With just one final round of league matches to be played, Aston Villa will unfortunately only be looking on enviously as Cardiff City and Fulham aim to seal the remaining automatic promotion spot this coming weekend but where did it all go wrong?
The Villans trip to Millwall has lost all sense of meaning, with fourth place completely locked in already and even our hosts chances of making the playoffs have now died in the last couple of games.
Many supporters will look to point fingers at several different factors as to why we didn’t quite make it. One thing is for sure though, it has been a season full of ups and downs. For me, there were several key matches during the campaign which seemed to contain real pivotal moments. This isn’t a list of our best performances necessarily. Just those games, good and bad, which I feel had the biggest impact on our season.
15th August 2017 – Reading 2-1 Villa
Our third match of the season saw us still trying to record our first win. After a massively disappointing 3-0 defeat at Cardiff City just a few days beforehand, this Tuesday night fixture saw manager Steve Bruce already under immense pressure. The performance at the Madejski saw very little improvement though and a Glenn Whelan own goal along with a Modou Barrow strike within five minutes of each other saw Villa scrambling to rescue something from the game once again. A late Conor Hourihane belter ended up as little more than a consolation and a return of one point from the first nine had the fans baying for Bruce’s blood.
Supporters frustrations were understandable; we had started slowly under Roberto Di Matteo the previous year and had never recovered. In a season where we felt we had to go up, we could not afford to dawdle out of the blocks yet again. Villa would go on to win just one of the first seven games, which has certainly contributed to us falling short of the top two. Yet, given how Reading’s season would unfold (they are still not safe from relegation at the time of writing), this defeat is now particularly disappointing. For me, much of the ill-feeling towards Bruce really built up from this match and has simmered away all season long. This was certainly a contributing factor to where it went wrong.
18th November 2017 – Q.P.R 1-2 Villa
On a positive note, this is a game where Villa got it right. Villa’s form had picked up a little by this point. Yet a shock 1-2 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday at Villa Park preceded this match and a trip to Loftus Road looked to be coming at the wrong time. The Hoops had dispatched early season pace-setters Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United in their previous two home games to our visit. On top of that, we had just lost John Terry to injury and the unfancied Chris Samba was stepping into the side. Many felt that grabbing a point would be a decent result in the circumstances.
Even those hopes seemed dashed when Jamie Mackie scrambled home a goal midway through the first half. However, Villa then turned in one of their best performances of the season and completely dominated the game from that point onwards. A penalty in first-half stoppage time, converted by Albert Adomah was an excellent way to go into the break. The Ghanaian international also finished off an incisive break with a well-placed effort just before the hour mark.
The result marked the first time Villa had turned an away game around after going behind for over four years. It also meant that we had already matched the previous seasons tally of four away wins. Suddenly, it felt like we were finally on track and capable of winning awkward fixtures instead of falling short.
26th December 2017 – Brentford 2-1 Villa
December was seen as a crunch month with some horrible looking fixtures against teams looking at making the playoffs at the very least. By the time we had gotten to Christmas however, we had drawn three and lost one, ensuring supporters were in far from festive cheer. The pressure was on Bruce and this limp defeat to Brentford only made it worse.
Despite Josh Onomah equalising after going down to Romaine Sawyers’ opener, Villa never really looked in the game at all. When Lasse Vibe put the Bees ahead again, we looked bereft of ideas and confidence. In truth, it was perhaps our worst performance of the season.
Villa had now gained just three points from a possible fifteen and now dropped to 8th in the table. An already panicked fanbase was sent into meltdown at the prospect of now even missing out on the playoffs. We had reached our lowest point of the season. Little did we know after it went wrong on this occasion, we would go on to enjoy our best run of the season after this match.
30th January 2018 – Sheffield United 0-1 Villa
The Blades were having a very solid season in the top six and despite having a wobble in December like ourselves, their form had recovered to be unbeaten in January so far. A trip to Bramall Lane wasn’t going to be easy. Sam Johnstone earned his wage making several smart stops to keep us in the game and with the match seemingly destined for a well-earned point apiece, Robert Snodgrass curled in an absolute beauty from the edge of the area in the 90th minute to snatch all three points.
For me, this is perhaps the most pivotal moment in our season. The sense of belief gained from this result was incredible. This made it five wins in a row and suddenly we seemed that we were finally able to put a real sequence of victories together. Knowing that we had players capable of such magic made us feel that any game was winnable. We finally seemed to be a team that were grinding out the wins from tough opponents who were in and around us and the manager was getting it right. We had lost and rolled over during the first half of the season to many of our rivals for promotion. Finally, we were living up to our billing. And automatic promotion not only seemed possible, but almost inevitable.
24th February 2018 – Sheffield Wednesday 2-4 Villa
Another trip to the Steel City saw Villa in need of halting a run of a couple of games without a win. Frustrations grew as the first half wore on with Wednesday going ahead early on and then regaining the lead on the stroke of half-time after Lewis Grabban had gotten us back into things in between. The sloppiness and lack of desire had apparently reared its ugly head once again and it looked like we had suffered yet another false dawn.
But just when everything seemed set for another lacklustre performance, Villa came out and managed to turn the game around. A rare Whelan effort silenced those who had objected to his selection and levelled things up to 2-2 and a point wasn’t a bad result in the circumstances. But when Hourihane netted in the 87th minute to put us ahead for the first time in the game there was pandemonium. Snodgrass made things certain with a 90th-minute penalty to top off yet another spirited fightback and keep the belief of automatic promotion alive. The fact that we were showing we were capable of coming from behind in tough games felt monumental and once again highlighted that we were getting things right.
7th April 2018 – Norwich City 3-1 Villa
Probably the day where most supporters accepted we’d blown any slim chance of automatic promotion and a day the manager got it badly wrong. We’d already endured a destructive run of results including losses to Q.P.R and Bolton and a disappointing draw with Hull City. Every game after that had to be a victory to have any chance of catching Cardiff. When Josh Murphy pinged in a rocket right before the half-time whistle there was an inevitability.
We hadn’t played well up until that point as it was. Dennis Srbeny made it 2-0 shortly after the break we looked way off the pace to stage a fightback similar to those we had shown at QPR and Wednesday. The hope that Jack Grealish’s strike gave us dissipated as quickly as it had arrived when James Maddison capitalised on poor defending to make it a comfortable 3-1 victory for the Canaries and all but consign us to the playoffs.
As I say, this isn’t a list of our best performances. Hence why the 4-1 demolition of Wolves or the 2-0 victory over fierce rivals Birmingham City isn’t listed here. But they certainly deserve a mention just for the sheer unbridled joy that we have all too rarely experienced in recent years. The 1-0 win up at Middlesborough also needs to be recognised as a solid win at a time where we really needed to halt the run of December’s capitulation.
This season, overall, has been enjoyable for the most part and those two games certainly showcased us at our very best. Of course, the difference between getting it right and wrong on the day could prove to be the difference.
Hopefully, the most pivotal moment of them all will come on the May 26th at Wembley, for all the right reasons and let’s hope we have learnt from when things have gone wrong.