A View from the Other Side
A Vital Villa match report from a distance, as I go undercover as a member of the press at Villa Park, and find a strange new world of wonders. Just as well really, as the game itself was a frightfully dull occasion.
Thanks to my discussions with the Birmingham Mail's Aston Villa reporter Mat Kendrick for his Q&A session with you, the Vital Villa members, I was able to gain the unique opportunity to spend a game with Mat (the downside) as a member of the press (the upside) at Villa Park for the Premier League encounter between Aston Villa FC and Stoke City RFC.
After a brief stop at the club shop to purchase my 'Support Stan' t-shirt and something for the good lady back home (who was meant to come to the game until I told her she couldn't) and a quick 'paparazzi' shot of Sir Doug Ellis, I met Mat (after a quick soaking) beside the mighty club statue of Sir William McGregor.
The 'press entrance' is somewhat of an underwhelming side door on the Trinity Road Stand, far from the security protected executive box entrances, or indeed that of the players/matchday officials. Nevertheless, through what looked like a service door lay a world apart from the average Aston Villa fans match day experience. Immediately the differences were obvious, I got a free programme and upon making our way to the press lounge (which looks a little like a train station waiting room with tellys), roast pork, stuffing, veg and all the coffee I could possibly drink!
I'd made it! No longer was I murph, the Vital Villa reporter that every blue moon writes a thousand words of nonsense and claims it is some form of matchday preview! There were proper press people in there! They were writing serious things. Normal things, things that actually made sense and were grammatically correct! The early team news filtered through about an hour before kick off, with Andi Weimann replacing the Aston Villa legend and my hero Emile Heskey. A strange move I thought at the time, given Stoke's inability to do anything other than clatter and kick players off the park, but the Austrian's cameo appearance against Liverpool left me confident enough that the U-21 international would prove an excellent partner for the non-scoring captain Gabriel Agbonlahor. Stoke through in a curveball, with both Jermaine Pennant and Peter Crouch starting from the bench. For us, Carlos Cuellar had returned, along with Charles N'Zogbia, whose ligament issue had disappeared in seemingly biblical circumstances (it was Easter weekend after all!)
My next surprise was just where the press area is actually situated. I had fully expected it to have been a completely segregated area; however a secret door and a short staircase led out onto the main Trinity Road Middle Tier concourse! Naturally one of Villa's finest stewards was positioned expertly to keep the riff-raff out of the posh-ish seats, so I shoved past, arrogance a-plenty (didn't really, I'm a modest chap) to take my seat, complete with table, power-point and little telly, ready for the game. I spent pre-match tweeting about how awesome this was, Mr Kendrick was busy arguing with his 'followers' who believe him to be on the clubs payroll, something I checked, and isn't actually true!
So, to the actual match report!
The first half was a largely forgettable affair, though I did state that one would try his best to describe it. Mr Dean set his stall out early, allowing a number of questionable 'headers' and 'tackles' go through from the visitors, yet feeling the need to book Stephen Warnock for nothing more than a mis-timed tackle, that would make Mr Ballotelli's efforts look like mass-murder. Yet another indication that the modern day referee struggles to comprehend either the notion of consistency, or the actual rulebook.
Apart from Kenwyne Jones trying to burst the net from outside the post, and a tame Jimmy Collins header straight at the Bosnian goalkeeper Begovic, there could be nothing really said for the actual football.
Then came the 19th minute; I had previously witnessed this through my TV against Chelsea and couldn't help but wish I was there to add my small part of the rapture for the club captain Stiliyan Petrov. That was nothing compared to sampling it first hand, even with the considerably lower attendance of 31,100 (who counted that round number?) Villa Park I am pleased to say was on it's feet including an impeccable salute to our #19 from the traveling masses from up the M6. It was the burst of action that was needed prior to the stadium pulling up a pillow, and nodding off to sleep.
The deadlock however would finally be broken in the 32nd minute by Andreas Weimann. Warnock slipped the ball to the Austrian U-21 international who exchanged a quick one-two with the resurgent Stephen Ireland, before curling a beautiful shot well away from the sprawling hands of Begovic. Cue utter chaos in the stands, and indeed in the press box (briefly, before I realised where I was) as the struggling Villa side looked to steal a march on those fighting against relegation.
It wasn't the end of first half action for Stephen Warnock, finding somewhat more comfort in the midfield role he currently occupies, blocking excellently from Wilson Palacios' goal-bound effort. Perhaps, as it seems, Warnock was never particularly destined to be a Premier League left-back?
Half-time, more coffee, a sandwich, a chance to talk about the first half (and how exciting it had been.)
Early in the second half, captain fantastic Gabby Agbonlahor, the man who hasn't scored in the league since football was invented (or something along those lines) showed exactly why in the situation we are in, we should perhaps put sentiment to bed, and pick based upon form and ability. Barry Bannan played a defense splitting, peach/orange/wonder/super pass through the brutes of the Stoke back four which Agbonlahor chased brilliantly, before trying to trip the linesman up with his touch-line aimed curling pile of rubbish.
(The above was me sitting on the fence.)
We were soon made to pay however, the impressive Warnock fell awkwardly under yet another Stoke 'challenge' resulting in a substitution and a trip to hospital for Steve, his foot in a protective 'boot.' Gary Gardner came on his place, moving out to the left wing in yet another player-out-of-position decision that didn't really pay off. Tony Pulis - ever animated in his Sports Directs' 'Everything Must Go' sale gear, threw on the inevitable in Peter Crouch.
You could instantly see what the idea was from Pulis and Co. Mostly due to the politeness of the visiting support providing commentary of 'Hoof, There it is' or words to that effect. Their constant 'get the ball wide, chuck it at Crouch' approach, and even their literal 'win a throw-in and chuck it at Crouch' approach, despite being a crime to the beautiful game, still works and indeed worked against the leakiest defense in the league at set pieces.
Jermaine 'I forgot me car in Spain' Pennant somehow 'earnt' (i.e. never was) a free kick against the unlucky Gary Gardner. 42 fouls later, Stoke defender Robert Hoof rose brilliantly (able assisted by using James Collins to push down on) to nod unchallenged past a despairing Shay Given. I'm not going to discuss it in too much detail. I will simply say:
1.) Never a free kick.
2.) Foul by Huth
3.) Stoke fans, you really pay to watch this?
72 minutes, and generally speaking that was our lot. One great goal, a goal that should have been disallowed, and a goal that was disallowed, seemingly for the ball going out of play however Talksport's Adrian Durham seems to think it was for a foul by Robert Huth, how ironic eh? Not even the introduction of the man mountain Emile Heskey (on for the woozy Chris Herd) could resolve things for villa. It was however an impressive cameo from the former England international, winning just about every header he went for, and adding a little bit of strength to what was a youthful, slender, Aston Villa side.
By time Emile came into the fray, it was all over and looking at the stats, a draw was a fair result. Shots on/off target were equal, corners equal, fouls equal (yellow cards in-equal) and possession was 3% in favour of the Potters.
The final whistle was generally speaking met with apathy by both home and away supporters alike. Mr Pennant seemed to be celebrating like they'd just won the league! Following a lengthy wait and some more food (they do treat these journo's well!) it was time for the managers press conferences.
Mr Pulis wouldn't even sit down, instead taking up a defensive stance behind a cheap looking chair, and talking about how he felt that Stoke were somewhat unlucky and highlighted the effort made by his side:
'That's 51 games we've played now this season and the second we've had in three days. We lack a lot things but the one thing you can never criticise us for is a lack of effort.'
He did mention that he does not openly praise a number of his players, so not to 'blow smoke up their arse' but added 'you can't print that' before toddling off.
Effort, yes Mr Pulis I agree. 100% effort. What you do lack however is style, class, honesty, integrity, a sense of fair play, any ability to play a passing game, a tactic that doesn't involve towels, an understanding of football and any interesting features whatsoever, apart from the fact that Peter Crouch STILL looks silly when he runs.
After a lengthy wait (and many an impatient hack) Mr McLeish came in, got his water ready and prepared for the onslaught. Watching/listening to this man in the flesh is an interesting experience. Alex McLeish is visibly battered by this season, but is still sticking to his guns. He struggled to look people in the eye at times whilst he delivered his opinions, but did summon up some energy to joke 'that's great news' when asked about the fact that by Sunday, a win for Manchester United over Villa could see them crowned champions.
Praise for Weimann and all the academy graduates (7 of which played) was in abundance, and he even rolled out the 'x cup finals' line, something I never expected from this man!
Big Eck quotes:
'Goals talk and it will now be hard for me to leave Weimann out.
'It was a fantastic strike. We needed a bit of inspiration at that time and it was inspirational.
'It came out of nothing and was a wonderful goal from a great young prospect. He is a good finisher and we've seen it again with that goal.'
My conclusion? Aston Villa are going to stay up by default. There are enough teams below us not winning games to see us falter and end up in the Championship next season. There will be a massive sigh of relief come the final whistle at Carrow Road on the 13th May.
All I could think about on my journey back to Cheshire, winding up in my bed just before midnight, was the amazing experience that I had had, despite the result. Irrespective of form, league position, players, who is the manager, every time I step into Villa Park, it is an experience to remember....
...except for maybe the 0-0 with Charlton a few years ago, that was quite forgettable!