REPORT: Aston Villa 1 City 1

Let us go back in time, thirty-five years ago. A young boy takes a walk across the rolling slopes of the Ural Mountains, lost in thought, deep in his dreams. He is sports-mad, and it is football that most of all grabs his youthful enthusiasm, but not for him the stars of the very fine Soviet Union side of the time. Shengelia, Blokhin, Bal, Dasaev – superb footballers, but the young Leonid Slutsky – for it is he – turns his eyes fondly to the west. As the ancient folk tales of his village tell, there is no higher land between the Urals and the lofty fortresses of the Yorkshire Wolds. ‘How I wish’, thinks the hopeful lad, sniffing the bracing breeze that has crossed the plains of Northern Europe, ‘how I wish I could one day see the trees spilling down over Welton Dale, feed the ducks on the pond at Bishop Burton, and, joy of joys, watch Comrade Nick Deacy play football’.

Dreams. Sometimes they become reality. And so it is today, as Leonid Slutsky has landed the job he has craved for so long. The manager of Hull City.

Sure, back in the days when he was tramping the steppes with his faithful dog Spassky, I don’t suppose Mr Slutsky imagined he’d end up in in the employ of the ghastly Allams, but I also don’t suppose in the troubled days leading up to this opening fixture of a season wracked, for the second year in a row, by atrocious off-field negligent summertime planning by our owners, he imagined he’d able to field a side that showed such a high level of defiance, commitment and ability.

We got a point at Villa Park, and, while it might not have been expected, it was certainly well earned.

Early days, but even if we are a train crash of a club off the pitch, there are hints of a decent team waiting to emerge on it.

This, then, was an unexpectedly enjoyable game of football.

Off we go, on a breezy but sunny late afternoon, the pitch slick from a heavy lunchtime rainstorm, and we card an orthodox 4-4-2:

Campbell Hernandez
Grosicki Clucas Henriksen Bowen
Clark Hector Dawson Aina

First thoughts on seeing that set-up were that the midfield looks lightweight – and the midfield did indeed look lightweight – and that young Max Clark at left back is going to need help from Grosicki to repel Villa’s preference to attack down the flanks. And indeed he did need that help. But rarely got it.
Henri ‘Fop’ Lansbury breaks clear on to a through ball within the first two minutes, but his shot slithers across the face of McGregor’s goal and beyond the far post. On 5 Agbonlahor, serial lazybones and squandered talent, sprints clear of Aina down their left, shredding a fragile offside trap, but McGregor smothers his shot. No such respite a minute later, as Grosicki dithers, leaving young Clark exposed to a 2 on 1 attack down their right. The ball is shovelled across the face of our goal, and Agbonlahor, wholly unmarked at the back post, is left free to swipe the ball into the net.

This could get messy. Aina, pulled inside and consequently completely AWOL from the right-back position when the goal was scored, is obviously having trouble adjusting to the intensity of first team football, Clucas is allowed little time on the ball in midfield and gets minimal help from Henriksen, another who is presumably feeling his way tentatively back into competitive action, while Michael Hector, an impressive physical specimen, looks far too easily pulled out of position by Villa’s pace and movement. Hector is also damaged early on by a horrible illegal tackle by Henri Lansbury. Yellow for the Villa midfielder, and a great big old sore Hector.

After twenty minutes or so we finally begin to get to grips with a game that could already be beyond us. Referee Andy Madley aims to keep the game flowing, which leads to a wild spell with several bodies sprawled over the pitch after heavy challenges, culminating in a Grosicki shot that is held by netman Sam Johnstone. We are second best in midfield but showing signs of life, though on 26 Michael Dawson is indebted to Alan McGregor’s feet for blocking a chance created by Dawson’s own clumsy surrender of possession.

Villa’s most impressive player is, no surprise, one Ahmed Elmohamady. Playing in his favoured right midfield role with Alan Hutton backing him up at full back, Elmo is able to dart forward at will without worrying about the defensive side of his game which is so notoriously frail, and he makes life tough for Max Clark throughout. As mentioned, Grosicki is way off the pace through the first half and looks barely interested: a vision of Nikica Jelavić after relegation last time, keener to get on the ‘phone to his agent than to put in a shift for Hull City. Meanwhile, Villa’s central defence consists of a Saint and Satan. James Chester, halo worn nonchalantly, is paired with the genuinely evil John Terry. Neither is at all stretched during the opening 45 minutes of the season as the ball rarely comes anywhere near our forward pairing of Hernandez, anonymous, and Campbell, mobile but hoping in vain for service.

But we finish the half with flickers of hope. On 42 Hernandez swivels, whips a smart shot wide of Johnstone’s right hand post. On 43 a fast break yields us our best moment of the half, as Grosicki feeds Campbell whose shot is saved, and the ball rebounds to the Pole whose shot is also saved. That drags us through to half time, indisputably second best but only a goal adrift.

There are plenty of gaps among the travelling support. Better things to do than slog down the holiday motorways, sneered at by television’s capricious kick-off whims? One can well understand the sense of alienation from our club, and from the ravenous beast that is modern football in general. And there are no tourists scattered among our support. We are not Premier League anymore.

Into the second period, and we begin with refreshing vigour. Sights on goal are however few, though a speculative 30-yarder from Hernandez flies closer to the target than Johnstone was initially expecting. On 61 there arrives reward for a brisk fifteen minutes from our boys, and a strangely indolent spell since the break by the home side. Campbell drives forward with pace and menace, a short spell of broken play in front of the Villa box, Grosicki is fed the ball down the right, and his gently lofted cross sweeps across the face of the goal to Bowen at the back post who cudgels a nonchalant left-foot volley into the net. The ease with which Bowen converts the chance shouldn’t disguise how well he did. He is, on this evidence, what Ruud Gullit would call ‘a good technical player’.

That is a deserved leveller, and we persist in pleasingly positive vein. Grosicki, now playing directly in front of the City fans and visibly concerned to impress us with his rediscovered commitment, is looking for the ball and making things happen. Villa look short of leadership from midfield, and at the back Terry is exposed as hopelessly slow, even if he also has a quick awareness of positioning that will allow him to get away with lack of pace most weeks even against much fleeter of foot Championship attackers. Useful for finding those elusive disabled parking spaces too.

The subs bench is raided by both managers as we move into the final twenty minutes of the match. For us David Meyler replaces Campbell, who has put in a decent shift and is, I suppose, not yet fully match ready. It is a switch that suggest a certain lack of ambition, and so it proves. We are not now pushing to win this game, Mr Slutsky is happy with a point. Villa aren’t, but they are not willing to take big risks in search of the win either. McGregor makes a complete mess of a free kick on 79, clutching at air as the ball soars beyond him, but we survive, and we settle down to a spell of sustained Villa possession to complete the match. Onomah, the Aston sub, can’t stretch to convert a presentable chance on 86 but, that apart, they create little, and the poverty of their attacking imagination is emphasised by the torrent of noise pouring down from the Holte End which they are attacking. There is no torrent. There is no noise.

Villa’s empty cupboard of attackers prompts Mr Bruce to bring on dear old Chris Samba right at the end, forty seven years old and the same number of stones in weight. The wily Slutsky, having already swapped Weir for Grosicki, reacts to the arrival up front of the vast but ponderous Samba by withdrawing Henriksen in favour of the sturdy Mazuch, and that is quite enough to get us safely over the line. A point, a precious point! Only the fourth we’ve gathered away from home since the end of last August, remember.

At the end the players offer warm applause, and receive it in return. That performance and that result are about as good as we could reasonably have expected, after yet another summer of gross mismanagement at our club. Campbell, all smiles through most of the match, hands his shirt to a kid, and finally Mr Slutsky himself, boyhood ambition fulfilled, walks over, wreathed in smiles, to take the plaudits.

There are tougher tests to come … No, hang on, there aren’t really, at least not if the bookies are to be believed. That is one of the hardest fixtures we’ll face all season out of the way already, and safely negotiated. The real tough test is prising the money out of the Allams to acquire the players we need to create a squad that can be viable in this brutal slog of a Division. We will see, but yesterday was a far more encouraging display that anyone can seriously have foreseen.

Steve Weatherill (report via Tiger Chat)

10 replies
  1. Jon Tennison
    Jon Tennison says:

    Well given Leonid’s birth town is the former Stalingrad I think we can rest assured of a formidable defence in the first half of the season followed by a free flowing proletarian advance all the way to the heart of the repressive beast, or Stamford Bridge as it is known these days. Dobro pojolovat’, Tobarisch Slutski

  2. Bryne
    Bryne says:

    Bowen did very well but at times in the second half, he and Max Clark managed to make Alan Hutton look like Cafu. Clark looks a yard (or two) off the pace for the championship and if we don’t get a polished left back in before the transfer window ends, that position will be an open sore – put it this way, he is no Josh Tymon. Michael Dawson also seems to be a shadow of what he was, and already looks like he will need replacing at the end of the season. I was interested to see how Clucas and Henriksen would go in the Championship – Clucas looked annoyed at his team-mates on a number of occasions yesterday, and I would expect him to leave before the window shuts. Henriksen did virtually nothing of note the whole game and I wonder if and when he will provide a goal threat, which is what he was bought for. We looked sharp at the top of the pitch, and as long as we hold onto the players we have in the attacking third we will at least score goals this season. McGregor was also excellent and we should be worried that he has been linked with Forest this morning – the fact that city signed Callum Burton tells me that the Allams are looking to get either McGregor or Marshall off the wage bill.

  3. Phil H
    Phil H says:

    Seriously need backup… The bench looked so void of anything extra….

    We’ve had 20 players leave….. 5 come in….

    The size of the squad is laughable- especially when you consider we have £120M + in the bank….

    We should be able to compete in the PL with that kind of money- instead we can barely get on a level to compete in the lower reaches of the championship……

  4. Jimmy Weekly
    Jimmy Weekly says:

    Agree with most of what Bryne says. Henriksen works best just behind the forwards. Clark was spotted as the weak link by Villa early on, perhaps before the match, and struggled. Dawson will be OK. I didn’t rate McGregor so highly though. As the match report points out, he let at least one cross go past him that Villa should have scored from.

  5. Bill Carson
    Bill Carson says:

    Re the gaps in the away support, hardly surprising given the Premier League prices for a Sky accommodating fixture. £47 for me and my 12 year old son!
    What happened to Twenty is Plenty???
    Pleased with the performance and a point.
    Happy to see McGregor replaced in the transfer window too. He’s never been the same since his horrific injury 3 years ago.
    Why (apologies for stating the obvious) the hell are we struggling with the squad size when we’ve pocketed over £100M???
    Left back, centre back, left winger, right winger, centre forward, holding midfielder required!

  6. Bosco
    Bosco says:

    Great match report Steve.

    Slutsky is winning a lot of friends amongst the Tiger Nation and giving us hope, despite Ehab’s pocketing on the cash.

    I really do hope Ehab backs him, we have a potentially a very capable and personable Manager and a some good young players to build a challenge, or at least that is what I’m hoping…

  7. gjhdurham
    gjhdurham says:

    According to a post I’ve seen, there was a group sporting full CSKA training kit and wearing City scarves seen leaving the away end. So no tourists…?
    Dawson looked poor and McGregor bailed him , but then nearly gave it away missing a freekick that looked pretty straightforward at this level. Question marks…
    Clucas hasn’t looked so intense this season, so suspect he’s contemplating his future. May see better when the window closes… Not a good midfield Sat though after Stewart was pulled.
    Aina looks very inexperienced at full back. Tends to ball watch and leave space behind him. Same as our full backs last year!! Needs shouting at to remember his defensive duties. Well caught out on Sat.
    Clark…not sure. Not much support from midfield on Sat. Was always worried that Whelan might kick us about, and without Stewart…
    Groswicki and Bowen need to perfect the swopping of sides. Could be very useful in this division. Bowen reminds me of Platt…in looks and finds space and scores! Encouraging.
    Defence and midfield need to improve…which should give a dangerous attack…in this division…more chances. Encouraging start…keep what we have…bring in a few more with quality. Good chance in this division. Pleased to see some youngster working through too. Pity about Tymon but sure Clark doesn’t think so!
    Viking should have done better whatever the Allams faults!

  8. Gina
    Gina says:

    Good accurate report from the boy Weatherill, he is definitely one to watch. But no mention of Bruce’s men trying to kick City off the field ?

  9. Blackadder
    Blackadder says:

    Anyone still questioning why Ehaw is not spending money on the side after selling off the heart of the team has obviously been in a coma for the last two years! It’s not about owning a successful club it’s about raping the club of its best assets, Maguire, Huddlestone, Robertson etc etc and pocketing the 85 million pounds in parachute payments as well. I accept that we were going to lose some players after relegation but four or five million was spent mainly on one virtually unknown player who missed the first game through injury. I suspect that Liverpool told Ehab “if you don’t take Stewart we won’t buy Robertson”. It was also sickening to see Elmohamady actually trying and playing as we know he can instead of faking it as he had done at City for the last couple of years!

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