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Aston Villa 0 Watford 1 (19/02/2022) 20/02/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.

1- Balls to the League table.

Balls to the fact that this was our first win since, like, forever.  Balls to being four points behind Newcastle, balls to Burnley winning at Brighton.  Balls, even, to Roy’s “let’s not kid ourselves that we’ve cracked it” post-match wisdom.

Balls to all of it.  We’ve just won a football match.

And we knew that we’d feel differently as soon as it happened.  That all the gloominess would lift, that the apathy towards the next fixture, the resentful apprehension towards the rest of the season and the grim acceptance of relegation would dissipate.

It was still a startling, breathtaking development.  There is joy in the world again.

2- Little sign of it earlier in the day.  Little sign that our fortunes were going to change.  We left home in truculent drizzle; within fifteen minutes I’d taken a wrong turn adding ten minutes to the journey, autopilot taking me towards Rushden Lakes rather than northwards towards the A14.  The motorways offered water and puddles and stop-start traffic.  The previous day had been full of “don’t leave home unless you have to” weather warnings and here we were heading for Birmingham not even sure if we wanted to any more let alone had to.  In the top tier of the Doug Ellis Stand having hauled ourselves up several flights of stairs we joined a queue to the single refreshment kiosk stretching along the back of the stand that had the sombre air of folk lining up for their own execution.  “Alcohol is not served in the away section” read a voice behind me in a neutral tone as we approached a menu of offerings ten minutes into the queuing process.  After a moment’s contemplation the speaker sighed and abandoned the exercise.  Shortly afterwards an elderly steward offered an untargeted apology, the hot food hadn’t yet reached the required temperature and wouldn’t be available for a while.  Grim acceptance, as with so much these days.  “There had better be chocolate”, growled Daughter 2 rebelliously.

Only as we enter the body of the stadium itself did the tone change.  It would be wrong to regard the wind, the dying embers of Storm Eunice rolling startlingly around Villa Park, as a “leveller”.  With that sort of attitude, the “everyone’s ultimately better than us” attitude, we’ve no chance.  But there was certainly a feel of something in the air – and more than just the paper bag that buffeted irretrievably across our vision for much of the afternoon.  This was an afternoon for drama and great deeds.

And to general relief we’d come dressed for the occasion.  João Pedro was missing with an unspecified knock, but Ismaïla Sarr and Imrân Louza were restored to a 4-3-3 in what looked closer to a first choice eleven than we’ve been able to field for a long time.  

The opening was physical, boisterous and, in the wide-eyed words of Daughter 2, “so intense”.  Villa had by far the best of it, probing and pushing and enjoying the vast majority of possession – indeed they spent the first minute and a half passing the ball around in their own half as we waited.

As they progressed towards our penalty area the various threats represented by Coutinho, Buendía and Digne asked questions of us.  These questions were answered and thrusts repelled, often by the impeccable Cathcart who as previously suits the Hodgson philosophy of everyone being in the right place (which we’ll get to) down to a tee…  but it was a little bit too last ditch for any comfort.  This wasn’t waves crashing on an indifferent rock face, it was only going to take one slip.

The home side would enjoy the greater possession throughout but never looked as dominant later in the game.  Indeed, and admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, there were portents of what was to come as early as the third minute as Ings pushed his away into the box and went down under challenge from Samir as his window closed in front of him.  The incident was twice replayed on the stadium screens as Ings and company furiously appealed for a penalty to Robert Jones’ welcome indifference (significantly the same video operator chose to curtail a replay of a second half incident as Ben Foster indicated that Ings had pushed Samir into the collision that would end his involvement).  But all that the reviews of the first incident betrayed was a soft contact, no more a penalty than it was a chocolate cake.  It didn’t even make Match of the Day.  And so it’s hard not to interpret the peevish, sulky urgency of the appeal as desperation (as above, with hindsight).  This wasn’t a side with the patient confidence in their own ability of a Manchester City, say.  This was a side chasing goblins and fairies in the third minute.  Brittle.  There to be got at, if only we could get our own shit together.

3- Spoiler alert.  We got our shit together.

I can feel Dad’s eyes rolling at the onset of statistics but here they tell all manner of stories.  The most obvious, the most dramatic, the most publicised and the most telling is the shots vs shots on target thing.  Villa:  20 shots, 1 on target and that a dolly shot from Buendía fielded comfortably by Ben Foster, an irrelevance.  Watford: 8 shots, 4 on target, all venomous.  As impressive for me though was the fouls count.  Away from home, sitting deep and chasing possession, attacking on the break…  Watford 7 fouls Villa 12 (many of which by John McGinn, who did remarkably well to escape censure in the first half and calmed down in the second).  This was a performance of a level of discipline unparalleled this season and this was the basis for the victory.  As an aside, it’s difficult to imagine that we’d have achieved similar composure with Daniel Bachmann in goal;  occasionally brilliant, exuding calmness isn’t his thing.  That discussion’s done I think.

I once went to Dortmund zoo.  Late in the day, the zoo was about to close and as we were wandering out of the park we passed a pen of hunting dogs.  They sat in silent formation, eyes fixed on the lingering intruders and we stood and watched in turn.  As we moved to abandon this face-off and headed a few steps towards the exit they rose to their feet as one and shuffled their formation.  As we stopped to face them again they reset and squatted in the same formation, rotated but a few feet.  Alerted to this game we repeated it several times with the same result.

One can only imagine that Roy and Ray have visited Dortmund zoo, or at least have a working knowledge of the African Hunting Dog, since our defensive set-up was similarly co-ordinated and unforgiving.  Once we’d survived that opening spell Villa’s windows were restricted, even in the frantic close as they chased the game.  Both sides were hampered by the conditions, any ball in the air felt like a wild, speculative gamble and neither team was really set up to play percentages by pumping in challenging high balls – certainly not Villa, and not even the Hornets since despite our attacking threat our defensive discipline warned against such cheap surrender of possession (and indeed since our forwards seemed reluctant to attempt to retrieve possession prompting some frustration in the first half).

Perhaps unsurprisingly such clean chances as there were came on the break.  Sarr had a quiet game overall, struggling to get involved much less impose himself on proceedings… when he’s fully flame-on again opponents like Lucas Digne will perhaps be more cautious in pushing on.  But here’s what you get with a play of his devastating quality, since his moments carved Villa open.  The first of these saw an outrageous slight of foot open up space for him on the right flank.  His low ball sliced through the home side to release Dennis on the left; the Nigerian cut inside Chambers and Cash leaving the former on his backside before driving low at goal.  Perhaps he chose the wrong option there with Sarr closing in space to his right, but the shot forced an exceptional one-handed save from Martínez, the stop of the game.

At the other end, a Villa break saw Buendía play Ings through late in the half… this was the opportunity that Villa had been playing for all half, the caveat to those “shot on target” stats earlier.  Ings should have opened the scoring but Foster came flying out and spread himself, the shot caught the outside of the post to the relieved mockery of the away end.

4- The interval saw the away end sit down for a collective breather.  I don’t know how many people braved the kiosk queue, which had taken forever in a half-empty stand at 2pm – one can only imagine that they’re still there (and can perhaps advise as to whether the pies have warmed up yet).

The resumption was greeted with the vigour that our first half performance had merited, and the team continued in the same vein – indeed the second half was like the first only more so, as our breaks grew in potency to the point where the home fans were surely looking at each other commenting, “we’re going to screw this up, aren’t we” and our defending continued to block out the light at the other end.  A couple of long range shots bent over the bar, Villa won a free kick on the edge of the box that infuriated Tom Cleverley but Digne dropped it wide of the post in any case.  They were going to need to do something special, and didn’t.

This was down to more than just the defenders, though Hassane Kamara in particular continued to polish his cult status. He gave the ball away cheaply and almost consequentially a couple of times….  but people who do things make mistakes and Kamara is doing something all the time.  Inconceivable that a full back could be more involved than the Ivorian whose dynamic refusal to recognise a lost cause is already a feature of the side.

But the midfield was hugely more comfortable with Imrân Louza sitting at the back of it.  There’s no faulting the application of either the excellent Sissoko or of Tom Cleverley, but this looked so much more natural a shape for all concerned and all revelled in their roles, the Moroccan most of all…  a mischievous quarterback, pulling the strings and dictating the game’s direction.  On countless occasions he would receive the ball under pressure, rotate into space and with a glance up release an attack in defiance of the swirling wind.  

Villa had a warning as we rampaged out on the break and King, the pivot of the forward line, released Sissoko to his right.  Perhaps when we’re mid-table the Frenchman’s inability to hit a cow’s arse with a banjo will become endearing… here his ferocious drive at a disappearing window at the near post, striking the side netting when a shot or pass across the face might have given Dennis an option.

But when the goal came, just as we were reflecting that an away point was worthy but probably inadequate, it was a fine, fine thing.  The footballing accomplishment and its multi-faceted perfection, showcasing so many of the best bits of our afternoon, can only be appreciated on replay since whilst I remembered Hassane Kamara’s dogged composure in playing the ball out and Joshua King’s resilience and poise in opening the pitch up for Louza the subsequent goal celebration distorted time and space to an extent that these might have happened in a different game.  

No forgetting Louza though, burrowing into Villa territory then stepping back and into his own dimension, like Neo in the Matrix.  Bodies charge past him and he sidesteps effortlessly, bullets fly at him and he flicks them out of the sky. Then he flings a ball to the right to where Sarr has dropped away from Digne on the flank and here comes Isma’s second moment of outrageous magnificence. Digne obstructs his progress and is quickly joined by Coutinho; their reluctance to jump in inside the area seems sensible, until the Senegalese leans back and from a stationary position carves an impossible cross between the pair of them, over King and his marker at the near post and onto the head of Emmanuel Dennis who has bullied Ashley Young (snigger) into irrelevance.  As his header crashes past Martínez the away tiers explode in limbs in the most cathartic celebration of the season.

5- In my mind’s eye the closing period is anxious but that’s borne of circumstance more than anything that Villa actually did, their theoretical threat not amounting to all that much as we continue to get bodies in the way.  The Villa faithful are under no illusions as the stands begin to empty rapidly, and it’s the Hornets who come closer to adding to the scoring;  Cleverley drives viciously at Martínez’s near post, and then another swaggering counter sees Sarr pour a liquid low ball into King.  The ball is slightly behind the striker and he does well to clip in a shot that the outstanding Martínez blocks point blank.  We could have done with that ending differently, King’s reliable belligerence could do with the fuel of something going in off his arse.

But let’s not be greedy.  The darkest hour is always before the dawn and here we are, finally, eyes blinking in the sunlight.  More stats (sorry Dad)…. our fifth win in six against Villa since promotion in 2015 (thanks Dave) – and the odd one out remains a f***ing travesty that I’m still not quite over two years later.  Our second clean sheet of the season (get us!) two weeks after the first also represents Villa’s first failure to score at Villa Park in this Premier League campaign.  Most of all, this is our first scruffy win of the season, our erstwhile soft underbelly betrayed both by the paucity of draws and the fact that the four preceding victories all saw us (needing to?) score at least three goals.   We’ll take 1-0 all day long.

If you permit yourself to glance at the fixture list you’ll see reasons for optimism.  The fact remains that we’ve won once in three months and that other corpses around us are stirring too.  This is still a big ask.  But if you were going to set up a great escape you could do worse than plan six of seven remaining home games being against teams in the bottom half.  Not to mention the next two games being against opponents in the same sort of precarious introspection that we found Villa in today.  That guarantees nothing.

But it gives us a shout.  See you Wednesday…


Foster 4, Femenía 3, Kamara 4, *Cathcart 5*, Samir 4, Louza 5, Sissoko 4, Cleverley 4, Sarr 3, Dennis 3, King 3
Subs: Sema (for Dennis, 86) NA, Kabasele (for Cathcart, 93) NA, Hernández (for Sarr, 94) NA, Kalu, Kayembe, Troost-Ekong, Masina, Ngakia, Bachmann



1. iamthesunking - 20/02/2022

Well done on having a win! It’s more than we’ve had since forever. 😐

Matt Rowson - 20/02/2022

Long May it stay that was. Nothing personal, obvs…

2. Walthamstow Horn - 20/02/2022

Gutted that a positive covid test on Friday stopped me attending but thrilled at the win, coyh!

Matt Rowson - 20/02/2022

Indeed. Hope you’re ok

3. skipton65 - 20/02/2022

Excellent report, and this is the first of several surprise results we all know we need – signs that we might just get them. Hopefully the players are listening to the ‘this is not done yet’ advice from Roy.

skipton65 - 22/02/2022

Wednesday night – Watford at home to Palace and Burnley host Spurs – both first encounters for this season. We need a win, but I can see Burnley losing.

4. Big Al - 20/02/2022

Sarr’s cross is even better on a replay. He delays it, seemingly to lay off to the charging Kiko on the overlap, opening his body up and dummying the covering two, and then knocks it in instead.

5. Stuart Campbell - 20/02/2022

Brilliantly entertaining report, Matt. The image of African Hunting Dogs at Dortmund zoo will stay with me for a long time. We are allowed to smile again!

Matt Rowson - 20/02/2022

It was terrifying. 25 years ago, still clear in my head.

6. Harefield Hornet - 20/02/2022

“The Sombre air of folk queuing up for their own execution” – Brilliant ! – the huge chunk of time added on the end was a bit excruciating though !! – I don’t think in 44 years of watching this lot I’ve ever been so relieved to hear the final whistle .

Matt Rowson - 20/02/2022

The prospect was worse than the reality tho no? Their kitchen sink didn’t amount to much.

Harefield Hornet - 20/02/2022

The 3 corners and a couple of free kicks was more than enough though !

7. Kevin - 20/02/2022

Was meant to be taking my son for his first away game of the season but a slipped disk put paid to that idea. My United supporting wife stepped up and took him instead.
Gutted I missed being there but the boy had an amazing time.
I think Louza is going to be *special*.
Cathcart looks like a new player with Samir alongside him.

8. John Smith - 20/02/2022

Superb as ever Matt. Thank you COYH

Matt Rowson - 20/02/2022

Cheers John

9. JP - 20/02/2022

Well there was alcohol in the lower tier! Daughter 1 and her Villa boyfriend live in Birmingham and wanted to treat me. Couldn’t get tickets for the home end. On a whim I managed to pick up three for our end quite late on, best decision in a long time.
That was the team effort so lacking against Brighton. What fun Kamara is. He was in front of us for the first half and I thought outstanding. Great to see the dependable Cathcart at his best. For all their possession Villa rarely threatened but every time we did break we looked dangerous. Let’s hope there is more to come. Daughter 2’s rash promise, in August, to buy me a cake every time Dennis scores in a win is starting to pay dividends.
Probably me but I have a blind spot re Sissoko and King, one too sloppy the other often disinterested. Probably in the minority but I’m still to be convinced. Had to drive to Birmingham which was not what I wanted, but a win always makes the drive home fun.
Now for Palace and hopefully further progress.
Keep up the excellent work as it’s always a great read whatever the result.

Matt Rowson - 20/02/2022

Cheers JP. Maybe the note DID specify upper tier (where there was no space to linger with beer out of view of the pitch) and I misremembered it.

PEDantic - 20/02/2022

Funny how people see things differently. I thought Sissoko was terrific yesterday, the missed pass to Dennis apart. I agree that King could and should do more, though.

10. Graham French - 20/02/2022

Thanks for the , as ever, entertaining report Matt. Even better after a win, obv. Kudos for all the thoughtful & considered reports throughout our bad run. Is that now over? Wednesday’s game should tell us a lot .But there is hope. You’orns!

Matt Rowson - 20/02/2022

Cheers Graham

11. Dr Rob - 21/02/2022

I know exactly what you mean about the African Hunting Dogs; unnervering and available to see locally at Whipsnade in formation should you so wish to repeat the Dortmund experience. Perhaps Roy & Ray have been for a visit and taken some inspiration. I should say I was thrilled when I heard that Roy & Ray were taking on the challenge. Roy comes accross as some direct and honest in interviews, like a warmer version of Nigel Pearson and facing a similar challenge if we’re honest. The only thing that gets me is the BBC and media in general bang on about his age. Surely this just means he is wiser for the extra years of experience? Couple of questions for you if you have the time to share your thoughts 1) Do you think the outlook is better or worse than in Feb 2020 under Pearson (quick search looks like were 19th but with 5 more points at 24 games) 2) would you care to hazard a wild guess as to whether Roy & Ray or maybe Ray alone would stay on for the next season if we stay up?

Matt Rowson - 21/02/2022

Thanks Rob. I’ll have to brave Whipsnade when I’m feeling psychologically robust.

On your questions… 1) difficult of course with so much to weigh up and detaching yourself from hindsight is hard. “No worse” would be my summary… certainly I’m more comfortable with Roy and Ray than I ever was with Pearson who never felt…. stable or reliable. We maybe had better players then, and more points as you describe but were in an environment where there was only one really bad team. I still think we were unlucky to go down and that was still in doubt on the final day after Deulofeu, and Villa, and all the other things that went against us. So “no worse” gives us a fighting chance I think. On 2)… that rather depends on whether there’s already someone lined up for whom Hodgson is holding the reins, and also on whether he would fancy it. Given those two I’d speculate probably not but if it were to happen, given that both parties would need to be satisfied that things had gone/were going well, I’d be delighted.

12. skipton65 - 23/02/2022

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