Not a game I was expecting to go to. With not quite enough points in the first round of ticket sales and Villa keeping allocations to a minimum (despite a whole closed tier opposite us) we had settled for the beam back. That was until my very good friend came through with tickets via a sponsor and the waiting list. Only a few days notice but enough to round up a crew, car and driver. The West Upper boys were off to Birmingham.
Early morning banter in the car suggested the mood was upbeat, if not over confident. We made excellent time to Oxford services which was full of a coach load of Brighton fans in similar mood. They also included our mate Danny, a man infamous for having worn a very thin suit to the freezing cold Sheffield Wednesday game. Earlier in the season three of our carload plus Danny had gone on protracted beer sampling mission – aka piss up – for my birthday game at home to Aston Villa. Now we were reunited. That game had finished 1-1. It really should have been a sign.
We weren’t doing omens in the car though. We were far too busy trying to follow a silent sat nav round spaghetti junction. Eventually, though, we found our pre-booked parking spot, rapidly decided the pubs of Aston were not for us, had a traditional dog burger from a van (undercooked onions, no Michelin star awaits) and got on the concourse almost as soon as it had opened. A minute later some early morning beers were hitting the spot, driver excepted.
Beer had certainly been the order of the day in Birmingham. Many of our mates had stayed over and slowly they arrived looking like it had been a very long night indeed. At first our only companions on the concourse had been those who had taken advantage of clear roads that morning but, as kick off approached, the familiar faces of those who had seen our twenty year rise to the promised land were everywhere.
Could we go one better and clinch the title? We’d needed to win one game in three, not a problem to date in this most excellent of seasons, but we’d certainly fluffed our last two lines. A party-weary side losing to two identically unfortunate goals is one thing but you couldn’t really want for a better chance to seal the deal than Bristol City at home, a struggling side you’d beaten away from home who were all but mathematically safe, at your fortress. Villa away, on the other hand, would be hard.
Villa Park is a magnificent ground. It’s everything I love about football, big, noisy and traditional but with fans very close to the pitch. Upton Park is gone, White Hart Lane going but I hope Villa Park stays for a very long time. We are going to have to get used to playing in big grounds in front of big crowds and, once again, the occasion seemed to overawe us. This may seem a strange thing to say given the atmosphere at the Amex this season has, at times, been febrile with 25-30,000 regularly packed in, but that is OUR big game atmosphere. We had already struggled at St James’s and Elland Road this season and that’s a worry. We shall have nineteen such games next season. Even Bournemouth and Burnley will sell out.
I’m getting slightly ahead of myself but it’s a fact that our first half here was poor. Villa pressed us tight, as they had back in November in Brighton. Our counter to that on this occasion was the long ball over the top. With Baldock back in the side this at least made some sense but with Murray not noted for his pace, Knockaert marked out of it and Murphy seemingly overcome by the event it wasn’t exactly paying dividends either. At the back there were issues too. Not at centre back where Dunk and Tomori were excellent but definitely at full back. Bruno was engaged in a one man battle with half the Villa team. Pocognoli, selected ahead of Bong, had the full on yips. A deep cross from Villa’s left could have been back-headed out or even let go (though he did not know what was behind him). Instead he chested it back across goal, a mistake that ten year olds would be chastised for, and Lansbury, lurking on the six yard box, couldn’t miss with a free header. Incredibly, he did.
Just as bad was to come as a back pass by the same player was criminally under hit, this time Hogan spurning the chance. As moves were made towards a half time beer queue Hogan was taken out by Sidwell, the resulting injury ending his game and the resulting free kick just about repelled. We went in at 0-0 after prolonged injury time but in truth should have been one or two down.
Half time talk centred on “we couldn’t be that bad again, could we?”. And “I hope Hughton’s reading the riot act”. A goal was needed asap, we all agreed.
It was not immediately forthcoming, though we started much brighter. Pocognoli seemed more solid, Knockaert more in the game. Sidwell had been excellent and this continued. Ditto Stockdale. And then, on 64 minutes, the moment that should have won us the title. Baldock released clean through. His tame effort was saved but the pressure exerted by Baker on his back had been unfair. Spot kick. Sending off too. The game changed in a flash. I couldn’t watch but, of course, Murray buried it, the away end went mental, blue smoke on the pitch and the whole team over and going crazy.
Then Elphick – remember him? – hit a tame back pass and Murray latched on to it. Surely this would be 2-0 and game done? No. We somehow contrived to miss, how I do not know. It wasn’t quite action free at the other end, Stockdale producing a magnificent save from a long range Hourihane effort, but Villa were down to ten men and a party was starting in the away end. So what did we do….?
That’s right. We sat back.
Why? Why against ten men with nothing to play for and a home crowd silenced do we offer them a way back in. Nerves? Instruction? It had been the same at QPR but there we held on. Here we did not. A minute to go and heartbreak. A nothing shot from Jack Grealish but Dunk tried to block, unsighting Stockdale. It went straight through him. Quite some noise from Villa Park. Despair from our keeper.
At the end the players were distraught, Stockdale in particular. He should not be but the bloke cares so much and clearly blamed himself. Never mind that he’d kept us in it, that in previous games he’s won us enough points to get promoted in the middle of April, there was no consoling him. There is no blame at all from this writer. However, from his Twitter today it seems he’s gone.
In a way, though, title aside, this was preparation for next season. A big game in a proper old stadium. I think Chris will have confirmed what he already suspected, that one or two are not up to the step up. In many ways the Premier League started here.
A much more subdued car ride back down the motorway, with special thanks to the back to front in a silver Merc who tried to kill half the M40. “The Portslade Two” returned to The Railway – our Winchester – for a final consolation beer. It will take a zombie apocalypse – or possibly nuclear war – to stop us playing the big boys come August. That is what we should be focussing on. See you at the parade.