Date:Sunday February 24 2013
Attendance: 60 079
Even today, thirty plus years after that memorable early May Saturday afternoon at Highbury Stadium, the afternoon we lost the battle but won the war, we cant travel down to the capital city to witness an Arsenal vs Villa encounter, without the many memories flooding back. We of course only needed one point that day to ensure that we were the proud 1980-81 Football League Champions, but were we to lose, and Ipswich Town win up at Ayrsome Park against Middlesbrough, then the title would be decided when Ipswich Town hosted Southampton after the F.A. Cup Final.
An estimated 12,000 Villans made the journey to Highbury, but in front of a crowd approaching 60,000 the Gunners took an early lead, and the nerves of the claret and blue faithful were suddenly very much on edge. It seemed as though every Villan in the crowd had his ear tuned to a transistor radio, as we all craved for updates from Teeside, all of us praying for a Boro` goal to help ease and smooth the Villa cause somewhat. Suddenly our mood darkened considerably as first Paul Mariner put Ipswich ahead in the north-east, and then Brian McDermott added a second for Arsenal just before the break. At that stage I think we all began to consider that our worst fears might just possibly be realised. We knew that we were on the verge of losing the title.
Into the second half, and news from Middlesbrough soon reached us, that Yugoslavian Bosco Jankovic had equalised. The Clock End at Highbury erupted. We needed that lift, because quite frankly we had showed no signs whatsoever of getting back into the game that was going on in front of us. We were all now focused on the tranny radios, and news of another goal at Middlesbrough, a second of the game for Bosco Jancovik, was announced by commentator Bryon Butler speaking those immortal words, 'And let me be the first to congratulate Aston Villa on becoming the 1980-81 Football League Champions.........`
That was all we needed. Indescribable wild scenes of mass celebration began. The party was underway.
Thirty plus years ago. Yet it still seems all so fresh in the mind. The older we are, the older we`ve become, the harder it us for us to accept Gary Shaw and co as nostalgic figures. If Gary Shaw ever gets old, then we are all in trouble. Or so we thought. Except of course, time merely doesn`t fly as we age. That would be far too easy for it. No, time sits in first class on the space shuttle.
No, wait, it doesn`t. There is no space shuttle anymore. Time sits in first class on the Concorde. No. That`s not right either. There is no Concorde. See what I mean?
I never get melancholy (melancholy Man - The Moody Blues, check it out, great track) over footballers who are suddenly old. I get melancholy over me. Their creeping oldness makes me feel decidedly arthritic. Those of us who love football, measure the passage of time through our games. I struggle to remember family birthdates, anniversaries, celebrations etc., etc., immensely frustrating the better half and off-spring, yet I can readily recall a Villa fixture from say 1964, describe precisely the line-up that day, the result, the goal-scorers, the weather conditions (to the exact raindrop count), and how many spoonful`s of salt I heaped into my Bovril that afternoon. Just born lucky I guess.
Our heroes lull us into believing in their immortality, every bit as much as they believe in it themselves. And then they are gone.
Anyway, today was a different day, we`ve all been to sleep since May 1981 after all. A lot of claret and blue water has passed under the rickety old bridge, some of it sweet tasting, some of it not so pleasant on the palate, and while 12,000 Villans weren`t pouring down to London for this meeting between the Gunners and the Villans, and the destination of the League Championship trophy wasn`t dependent on the outcome, it was still a very important fixture for both clubs. A chance for the home team to get themselves back on track as they chase down another top four finish, while for ourselves the opportunity to pick up a very precious point or three as we attempt to build on the four points we have banked from the last two games. Relegation is a very real and substantial threat, and after reminiscing back to the early eighties just a couple of paragraphs or so above, it`s a nightmare scenario that we don`t want to encourage or entertain any longer.
There were five of us making the trip south from Brum as we jumped into the old jalopy, and why not? A change is as good as a rest they say. Why not mix it up and add to the numbers every now and again. Usually the regular four of us of course, but for this trip Gary`s friend and neighbour Jeff had decided to accompany us, and very welcome he was too. Jeff is a vet. Not a fighting/army vet, but a vet vet. A veterinary surgeon, a dogs, cats, birds, fish vet. A very interesting and amiable guy too, did Jeff the vet prove to be.
With our very own James Herriot on board for the duration, it was clear that we weren`t going to be short of interesting conversation as we drove to and from London. Jeff explained that with working on Saturday very much the norm, he rarely gets to see the lads in action, in fact he`s only attended three Villa Park games to date this season, Tranmere, Tottenham, and Wigan, and this was his first away game for almost eight years. Brave man Jeff, brave man.
With Neil the day`s designated chauffeur, yours truly could kick back, read the assorted collection of newspapers and magazines, and listen to the harmonious sounds that echoed throughout the vehicle. Neil had selected some excellent listening material for us today, 'Hank Plays Holly` - Hank Marvin, 'World Gone Wrong` - Bobby Dylan, 'A Treasure` - Neil Young and The International Harvesters, Pink Floyds 'The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn`, and Emerson, Lake and Palmers 'Works volumes 1 and 2.
Not sure what our guest for the day Jeff the vet thought of the provided musical entertainment, he never commented, but if he never asks to travel with us again, I guess we`ll know that he suffered in silence. Doubt that it`s the type of music that vets pipe through their waiting rooms, that`s if vets do indeed pipe music through their waiting rooms nowadays. Probably not.
There were many Villa cars accompanying us as we headed down the M40, and with all of the away ticket allocation sold for the game, it was obvious that once again the lads would be noisily backed by the travelling claret and blue army.Speaking to the travelling Villans before the entering the stadium, it seemed as if there was no middle ground regarding the possible outcome of the game. There were those who thought that Arsenal were there for the taking, and that we`d succeed in taking home a point at least, while others thought that we could well be in for a heavy spanking, particularly should the Gunners grab an early lead.
With Bent, Vlaar and Given out injured, manager Paul Lambert opted to send the following troops into action:-
Brad Guzan, Matty Lowton, Cap`n Cieran Clark, Nathan Baker, Joe Bennett, Ashley Westwood, Fabian Delph, Gabby Agbonlahor, Andi Weimann, Charles N'Zogbia, Christian Benteke.
In reserve, and on the bench, were the substitutes, Marshall, El Ahmadi, Holman, Sylla, Bowery, Dawkins, Lichaj.
I had hobbled from the car to the stadium, on a mystery ankle ailment that had first come to light on Friday evening, when I noticed that my left ankle was not only aching but swollen. I dismissed it as a slight twist or sprain, and went to bed thinking no more of it. I`d awoken Saturday morning to find it even more swollen, and very tender to the touch. It had somehow got increasing worse on the drive down to London, was aching badly, and left me unable to walk without an extremely noticeable limp. Hence the reason, if any of you were wondering, why Paul Lambert had overlooked the possibly of throwing me into the starting line-up to replace Concrete Ron at the back. I should be fully fit and firing though by the time Mancini`s lot roll into town on Monday week, so maybe I`ll get the nod then.
We needed a solid start, in the hope that Arsenal might become frustrated and nervous at their inability to take an early lead, but sadly that wasn`t to be the case. We looked somewhat jittery, were on the back-foot, and conceded the first goal after only five minutes. Jack Wilshere had already forced an early save from Brad Guzan as the home team attempted to get their supporters back onside, but less than ninety seconds later, Cazorla obtained possession, and tucked away an easy finish as the ball rebounded back to him, following a Nathan Baker block on the Spaniard`s initial attempt at a cross. Brad had little chance. 1-0 to the Arsenal.
We responded well though, mustering our first chance of the game around the ten minute mark, as Charles N`Zogbia fed Gabby on the edge of the box, only for the brummie boy to fire his shot straight at Wojciech Szczesny in the home goal.
We had feared the worst after the Gunners lightning start, but in truth we were the side looking more and more likely to score, keeping possession well, looking lively on the break, while defending competently against the home teams unadventurous attacking play. Near to the thirty minute mark, we enjoyed our best chance of the afternoon to date, as Charlie N`Zogbia was first denied by Szczesny, before Andi Weimann then had his follow up effort cleared by Mertesacker. Our pacey attacks led to a definite nervous atmosphere amongst the home support.
We continued to pour forward at every opportunity, and Matty Lowton nutmegged Abou Diaby and entered the home penalty area, but Vermaelen came to the rescue with a last-gasp tackle. Matty though caught the Belgian in his follow-through, and was yellow-carded for the foul. Diaby was next to enter the book, receiving the yellow for a rather clumsy challenge on Charles N'Zogbia.
Walcott curled a left-footed shot just over the bar minutes later, before Giroud was then denied by Guzan, but Arsenal weren`t really threatening, and certainly didn`t look like adding to their lead. You started to believe that we had the opportunity to get something from the game, if only we could find that final ball to create a clear cut opening. We were certainly counter attacking at pace, causing a nervy looking Arsenal defence quite a few concerns. Gabby looked a real threat, quite a handful for the home defence, we just needed to get Christian Benteke involved more, in and around the Arsenal box.
Arsenal started to dominate the game after the break, but again created little, much to the ever-increasing annoyance of the home support. When they did manage to open us up, they found Brad Guzan in confident form between the posts. Andi Weimann went on another rampaging counter attack down the right flank and crossed for Gabby, but sadly he sent his header wide. We had though nearly grabbed an early leveler when Ciaran Clark`s towering header flashed over the bar following an early corner. Maybe I`m being over critical here, But I think that Cieran should have done better, at least by hitting the target. It was a clear cut opportunity, the type in our situation we have to put away.
On 68 minutes, we made our threat on the break tell, as Andi Weimann finished off a superb move with a strike from distance, that evaded the despairing dive of Szczesny. Arguably the home keeper should have done better, but we broke with pace following an Arsenal corner, and few inside the stadium could have argued that we didn`t deserve to be back on level terms. The equaliser came at a time when the home crowd had been starting to get frustrated at their teams inability to increase their lead, despite enjoying plenty of possession since the restart.
Benteke then found space at the back post, but Mertesacker saved the day for the Gunners,by getting in front of Benteke, just before he could get a header in on goal.
Lambert hauled off Westwood and replaced him with El Ahmedi, and with ten minutes remaining rather surprisingly I thought, took off Charlie N`Zogbia to replace him with Simon Dawkins.
Brad Guzan saved brilliantly to deny Giroud from point-blank range, as the home team piled forward, and with the minutes ticking away, most of the away support were now biting their nails, offering up prayers, in the hope that another late blow wasn`t going to kick us in the teeth again.
Five minutes from time though, with the home pressure mounting, Monreal swung the ball into the box and the impressive Cazorla swept the ball home, much to the relief of Arsene Wenger and the home supporters, leaving the away support distraught yet again.
We came quite close to earning what would have been a priceless point, and had we have held on, then we all would have been sleeping a little easier tonight. We nearly got it right. We had held men back and played solidly at the back, defending relatively comfortably, before exposing Wenger`s lot on the counter-attack with pace, skill, and enterprise. We could definitely have scored more than our one goal, probably should have done, but could easily have conceded more as well, particularly when Arsenal took advantage of the game opening up, and started to create more openings.
We have to take heart and confidence from our performance, although at this late stage of the season, with games now running out fast, the fact that we again threw away points late on has to be a huge disappointment, as well as being extremely frustrating. Arsenal beat us today because throughout their ranks they possess genuine premier league quality, players with the flair and ability to produce that little bit of magic that all too often separates the winners from the also rans. Once again you couldn`t fault our commitment and our desire, you could even argue that we deserved a share of the spoils, but in the cold light of day, we were yet again found wanting when it came down to producing that little bit of premier league magic, quality that so many of our rivals possess, and we sadly don`t.
So we trooped out of the stadium, or hobbled in the case of yours truly, once again cursing our inability to see out a game. Most Villans seemed more than happy with the effort put in by the lads, but extremely frustrated at the loss of another valuable point. We are certainly making things difficult for ourselves, and with the games running out, witnessing and listening to the hard luck stories is becoming really old now.
We have I think the players to keep us up, just about, but it`s obviously going to be extremely tight. Until we start clocking up the three pointers with regularity though, survival will remain a big ask. And with the games fast running out, time is hardly our best friend right now.
Jeff the vet though? Well he was encouraged. 'They look good enough to stay up to me` he said. 'A huge improvement on the performance I saw against either Tottenham or Wigan`.
And on that positive note, I`ll bid you all farewell until the next time.
Look after yourselves, keep fit and healthy, and definitely don`t work too hard. Up The Villa.
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Date:Sunday February 24 2013
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