Following the bizarre scenes we witnessed at Elland Road, the 46th and final match of the 2018-19 regular season is upon us. It’s a bit of an anticlimax in terms of meaning, but that’s okay, because that’s what happens when you go on a record-breaking run that was as necessary as it was stirring and, frankly, miraculous. Eleven games back, I don’t know that anyone would’ve said we’d be playing this last fixture, never mind the one before, safely ensconced in the playoff spots.

But we’re back where we were last May, and what looked an intimidating way to finish the season has instead turned into a management exercise for Dean Smith. Expectations. Momentum. Sharpness. Albion. These will be the things on Smith’s mind, and no doubt the players’.

And when you look at everything that’s happened following the crushing 0-1 defeat to Fulham in last season’s playoff final, it’s incredible.

At the brink of financial implosion less than a year ago, Aston Villa have somehow managed to right the ship and earn another shot to play for a return to the Premier League—thanks in no small part to Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris. Together, the messiahs fondly known as Compass appeared out of nowhere to shoulder Tony Xia aside, pump in the funds, hold on to the crown jewels, and give Villa another chance at redemption. It could hardly have been a stranger ride.

I said over the last week or so that this has felt like four seasons. We had another underwhelming start. Said goodbye to Steve Bruce 12 games in. Said hello to Dean Smith. Started pulling it together. Saw it stall out. Then saw it all click in the nick of time. And you know you’ve seen something special when you look back at it all and realize that the side have basically gone a quarter of a season unbeaten, and that every point from that was needed to come into today’s game with another to play next week.

So. A sellout crowd at Villa Park will see who Dean Smith decides to sit or play. We know John McGinn, one of the best bits of business we’ve done in recent years, will be out to avoid a disastrous yellow card. We know Tammy Abraham will not be risked.

The rest? No idea. That’s the management exercise piece. Smith will want to keep confidence and momentum. He’ll want the side playing hard and setting the stage for a three-game run to glory. He’ll also want to be avoiding any key injuries, and likely will want to give Alan Hutton at least a cameo in what would surely be his last regular-season outing in claret and blue, if not his last appearance for the club overall. Say what you will, he’s given his all, and deserves a chance to say goodbye and hear the applause.

Thank you, Alan.

And there you have it. The game will be all about psychology, rather than points, and while Deano’s certainly earned his money up to now, this is the dress rehearsal to achieving what he was brought in to do: salvage the season and get us back up. He’s done the salvaging. Now we’ve got the hard part.

Smith will be focused, and I’ve no doubt he’ll have the players focused. If nothing else, last week’s circus will have reminded everyone that the job’s not done, and nothing is guaranteed. All those wins will count for nothing if we don’t come up with at least two more after we get tomorrow’s proceedings out of the way.

So today is all about setting us up for the nerve-wracking excitement of the playoffs, and we’ll see how we feel about our prospects after the full-time whistle.

Over to you.

Comments 98

  1. Thanks JC
    Well I’m up early for once, in time for the match.
    Too many midday KO’s in my humble opinion [& it’s still only on tv in places like the States, despite that being the reason for the KO time].
    I don’t remember having seen every match in a division at 12.30 before.
    Probably because the Murdoch’s jet setting screws up their sense of everything including time.
    I’ve almost forgotten the old 3pm rituals.
    One more illustration of how the world has shrunk.

    Let’s hope we don’t shrink with it, & expand into the EPL instead.

  2. Thanks Jc- don’t think I’ll get to hear the match I’m up north with my lady visiting family. Chance for a few to impress and hopefully not end on a wimper . I expect a draw all things considered and a bow for Hutton. Lansbury might get a start along with a few that need a game , catch you all later

  3. Codger could’ve had one there, did come off Zimmerman. Nice delivery.

    We are getting at them quickly. Seems like we might have a Villa Way.

  4. Whew. Off the bar. Bit of a strange one, that. Corner looked like it had curled over and out, but kept in, didn’t get the best clearance.

  5. Not bad. Missing four of our best players, playing evenly, creating good chances. The passing is still there, the press on occasion. Lansbury’s survived 45 minutes and has some running in him.

  6. Great 1st half. Codger is a class #9, I think he’s better than Tammy and would start him for playoffs.

    How great is Hause…such quality. Alex may get caught out yet….seems like he thinks he’s better than everyone with his lazy passes. He’s quality, but I think he knows he’s the best player on the pitch

    I was so wrong on Glenn Whelan, what a gem. Hourihane free kicks are almost like penalties 🙂

  7. VillaMD,

    Wouldn’t necessarily expect much, tbh, given how long he’s been out. I’ll pay more attention in the 2nd half, but again we’re playing it quickly, getting it wide, going crossfield, trying to find Kodjia. So it could be a lot of it is just bypassing him.

    And even though I’m seeing lots of continuity in the way we’re playing, I’d think he’d have to start a couple for him to really integrate.

  8. VillaMD
    He nearly scored a goal, a bit rusty but there is a good player in there.
    Disagree about Abraham & codger, & codger could have got 2 more if he hadn’t forgotten what he was doing.
    He tends to not see where other players are & drifts into their space & shuts down any pass & scoring opportunity.
    Plus Zebe has a languid style but I wouldn’t say he thinks he’s the best player on the pitch.
    This partnership is a bit of an unknown as they haven’t played together much if at all.

  9. JC and IanG, fair replies. I agree with what you both wrote. I also would love Lansbury to come good. He’s playing too defensive for me, let him sit in front of Whelan vs behind him

  10. Norwich seem to be a little casual having already got promoted.
    I think any plans they had were a little kyboshed when they found out what our lineup was

  11. Yeah, defo very makeshit, IanG. But encouraging that without Jack and John in the middle, Whelan and Hourihane are doing enough. Good work from Hause and Tuanzebe.

    You can just see that everyone’s been training hard, on the same page, nothing really changes in the way we’re trying to play.

  12. Norwich are full strength. Commentator getting on my nerves. Anyone watch Higgins in snooker yesterday? Two quality players

  13. Funny from Norwich, I’d have thought they’d want to finish with a bang on their way to the title. Bit risky to be content with how things stand. But they’re coming into it a little more now.

  14. The one thing you notice is that whether we’re trying to or not, there’s much less control and bite in midfield. As you’d expect.

  15. Codger proving he can’t tackle in defence, a good position for a Norwich free kick.
    Thankfully they cocked it up

  16. Codger’s defo made progress, but still not the player he was. Bit clumsy with the ball too often, but has been popping up with goals, so still got the instinct. And he still tends to be a little greedy.

  17. Nice work from Davis there. Could be a wildcard in the playoffs. Gives us something we don’t otherwise have, helps change things up. Would like to see him get on scoresheet, he’s done everything but when he’s played, and had some good chances.

  18. No, IanG. But a lot of skill in the Norwich side. Systems are great, but you can’t replace McGinn’s doggedness, Jack’s ability to carry and get us situated.

  19. And really, we could’ve packed it in those last 10 mins and come away with the draw, but that’s not the way we play. I like the belief and intent, says Smith was willing to lose to keep playing positive football.

  20. JC
    Our energy level in the 2nd half was end of season lethargic at times, with no coherence in the pressing.
    The personel changes after the playoffs should be interesting whatever the result.

  21. Leeds might well stumble, but I don’t know that Derby have enough over two legs to pull it off.

    The Baggies will be tough, but I like that Jack and John got a rest.

  22. IanG,

    Think there were some tired legs. Whelan’s influence dropped off, was a long run-out for Henri.

    And yes, we’ll see a very different side either way. Key will be early business as much as possible so Dean gets a good summer in.

  23. Obviously, though, won’t have Jack or Axel. Tammy, either. Mings? Maybe. But I think teams will come sniffing after him and McGinn, and might just have earned a place back at Bournemouth, regardless.

  24. I think we will eat past the baggies without to much hassle, just a feeling.

    As for the final Leeds are looking desperate, can see them slipping up against Derby or coming out of those games in poor shape, expect them to get physical and maybe a sending off I it’s going badly.

    Thinking it might just be us and frank at Wembley

  25. Mark
    You could be right, it would be entertaining to see how many get sent off if things aren’t going well for Leeds.

  26. I’m right behind Deano resting our most influential players. They will be needed next weekend. It was a pity we couldn’t get the draw today but I’d rather go down trying to get the win than battening down the hatches to be there or thereabouts.

    Bring on the yam yams. Can’t wait.

  27. I see Hal Robson-Kanu got a red card Good lad 🙂

    Also saw jack has a £60m buy out clause and Smith said he would of made it more,

  28. Plug,

    Agreed. The right move, and in all honesty, I think a loss in playing to win, as you say, was probably good for the side. Streaks done, dose of reality, week of good training without over-confidence.

  29. Excellent leader once again JC.
    Up early yesterday for breakfast in the Aston Tavern, after the quickest journey to Aston from Wales, to see Dean’s back up squad give an excellent account of themselves.

    Villa Park was rocking from the off, with Alan Hutton captain for his last game at Villa. A nice gesture from Dean Smith, and deserved.
    The opening twenty minutes was a little rocky, but expected when playing the best team in the Championship, which already had an unbeaten run of thirteen games. Good to see us recover from their early opener, get one back with a great delivery from Conor, finished off well by Kodija.

    Villa then settled into the game and had some great chances, and most were impressed by how Lansbury settled into the team alongside Hourihane and Whelan, who once again was outstanding. What a gem he has been this season under Dean smith. Wonder what happened to the Whelan that played under Bruce???

    Wont go over the minute by minute, as that has been reported here already, but commentators and cameras often miss a lot of action, the number of times a Villa player is suddenly on the floor, in an off the ball moment when they were just going to be a threat, including a stonewall penalty in the second half, when Hause was flattened to the ground by TWO Norwich players, but completely missed by the officials. No great complaints by the Villa players, as Smith has instructed them to get on with the game and PLAY TO THE WHISTLE…

    Playing to the whistle was clear to see yesterday by both sides, as a couple of times a Norwich was on the ground writhing, but no-one bothered, and got on with the game. I do not think after the Leeds fiasco, that players will be kicking the ball out of play.

    At the end it was a very good game, which Villa deserved more from, but some poor finishing, and bad decisions by the odd player stopped us from scoring at least a couple of goals. Green had a very mixed afternoon and should have scored, and let the ball go out for a throw in when he could have kept it in, and gone on to make more of a threat on the Norwich goal. Hause had a really good game, and once again Keinan Davis impressed. Would have like to have seen him come on sooner. Steer outstanding once again, and not at fault with either goal.

    All in all, a good game against the Champions, who were there to win, as results could easily have gone against them, with Sheffield United, having the better goal difference. It was very impressive to see our team slot together so well at the first time of asking, against a team that had played a whole season together. It shows that Smith’s style of play is working, and he was very pleased at the end.

    The day was wrapped up with all the payers and their families taking to the pitch and Norwich being presented with the trophy, applauded by everyone in the stadium.

  30. PP,

    Thanks for the write-up. Like you say, could’ve had more, thought a draw would’ve been fair, but not a bad accounting all things considered. As Deano said afterward, the players know the structure, can be slotted in now.

    And it was a nice gesture for Hutton.

    One of things I like about the side and the whole set-up is that I feel everyone out there deserves their minutes and is playing hard to keep them. Can’t think of a player I don’t ‘like’. Some just do some things better/worse/differently than others, but they’re all putting in shifts and playing to win, and trying to play to the best of their ability.

  31. I do find the Whelan question interesting. I always felt like we were almost playing with 10 men out there, solely because of his legs/age. He knows the game, positioning, all that, is an accountable player, plays hard always.

    So, curious to hear other thoughts, but I think there’s a few likely reasons. One, he, like everyone else, is fitter. Two, getting a structure/system together helps everyone…In Whelan’s case, I think it means he isn’t exposed as much since we do a better job keeping it, and the high press helps slow things down coming back at us. When we go longer and turn it over, the ball’s not in dangerous areas, and we don’t lose our shape as easily. Three, a much faster and more mobile CB pairing needs less protecting.

    All important, but the structure thing is what’s begun to stick out. The anticipation is much better because players all know what they’re trying to do. If Whelan is in an advanced area, there’s someone going to be taking responsibility for the space he’s vacated. If he’s trying to win the ball back, the others are trying to be accountable for the outlets. He’s basically been freed up to do the things he does best. Goes for all of them.

  32. JC- RE Wheelan, I’ve seen many fans claiming that playing Wheelan gives us more protection than say Hourihane. Like you I don’t think thats particularly true or the whole truth, he is definitely afforded more time and makes use of his experience to keep it ticking over. Before he used to mill around in the general area of DM not really winning the ball much nor effecting games. Now he is often on the edge of the oppositions box, thats a total 180 to him under Bruce.

  33. This season Villa dropped 25 points from winning positions and rescued 29 from losing positions. Says a lot about our season and amazing that we are in the play offs.

  34. Mark,

    Very true. That’s mainly the picture I have of him from before, trying to catch up to attacks that went by him, doing a lot of pointing after being bypassed.

  35. It is amazing. We needed every single one of the 10 in a row, especially the Wednesday and Rotherham wins, as those gave us four or five points we’d likely not have come away with earlier in the year.

  36. JC,

    Agree with a lot of what you say about Whelan, and the way we now play, whereas before if Whelan had the ball, the problem was passing it on, as now players are expecting the ball and know what to do with it, and we are doing much less of the crab passes.
    The centre backs and Steer have made the biggest difference in moving the ball forward, lessening the pressure on the DM.
    However, for me, it has been his fitness, and aggression to win the ball, almost another McGinn, and very successful at it. One of the headers he made on Sunday was amazing with the height he gained to reach the ball. I do feel that a lot more can be seen of players when you are actually at the game rather than watching through tv camera lenses.

  37. PP
    “I do feel that a lot more can be seen of players when you are actually at the game rather than watching through tv camera lenses.”

    Absolutely agree, & thanks for posting your match experiences, as for those of us who can no longer go it is invaluable.
    Me I have to put up with the radio, highlights or occasional TV when I can get it.

  38. Talking of the camera lense, the camera work from Sky has deteriorated in terms of where the focus is.
    My focus is the football & not the personality cult, where sky tends to go to make money.
    I’m still not very impressed with Sky, period.
    But this season the times & moving dates are out of order, especially for the away fans, but it’d be interesting to know how many 12/12.30 & 3pm moved to an evening, kick offs we’ve had to endure.

  39. IanG- Price of being popular I’m afraid.

    I think Wheelan doesn’t deal with the press well even now, not knocking him but both Goals on Sunday started out right and cut in to the centre where he had little effect, from the highlights I could see Hutton was anywhere other than where he needed to be too, Tuanzabe was trying to shut down multiple players, looked very similar to how we used to concede.

    I agree its a different perspective at the match but that can depend on where you are stood, used to hate it when standing on the Holte when all the play was at the witton end. You can definitely get a better sense of the overall game on TV but its good to see players live to appreciate the athleticism and Skills, and you can’t beat the atmosphere.

  40. MK,
    I do understand what you are saying about where you are in the ground, as I used to stand on the old Holte End, and then when I moved up the ladder a little in life, I had a season ticket in the old Trinity Road stand, where the view was superb in comparison, and we could real get those floorboards thundering! I now sit in the lower Holte and have an excellent view of most of the game, but if the action is at the North Stand End then you have to rely on tv for a clearer view of some incidents, if it is not shown on the big screen at the time. Unless it is a game of the day, then you do not get very good commentary, or the camera work when it is on the red button, or highlights on Quest or Sky. This is quite sad, as often much is missed, giving people the wrong impression.

    There are some good info videos from some of the unofficial fan sites on You Tube worth watching sometimes.

    Enjoyed the Man City v Leics City game tonight with good refereeing, excellent play from both teams, no one moaning at the ref, trying to get fouls, just everyone giving their all, very similar to the Villa v Norwich game. So refreshing to see players just giving their all and playing football.

    The Vincent Kompany goal reminded me of Ron Vlaar against Sunderland scoring the first of our six goals..!!

  41. PP
    I used to sit in the Witton Rd stand, nearer the half way line than the Holte.
    3-4 rows up, a great view.
    Someone may take me to the Albion game at the Yam Yams home, [one of their lot], & I remember the last time they took me, & Westwood scored a great goal from outside the area which was the equaliser [yes I know, Westwood], right in front of us.
    They were very helpful to someone on crutches at the time.

    I never thought I would see Kompany & Vlaar in the same sentence like that.
    I watched the game too, & it was a great strike.

    In the future it will probably be choosing your own views during the game, from multiple cameras.
    Mind you they will have to come out of the technological desert to do that.

  42. I see the much maligned Westwood go both players and payers player awards for Burnley, well done, never thought he was as bad as made out.

    If reports are to be believed the Leeds fans are calling for every tom dick and harry to be banned for other teams as they believe they have been victimised by the league 🙂

  43. Yes MK,

    Was impressed to see that Westwood’s talents have been appreciated by fans and players alike.
    Sad that most Villa fans did not appreciate his talents, and how had he worked to keep the ball moving.
    Enda Stevens at Sheffield United has also enjoyed a purple patch, scoring again last Saturday.

    See Harry McKirdy and Alex Prosser have also gone. I sincerely hope that these youngsters go on to have good careers in the same way that Johnson and Robinson have at PNE.

  44. IanG,

    Not sure what technological developments will come in the future, but in the more immediate times we should be able to choose watching any game on Netflix or Now tv on a pay per view basis. At the moment I am happy just to pay Sky to watch all their Championship games, with the rest being a bonus, if I choose to watch them, but if I am honest, I probably watch at least 3-4 matches per week, which works out at about £1 per game, and I cannot fault that.

    Not sure of exactly where I sat in the Trinity, but it was about half way up and not far from the halfway line, and was for 1974-79. Somehow I managed to give up just before we went on to greatest time in my lifetime….. the drawbacks of running a pub in Mid-Wales…!!!

  45. It’s a 4 to 1 shot from here in. Otherwise known as a cr*p shoot. And it’s time we got a result against the yam yams. I’m nervous, but it’s a nervous confidence. Any advantage we take from VP will be gold dust for the second leg. I think we will do it because I can’t see them getting another freebie like the one Rodrigues got away with.

    So much depending on it. No pressure then lads!! Let’s just tear into them.

  46. With all the comebacks in the Champions leagues this week you might be thinking its gonna be tough over the next 2 games and certainly not a walkover even if we go 3-0 up on Saturday. Make me a little nervous as it seems games that look dead and buried are not, home or away.

    Worth bearing in mind though that us being in play offs has been a comeback all of its own. On top of that the whole club made a comeback financially and I cannot remember seeing so many games with comebacks in one season. Even the 10 wins had plenty of dramatic moments like Rotherham, the sheff weds game, we have done it all this season.

    If these games go to script the nerves are going to take a bashing 🙂

  47. MK – you only have to go back through these pages to immediately after we lost at home to WBA in February. Everyone had written off our chances of promotion. I had done so even earlier than that game. It was rebuilding time with young and hungry.

    The 10 game streak was unforeseen. Never in a month of Sunday’s. Mission impossible. Even the Compass board were making sounds about promotion not being a disaster if we didn’t make it. Nobody saw this coming.

    Now we have a great chance. Better than last year by some distance. I don’t expect this Villa team to die wondering. Heart, desire, belief, skill. It’s there in spades. With a raucous army of fans behind them, it’s possible.

  48. Plug- Looking back you could see that although we had injuries and were slowly patching a side together we were dropping points because of a worldy goal or as in the WBA game the keeper was concussed and they scored a weird looping header and a deflected goal, we just could not break them down without Jack. We have had a few keepers perform miracles against us too.

    I don’t think I gave up on us getting near or in the play offs entirely, not just because of the potential in the side but because so many of the top 8-10 had to play each other, we never really drifted away from the top 6 to much points wise, flitted from 8-12th, at the end of the day if Fulham could go 25 unbeaten then why not us?

    Jack was the Key though along with time and coaching, I don’t think anyone saw the ten wins coming either but strangely after 2-3 games I thought we looked unbeatable.

    We went on an incredible run while nearly every other top teams form dipped, at the end of the day we probably took Boro’s place who hardly beat a top 8 side all season. We lost something like 5 against the top 10.

  49. Some news on O’hare who scored 3 goals and a few assists in 16 games for Carlisle.

    ” Carlisle finished in mid-table but O’Hare’s contribution was not gone unrecognised as he was voted the League Two PFA Bristol Street Motors Fans’ Player of the Month.”

    He’s been given a contract extension until 2020 which I find amazing?! He has to be up there with Jack in the talent stakes, different style but a very intelligent footballer. Hopefully his stint away helps him because he can come over as a bit immature, know how he feels 🙂

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