The Aston Villa winning machine smashed through its latest obstacle with pleasing ease on Sunday lunchtime, dispatching bitter rivals Birmingham City by two goals to nil. Despite Blues striker Sam Gallagher spurning perhaps the best chance of the game, this usually tightly contested affair saw the Villans dominate from start to finish and with that the fans are starting to believe.
Villa were exceptional. A totally professional display saw everyone pull their weight in what was one of the most one-sided Derbies for years. Jack Grealish was a deserved man of the match. Blues couldn’t handle him and it was no surprise that he was the most fouled player during the game and will no doubt have a few bumps and bruises to contend with. Albert Adomah was also terrific, not only for his goal but also for the number of times he was back helping out Ahmed Elmohamady defensively. That in itself is a real testament to how well Villa are working as a team right now.
A few eyebrows were raised with Steve Bruce dropping the inform Birkir Bjarnason for Mile Jedinak but the decision was totally vindicated and for me, the bushy-faced Australian was a close second to Grealish in grabbing the man of the match award.
Talking of Bruce, his difficult week in the lead up to this match must be acknowledged. Anyone who has lost a parent will know how tough it is and keeping focus on anything else is almost impossible. The image of him welling up when Adomah gave us the lead will be a defining one in his Villa career. Despite what anyone may think of him from a football perspective, he hasn’t half shown some guts this week.
As for the result, it could have a real psychological impact. We have now moved up into second place and into the automatic promotion positions for the first time since we’ve been in this division. That could be huge.
For many of us, myself included, it was difficult just six weeks ago to see how we could catch up and reach the position we are now in. It wasn’t because I thought the difference in points was insurmountable. I just didn’t see us being able to strike any sort of consistency that was needed to make up the ground that had already opened up.
A slow start looked to be our Achilles heel once again. One point from the first three games put us on the backfoot. From there we hit little patches of form, two or three wins. But these would be punctuated by a loss or a couple of draws here and there. We didn’t seem to be able to put a strong run of victories together.
Our dismal December only served to highlight the problems we had faced in the first half of the season. Namely, being able to win against the teams challenging in and around us. Injuries to key players were already beginning to mount up and several others were not performing at a high enough standard consistently.
In recent weeks I’ve examined some of the reasons why we’ve suddenly sprung into this rich vein of form, such as the appointment of Steve Agnew. Our new head coach’s arrival seems to have had a huge impact and it cannot simply be a coincidence. The return to fitness of John Terry and Grealish has also been crucial. And the upturn in form in the likes of Robert Snodgrass and Scott Hogan have helped to propel us forward too.
And now for the first time this season we have something that I personally haven’t felt in a Villa side for many, many years. I believe and I think many others also believe.
Before the game against Birmingham, I felt confident rather than nervous. Despite this being a derby game, I felt entirely sure that we’d win the game. Up until a few weeks ago, I very rarely felt such absolute conviction in Villa to win games. Especially in tougher looking fixtures.
Being able to believe is something that is also clearly coursing through the players. It feels like such a long time since we have seen a Villa side playing with confidence and swagger. But not just that, the teamwork and the effort that everyone is putting in for each other is clear to see. There is suddenly a realistic target to aim for and that goal is becoming more tangible with each passing game.
For me, much of this belief stems from the last gasp victory at Sheffield United a few weeks back. In the grand scheme of things, a point away at a tough place to pick up points (and a bit of a bogey ground for us in recent times) would’ve been greatly accepted. But when Snodgrass curled in that absolute beauty in the 90th minute, something seems to have clicked. For both the players and the supporters.
Up until that point, we had struggled on the road against the teams in an around us. Losses to Wolves, Derby, Cardiff and Brentford as well as draws with Bristol City and Leeds United all pointed to a side that couldn’t get over the line when it really mattered. The 1-0 victory at Middlesbrough certainly started the turn in fortunes and the 5-0 walloping of Bristol City at Villa Park was an outstanding performance. But neither of them quite had that ‘acid test’ feel to them like the match at Bramall Lane. You can see why some started to believe then, couldn’t you?
Perhaps it was the nature of the victory; the last minute euphoria that created such a feeling of invincibility. But those three points could end up being the most important of the whole season. As I say, a draw wouldn’t have been a bad result. But the win gave us so much momentum. Instead of ending another mini-run of victories, it enabled us to elongate the streak that we had previously been unable to put together. And it felt like the sort of result that teams that get promoted get under their belts.
Of course, as a Villa fan, it is difficult to completely shift that feeling that a slip up is just around the corner and I’m loathed to get too carried away. After all, there are still fifteen games to play and anything could happen.
Due to the magnitude of what is at stake for our club, we know that as soon as this run ends there may well be a return to the panic and calls for Bruce’s head from certain sections of support. But now is the time to move on from that.
I think at some point during the season we have probably all doubted Bruce. I think during our poor December run, the questions posed by the supporters were rightly asked of him. The slump was unacceptable as we descended as low as the ninth position at one point, and nobody could foresee the upturn in form that we have enjoyed since.
But with just fifteen games to go, we have to realise that it’s boom or bust time. We’re in it together now. If we draw a few games or lose one or two, we cannot call for Bruce’s head anymore. We’re not going to win all of those games, there will be some bumps along the way.
To his credit, our beloved potato head has gotten us into a great position for the final third of the season. And what’s more, the football being played is easy on the eye. Things can obviously change in just a few games, but at least we’re now looking to have the playoffs as a potential safety net rather than scrambling after a top-six place as our ultimate goal.
We’ve got some tough games still to come starting with a visit to in-form Fulham this weekend. But for the first time in years, we’re heading into a tricky fixture and we believe that we will be the better team. And it feels amazing.