In this age, tradition often cedes its elevated status to accommodation. So it was that as the day’s West Midlands derby between Aston Villa and Wolverhampton evoked a sense of English footballing tradition just on name alone, it nevertheless had to be played earlier than the more traditional 3 pm time. The early kickoff not only appeared to have disrupted the Saturday ritual of several Villa supporters, with many vacant seats spotted at Villa Park by opening kick as perhaps some were still in the pubs, but the lunchtime start put off the play of the players on the pitch as well, with neither side looking truly up to it throughout the first 45 minutes. Having roughly exerted the effort for only half a match then, a scoreless draw was destined to be the outcome in this one, and that is exactly what we received.
Still, prior to the contest, it somehow felt proper for this fixture to begin the weekend in the Premiership and for these two clubs to have entered the affair with good starts to their 2011/12 campaigns. Pre-season prognostications for both generally remained in the dire category, with heavy black clouds having already been placed menacingly over Mick McCarthy’s squad, and fears of an Alex McLeish-inspired revolt planted in the pitch at Villa Park given the Scot’s former stewardship of rival Birmingham City. It was even suggested that the reason for some of the empty seats at the park might be from corners of the Villa faithful continuing their protest over American owner Randy Lerner opting to employ the old enemy to manage their Villans. Instead, both clubs began the day seeing their names just behind the twin powers of Manchester near the top of the table, and while the season is only two matches old, it is fair sight better than what was expected. By the end of the match, Wolverhampton were found at the very top with the point, which is something that has not been said in the top flight at any time for nearly forty years.
The first half offered little in the way of highlights, though, with a long range shot by Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov in the 7th minute and a Stephen Ward cross that found Stephen Hunt’s head but also Shay Given’s paws in the 19th minute. The lack of coordinated offensive movements from either side could not be blamed on hearty challenges or crunching tackles one might expect from a derby, as even those were lacking. Noted hard man Karl Henry was tame by his regular standards in Wolves midfield, but no less effective for it by his more gentlemanly play. Villa RB Chris Herd losing his challenge with the goalpost while attempting to head a ball past GK Wayne Hennessey in the 12th minute was about as rough as the play got early on. Thankfully, Herd did not appear to suffer immediate ill effects and McLeish was likely relieved he was not forced into making an early substitution at a position where his options were a bit thin with young American Eric Lichaj failing to make the bench and a possible transfer of Alan Hutton yet to be concluded.
Gabby Agbonlahor presented the most consistent threat for Villa in the first half, but he didn’t quite pick up the pace until around the 24th minute. Having previously attempted cheeky backheels and passes through too small spaces on the left wing before this time, it seems he finally realised he is a bit fast and began running straight at RB Richard Stearman rather than engage him in a game of pocket billiards. Stearman, however, was up to the task and with assistance from Wolves captain Roger Johnson with the occasional overlap from Christophe Berra, Agbonlahor’s shift in style was further neutralised. As Villa correspondingly changed from attempting short passing moves begun from the back to a more direct approach, Wolverhampton actually sought to over-complicate their own slightly weak assault on Given’s goal, embodied in the 29th minute when Ward advanced into the penalty box from the left with space to take the shot, but chose to square pass the ball about until possession was lost in the final third once again. For McCarthy’s side, it was a day when Stephen Hunt looked always late to the party, Matthew Jarvis was unable to escape the strait jacket placed on him by a lively Petrov and reliable Herd, reducing the number of Kevin Doyle’s touches on the ball to those that could be counted on one hand.
The squad sheet indicated Steven Fletcher was on the pitch for Wolverhampton, but unfortunately for him and Wolves that might have been all it indicated.
Aston Villa started brightly to begin the 2nd half, with Agbonlahor finding himself in more space as Herd lost some of his protection with Charles N’Zogbia becoming more active the opposite side of the pitch. The pressure from both wings continued producing many opportunities for Villa to nab a goal via a set piece from the corner, but poor deliveries time and again along with Hennessey’s good reads on the ball prevented Villa chances being anything more than fleeting. Emile Heskey chugged along as best he could in the middle, positioned behind a nearly invisible Darren Bent, but were McLeish’s side to find a goal on the day, it was going to have to come from the wing. A dominant spell of possession by Villa after the hour mark prompted McCarthy into the substitutions of Kevin Foley and George Elokobi for Jarvis and Hunt, respectively, replacing the more offensive-minded midfielders for slightly defensive ones to regain the ball to see out a draw for the final half hour. Villa’s best chance in the 2nd half might have been during this period, with N’Zogbia having missed a golden opportunity by dragging his shot wide in the 69th minute after another corner saw Wolverhampton’s defenders leave him only with his thoughts.
By the 79th minute, the defensive substitutions for Wolves had worked, with McCarthy’s side retaining greater possession and taking the odd chance here and there. McLeish had previously countered by taking N’Zogbia off for Barry Bannan in the 74th minute, which might have been the wrong choice to make at the wrong time, considering he still had Marc Albrighton on his bench and Fabian Delph still on the pitch. While Delph has shown some promise in these opening matches after having suffered through an injury-riddled 2010/11 campaign, his passing in the centre was not particularly crisp nor was he incredibly effective charging forward. By the time McLeish did bring Albrighton on for Delph in the 85th minute, McCarthy appeared to have already won in his march to a draw. A final chance for Villa to nick the full three points in the 86th minute nearly saw Bent emerge the hero again, rising to head the ball over a gravity-bound Elokobi, but the ball sailed over Hennessey’s crossbar. While Richard Dunne maintained his effort at both ends of the pitch till the very end, he was unable to head in a late winner for Villa to score his first goal in nearly two years, but he was there to head away a final effort from Wolves on the near post to keep Given from being troubled.
The points were shared, and if only for a brief time Wolves could say they were again holding the top spot in the Premiership. Mick McCarthy should be pleased with his squad’s efforts, however early it may be, as Wolverhampton have already taken four points away from Molineux this season when in the entire 2010/11 season they mustered but twelve. As for Villa, the football today was not flowing nor was it particularly attractive, but it was effective. A leaky defense was the Villans’ key weakness the previous season, but today they looked organised and confident in front of Given. Should Aston Villa be able to maintain a good defensive form to a position higher than pre-season doomsayers anticipated, perhaps Alex McLeish can find a bit more favour with the fans.
After all, he did manage their rival to relegation last year.