When you’re setting a new standard of desperately incompetent – even the smallest of victories feel enormous.
Being an Aston Villa fan, I haven’t even been provided with said triumphs since September, when they last won an actual game of football that actually counted against Birmingham in the third round of the League Cup. Since then, Villa have been the zenith of embarrassing: worse than circling the drain at the bottom of the league as they have been, they have also actually been on course to become the worst performing side since the inception of the Premier League at the end of the season were things to continue as they had been, without a win in it since the opening day of the season and not looking like another was in sight anytime soon.
Going into this evening’s game at home to Crystal Palace, the same ominous feelings we’ve become accustomed to were present. In fact they were even more exaggerated than normal, as added to the fact that Villa haven’t been up to standard, and Palace have been more just that and more (particularly away from home), the atmosphere at Villa Park had become particularly toxic since Saturday.
Villa went into that day’s FA Cup tie with League Two’s Wycombe Wanderers hoping for a relatively handy victory against an (insert “on paper” cliche) inferior side that would mean far, far more than simply progression into the fourth round. What instead transpired was an insipid 1-1 draw, resulting in an unwanted return leg with Wanderers, players abused by fans when boarding the team bus afterwards, and captain Micah Richards getting into a dispute with some of them behind the dugout before the game had even concluded.
With all of this in mind, there was a surprising level of what at the time could have been considered false optimism when the starting eleven selected by manager Remi Garde was announced an hour before kick-off tonight.
Much maligned goalkeeper Brad Guzan was dropped to the bench after a spate of errors this season (and after an incident during the Wycombe game where supporters took umbrage with how the American appeared to be more concerned with how far he could spit chewing gum from the substitute’s bench with teammate Joleon Lescott rather than the plight of his team, which prompted Guzan to respond…impolitely) for the competent Mark Bunn, striker Libor Kozak made a much-requested return to the starting line-up and probably most importantly: stand-out performer Jordan Ayew was given a free role in which to operate rather than being isolated as the lone front man.
Villa started encouragingly, though we are not to be fooled by that anymore. The same was the case in the recent harrowing defeats to both Sunderland and Norwich, and one would’ve been rightfully apprehensive to think this was another false dawn. In fact despite going into half time with the scoreline level and having largely outplayed a lackluster Palace (outside of Wilfried Zaha squandering a glorious opportunity for them to take the lead a mere 40 seconds in), the same pessimistic air permeated the occasion. It was what we’d come to expect as of late: Villa start brightly but ultimately don’t create enough to score, which would more than likely lead to collective head’s dropping and the game eventually playing out with a whimper and without a win.
However for all of the bad luck The Villans have been bombarded with this season, they were afforded with a massive slice of it themselves in the 58th minute as a Jordan Veretout corner was met by the head of Joleon Lescott, whose effort went harmlessly toward the midriff of Palace ‘keeper Wayne Hennessey, only for the Welshman to somehow fluff his lines to such an extent that he ended up working the ball into his own net.
And 1-0 it was. But everyone knew not to get too ahead of themselves.
Villa had been in this position already this season, and aside from the season opener had failed to see out a single game they had gone ahead in. Even Lescott’s subdued celebration suggested the team knew there was still a lot of work left to be done (that as well as the acknowledgement that he was the beneficiary of an utter calamity).
Strangely enough…they did said work. And quite handily on the surface. So much so that one would question how it’s taken this long for it to happen. Upon taking the lead, Villa took an understandably more pragmatic approach than they initially started with in order to eek out the victory, which was enough to keep out a quite tame Palace who have probably had it made clear to them now that they desperately need to add a quality striker to their ranks.
If anything it was the home side that were the closest to adding to the scoring as the aforementioned Ayew managed to blaze a chance he had so marvelously managed to carve out for himself over the bar. This wasn’t to alter the overall impression the Ghanaian had on the game though, as he turned in a man of the match performance wherein he once again personified the requisite blend of grit and ability that many of his teammates have been sorely lacking this campaign.
He also further endeared himself to the supporters in the process, many of whom are already resigned to losing him in the summer, under the presumption that Villa are already as good as relegated and he is too talented to ply his trade in the Championship.
Which is still an important thing to bear in mind: despite the sought after win, Villa are still languishing at the foot of the table on 11 points, and have more than a mountain to climb if they are to achieve the most unforeseen great escape of the Premier League era.
The feeling of elation after merely winning a solitary game says more than words ever could about just how turgid Villa have been this season under Garde and the man he replaced two months ago in Tim Sherwood, and tacitly all Villa fans will be painfully aware that it could all come immediately crashing down this Saturday against Leicester.
However, to ponder whether or not this glee is misplaced and/or too reactionary is to miss the point. The fact is we’ve had little reason to be gleeful AT ALL this season. So let us have it.