The Thriller At The Villa
There were two matches played last night between former champions of Europe. In Eindhoven, Barcelona continued their predictably stately glide towards the latter stages of the Champions League with a two-one win against PSV, a result so obvious that it was scarcely even worth giving a great deal of consideration to. Such is the nature of the group stages of the Champions League, a tournament which doesn’t usually start to feel much like a competition until the spring, these days. Back in dreary old England, though, two other former European champions were slugging out a match which couldn’t have been much less predictable.
It’s been a long time since either Aston Villa or Nottingham Forest meant a great deal on the international stage, but for a few seasons at the start of the 1980s, these two clubs took advantage of a lull in the quality of European club football to each have a spell as the champions of England, and then as the champions of Europe. Forest came first, becoming the champions of England in 1978 and following that up by winning the European Cup for the following two seasons. Villa’s triumphs were nominally more understated, English champions in 1981 and European champions the following year. In both cases, though, this period has come form part of the definition of the clubs concerned ever since.
At Villa Park, last night a crowd of 32,685 – less than 2,000 fewer than for the PSV vs Barcelona match – turned out for a match that will likely live long in the memories of those lucky enough to witness it. A five-all draw is an extremely uncommon result in football terms, and furthermore those present got to witness Tammy Abraham score four goals – including a first half hat-trick – for the home team, whilst travelling supporters could satisfy themselves with a sparkling performance from Joe Lolley which included a long range goal worthy of a higher level of football than the Football League Championship.
In truth, this was a match that was set up to be entertaining. The removal of Steve Bruce as Aston Villa manager and his replacement with the former Brentford manager Dean Smith has seen an upturn in form, and Villa went into last night’s match off the back of having put four goals past Birmingham City in their derby match last week, whilst a trip to a derby of a different sort, Derby County, in their last match before the international break brought a convincing three-nil win against one of the division’s most hyped teams.
Nottingham Forest, meanwhile, went into the match unbeaten in their last five league matches and sitting on the outskirts of the play-off places. Their form this season has been somewhat understated, but following four consecutive seasons of having finished in the lower half of the Championship table, pushing well into the top half and staying there represents progress under Aitor Karanka. They’re not quite the finished article yet – and some might argue that it’s almost impossible to become that in a division underwritten by Premier League loans with a reputation for being unpredictable – but at least the polishing process seems to have finally started.
These green shoots of progress are important. It’s not that long since Forest were in the position of Close To Crisis Club, and to see them moving in the right direction will be encouraging to other clubs which have fallen on hard times of late. Aston Villa haven’t been as far away from the spotlight for as long as Nottingham Forest have, but their run or torpor has been just as frustrating to supporters. Relegation in 2016 came following a lengthy run of uninspiring seasons in the Premier League, a period of attrition for the club during which mere survival in the Premier League became simultaneously the be all and end all and something approaching an existential crisis for supporters.
Even relegation couldn’t quite provide the bounce back to winning ways that supporters had hoped for, with an uninspiring thirteenth place finish followed up with defeat in last year’s play-off final at the hands of Fulham. Bruce’s removal from the club last month came following a tepid start to this season which itself followed a summer of near-crisis at Villa Park, with considerable conjecture that the club might be spiralling towards administration. That dread scenario never came to pass, and a new managerial appointment felt like the sort of sweeping out with a broom that Aston Villa needed. Dean Smith’s appointment has been reasonably successful so far – without pushing hopes too close to the stratosphere just yet – and the team may grow stronger yet, should Smith have identified players for future transfer windows that will fit into his vision for how the team can further develop.
Considering the entertainment on view at Villa Park last night it is perhaps appropriate that, despite the fact that neither side could plug the holes in their defences for long enough to snatch all three points, both moved up a place in the league table as a result of their endeavours. Aston Villa are now up to eighth place in the Championship, and are just three points off a play-off place. For Nottingham Forest, meanwhile, the evening took an even more favourable turn, with results elsewhere meaning that they leapfrogged local rivals Derby County into sixth place in the table and that last play-off spot.
Such is the nature of professional football these days that, in his post-match comments, Smith stated that he was “devastated” not to have won, coupled with the somewhat memorable, “I thought at 5-4 we would go on and win the match.” Aitor Karanka took more of a glass half full perspective, saying that, “I think it’s been a crazy game but we can’t forget we’ve played against one of the best teams, with better players, and we were attacking even with ten men” (referring to the sixty-eighth minute sending off of Pereira Figueiredo), although perhaps Smith’s disappointment is somewhat more understandable for the fact that his team also had two goals disallowed – one for handball and one for offside – in the closing minutes. The latter of these would, had it been allowed to stand, have been Tammy Abraham’s fifth goal of the night.
When the dust settled, though, dissatisfaction at the specifics of the evening’s events felt a little facile. It is inevitable, over a lengthy period of history, that the life of a football club will consist of ebbing and flowing, and it’s undeniable that both Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest have seen some low points over the last few years. As a barometer for where they stand today, though, this remarkable match was a useful guide. Neither look very much like European champions at the moment, but you don’t have to be a European champion to entertain, and the signs are present at both clubs that better times might be just around the corner. The route to the top flight will always contain numerous twists and turns for whoever gets there. At least both of these clubs can satisfy themselves with the fact that they are headed in the right direction rather than stuck on the hard shoulder with the bonnet up, trying to make out why they came to such a spluttering halt through plumes of steam and smoke.