Claret and blue flags of Prague Lions, Rugeley Villa amongst others drooped over The Holte End as Orjan Nyland stole the headlines for winning the lottery in a one in a million Hawkeye decision that left Sheffield United claiming daylight robbery.
“The goalkeeper was in The Holte End when he caught it,” joked Wilder behind gritted teeth, finely sharpened having bitten his tongue during a half-time break that came minutes after Ollie Norwood’s very subjective ghost goal.
For Villa, the 0-0 draw tightens an already nigh-on impossible to call relegation run-in that’s now evenly balanced on 29 games played. Five home wins for Villa in that time makes up 71% of their overall wins this season – comfort for Villa fans who’ll watch their side play out the majority of remaining games at Villa Park from living rooms up and down the country.
If Villa had managed to take all three points from Sheffield United, they’d have won more home games in ten of their last 12 top-flight seasons after 14 home fixtures. There’s encouragement that home comforts will remain despite the obvious lack of a 12th man.
Villa were spirited and industrious to earn a point against the very team that epitomises the hard-working nature needed to scrap for vital points at this point in a season, and the sixth-placed, European football chasing club are in no way lost amongst the Premier League elite.
Villa hadn’t taken any points off the top nine top-flight clubs at home until Wednesday night, and with the Blades only losing on the road against top two sides Manchester City and Liverpool this season.
You’re only as good as your last game and for Villa, a first clean sheet in the calendar year will go some way in boosting confidence at Bodymoor Heath having topped all the lists for defensive frailties since August.
Despite being let off the hook before the interval, Dean Smith was keen to highlight an overall frustration to not win Villa’s eighth game of the season.
“We’re the ones who go away disappointed even with that controversy. I think we’ve shown we’re in a good place and we’re ready to go and fight for our lives,” said Smith.
“We got away with one certainly with the technology not working. But I have been in the position before where the technology has not been so good for us. The important thing is we wanted to come out and show a good performance and we did that.”
Smith surprised a few when the team news dropped an hour before the big kick-off. Ezri Konsa slotted in at right-back, Kortney Hause replaced the injured Bjorn Engels and Keinan Davis headed an attack boosted by the returning John McGinn.
Higher vantage point
What the Villa boss did reveal prior to Wednesday was that he, John Terry and Richard O’Kelly would take a higher vantage point on the Trinity Road Stand whilst his bellowing voice came across over the TV. Villa looked more structured and assured in defending barring one misplaced pass from Hause in the second half, which for the most part fizzled out with Villa keen to get off the mark with a point on the board.
Neil Cutler remained in the technical area no doubt relaying missed messages from above him, but the Villa players looked to have intuitively taken the game to Sheffield United with pre-planned set-piece routines a key weapon for Villa throughout the game.
Before Villa’s home defeat to Tottenham four league games ago, Villa hadn’t scored a single header, nor a goal from a corner kick for over seven months – the only club not to do so in the league at that point. But against Wilder’s Blades, Villa were dangerous attacking set-plays with Hause, Tyrone Mings, Davis and Konsa all getting on the end of Conor Hourihane’s accurate deliveries.
Enjoying such success against a well-drilled Sheffield side bodes well for Villa with upcoming games against less equipped sides unable to deal with similar routines as Wilder’s side are. Smith had promised fans that his players were ready for action, their practice match and training application was both very good, and that player injury recuperation will take time.
180 days had passed since McGinn fractured his ankle to the Scot starting his first game at Villa Park in much stranger circumstances. Not only were there no fans packed in all four stands – fiercely encouraging McGinn to hound down the ball across every inch of the park – player names weren’t printed on the back of shirts, Villa were using their 13th defensive personnel combination and Jack Grealish flaunted a new natty hairstyle.
Though, Villa’s captain and talisman maintained his elite standards after three months without getting kicked from pillar to post. Gliding in between the highly rated Sander Berge and performing step-overs in Villa’s box, the sheer confidence of Villa’s number ten continues to revive fans’ hope of Premier League survival come August.
His link-up play with Davis was limited on the night, but Davis’ raw ability to fend off aggressive defenders with the ball at his surprisingly quick feet remains a key weapon for Smith who rewarded the young striker with a start after an impressive mini pre-season campaign.
Before Wednesday, you would’ve had to go back to October 1966 for the last time that this fixture threw up a goalless draw but on Wednesday, it was Davis who came the closest to scoring for Villa.
He, as well as the other 21 players, match officials, substitutes and coaching staff all took the knee on Michael Oliver’s whistle at the start of the game, in a poignant, iconic moment.
The Black Lives Matter protests have swept the globe after events in Minneapolis exposed more racial injustices that must now be challenged by society and those with the platform to force real and effective change in the sporting sphere.
Football has the power to balance societies inequalities. In 2010, the FA altered the perception of women in sport by creating the Women’s Super League before introducing the FA Women’s Championship. It demonstrated what effect the game can have on modern issues that must be eradicated. Villa celebrated the Aston Villa Women’s WSL promotion by laying a celebratory banner at the corner of The Holte End along with other banners to cover the empty pastel blue seats.
A tribute to Dean Smith’s late father, Ron, was an emotional, well-planned gesture to the former steward and lifelong Villan. An orange steward vest was laid on the seat at the heart of The Holte End to remember Ron’s legacy at Villa Park – a former Villa employee who witnessed Villa’s greatest moment in Rotterdam, 1982.