who was kept out due to illness.

Villa made a satisfactory start, with Stan Petrov being just wide with an early effort. The tall pacy winger, Jimmy Kebe, was giving us some problems and he duly put the ball in the net, only for the ref to spot an earlier foul on Warnock. This might have been considered a warning, as a left-wing corner was flicked on by centre-back Matt Mills to Shane Long, who headed the ball past Friedel. Long, a decent enough player, was to become something of our nemesis for much of the following decade. Carew then thought he had found the equaliser but it was called offside, though replays suggested the big man was legal. Where’s VAR when you need it? Far from defending the lead, Reading seemed keen to add to it and Sigurdsson had a shot that Dunne did well to block. Then came the second goal, Kebe once again using his pace down the right and squaring the ball perfectly for another finish from Long. It was hard to dispute the deserved nature of their lead.

What was said at half-time isn’t known but the fact that the players were sent out early suggests the manager may have had some brief but pointed comments to make. The travelling Villa fans might have been shocked – and delighted – to see the game transformed in the first twelve minutes of the second period. Downing’s cross was met by Carew whose slight deflection set up Young at the far post. Within minutes Downing had again crossed perfectly for Carew to glance the ball past the helpless Federici. What followed was arguably the best of the lot, Young’s cross deflected superbly in by Carew. Reading still came back and their last big opportunity was from a bullet header that beat Friedel but not Ashley Young, who stayed on his post to clear. Villa went up the other end where, again, Carew was fouled in the box by Ingimarsson. He smashed home his hat-trick goal with some relish and the game was done. In the euphoria natural to a result of this kind, the manager may not have realised that this was his first-ever Villa victory in the month of March in the fourth year of trying.

After the buzz from such a win had dissipated it was time to look forwards. The semi-final was the best run Villa had had since they reached the final itself in the year 2000. No-one gets to choose their opponents, but out of a selection of Portsmouth, Spurs and Chelsea, few would have chosen the latter. Portsmouth were everyone’s first pick. Financially crippled by the previous manager Harry “Don’t call me a wheeler-dealer” Redknapp’s ever-demanding transfer policy, they were on their way back to the second level, with most of their key players sold off to save the club’s future. Spurs were on a par with Villa, since they had been rejuvenated by their new manager, err, Harry Redknapp. Under the eagle eye of CEO Levy, Harry had been forced to rein back his profligate spending, which always required the purchase of “just two more players”.

It goes without saying that we were paired with Chelsea. The West London club were the Manchester City of their day, backed by the untold millions of Roman Abramovich, one of the obscenely wealthy beneficiaries of the privatisation of the Stalinist Union’s state-owned assets. Relentless expenditure on players and salaries brought with it massive advantages on the field of play, backed up by an ultra-ruthless ownership style that meant any dip in fortunes could result in summary dismissal. The man in charge at the time was the renowned Carlo Ancellotti. His team were chasing the double -always a good route for staying in post.

Two weeks before the semi Villa travelled to Chelsea and received a 7-1 hammering in a league game; quite a shock as Villa were in the frame for the following season’s Champions League places. Such was the nature of this stuffing that few looked forward to the game at Wembley with much optimism. Those over-stocked with quantities of the latter quietly told themselves that Villa would bounce back and show the world what we could do. Never would O’Neill’s powers of motivation be more needed.

Villa went at full strength and started solidly, even daring to push on against their big-time rivals. Joe Cole had a good individual run and shot that went wide. James Milner responded with an effort that was even closer before Villa were re-introduced to the vagaries of Wembley refereeing. Still reeling from the non-sending off of Vidic in the Wembley final by Phil Dowd, Villa were about to receive the next dose. Agbonlahor tried to turn in the box and clearly had his legs taken by John Obi Mikel. It seemed an obvious penalty but referee Howard Webb, despite having a good sighting of the incident, decided not to make the award. Webb was punished for this flagrant dereliction of duty by being awarded that summer’s World Cup final. He is currently the big-shot at PGMOL, which may explain a lot.

In a game often drowning in bullshit, it took the Chelsea assistant manager, one Ray Wilkins, to bring a shade of integrity back to the game. The customary procedure is to say that you didn’t see a particular incident, or to moan instead at a decision your team didn’t get, as a distraction. Instead, interviewed at half-time, Ray said he thought it was a penalty and that his side had got away with one.

O’Neill was understandably furious, but kept his team at it after the break. After all, just one moment might be enough to decide thing Villa’s way. In truth, not much happened in the twenty minutes that followed, not helped by a poor playing surface. They could have played the game on a different ground with a better pitch but modern corporate socialism required that the Wembley people have to be guaranteed big profits, regardless of circumstances.

The scores stayed level and then, in the space of a minute, Richard Dunne tasted both the sweetness and bitterness of sporting fortunes. First, a brilliant tackle on Didier Drogba prevented a good chance from materialising. From the resulting corner, Dunne’s clearing header only reached the edge of the box rather than the Full McGrath distance, John Terry hit it back in and Drogba got the decisive touch. Villa were dismayed but not down yet, though truth be told crosses to Carew or Heskey were the main source of hope.

With time ebbing away, James Milner was the recipient of a horror tackle from Terry that might have put him out of the game for a long time. It says everything about Webb’s performance that he regarded a booking as a suitable punishment for this assault. With Villa pushing up, there was always the danger of being caught out at the back and so it proved. A counter-attack left Malouda with a tap-in at the far post, then Lampard strolled through on a breakaway to settle the matter.

So Villa were beaten, both by their opponents and by the match officials. Had they got through they would have contested the final against Portsmouth, surprise victors over Spurs. Within months Martin O’Neill had departed and Villa fans were left to reconsider the memories of the near-success of the O’Neill years from the perspective of an approaching near-decade of major failures both on the pitch and in the boardroom.