Tales From The Villa And The Vine

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 16 October 2022.

It was a relatively late start for me. The 8am alarm sounded and I then collected the Gruesome Twosome by 9.30am. All three of us had chosen black tops – Fred Perry, Ben Sherman, Robe di Kappa – and as we stopped in Melksham for the first McBreakfast for absolutely ages we looked like the senior members of some “ultra” battalion.

Kinda.

Milan was still dominating my thoughts when I woke and over the first hour or so of the journey up to Birmingham. This is often the case, eh? The thrill of a European trip is difficult to forget easily. I soon told PD “I will be honest; I am trying my best but I am finding it hard to get up for this game. It’s a bloody good job I am not playing.”

I stopped for a coffee at Frankley Services on the M5 and I was soon turning off at West Bromwich.

To my right, the angled floodlights at The Hawthorns were easily spotted – “one of only three grounds where Chelsea have won the league, lads” – and the sighting of the stadium from half-a-mile away brought back immediate memories of Milan. On the elevated A4, approaching the end of our journey last Tuesday morning, I was keeping my eye out for the San Siro roof which I knew was a few miles to my right, to the south. Lo and behold, despite the grey and hazy view, I found it relatively easy to catch the ridiculously huge roof beams appearing in a void between some rooftops.

My heart jumped in Milan. But my heart jumped in West Bromwich too as I quickly remembered one of the finest nights of recent memory.

I dropped the lads off about a five-minute walk from the away turnstiles at Villa Park but then turned around and drove three-quarters of a mile north to my usual parking spot for Villa at Perry Barr. On the mile-long walk south, I noted that the horrible walkway – an underpass and a footbridge over the busy A34 – was no more, thus cutting a few valuable minutes off my approach to Villa Park. “The Crown & Cushion”, where we enjoyed a very boozy pre-match before the 2002 FA Cup semi-final, had been razed to the ground a few years back.

There were no real pre-game plans on this occasion. There aren’t too many pubs to the north of Villa Park and beers aren’t served in the away end.

This always was going to be a quick smash and grab raid against Aston Villa.

There is red brick everywhere on the way to the stadium. The terraced houses on Willmore Road where I parked for maybe the tenth time in a row, Perry Barr Methodist Church, the houses on Aston Lane, the Aston pub, the old tramway building and then of course the surrounds of Villa Park itself. Alas, the old Trinity Road stand with ornate gables was demolished in around 2000, but its design features are mirrored in the huge Holte End at the southern side of Villa Park. These days the only terrace in town is the steps which lead up from Witton Lane to the base of the Holte End. These steps are speckled with deep claret railings. Squint and it almost feels like an old-style football terrace.

I needed to wait a while to pass over a spare ticket.

I made it in at 2.02pm.

Phew.

The sun was beating down. My God it was hot. My choice of a black wool pullover seemed rather ridiculous. I sidled in alongside Gal, John and Parksorius.

The team? I tried to work it all out. With Reece James out, we wondered who Graham Potter would play at right wing-back if he decided to choose that system. We wondered about Ruben Loftus-Cheek. As I peered out into the bright sun, I attempted to piece it all together.

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Sterling – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Chilwell

Havertz – Mount

Aubameyang

I think.

Before I had time to ponder it all, Tyrone Mings headed a cross from Ben Chilwell up rather than away, and Mason Mount, lurking centrally, was able to pounce. He adroitly touched the ball past Emilio Martinez. Luckily enough, my camera captured it all.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 1.

A dream start, eh?

I looked around at Villa Park. It is a really fine stadium. It has been modernised but it still feels like an old ground because the four stands are reasonably different. The oldest current stand at the north end of the ground may not last too long though. There are plans to bulldoze it and build afresh with an even larger two-tiered structure in its place. An acquaintance, who lives nearby, had evidentially been invited in for a hospitality gig in the North Stand. He sent over a ‘photo of former Villa players Tony Morley and Kenny Swain who were in one of the lounges and were now hosting some guests. These two players had taken part in Villa’s European Cup triumph against Bayern Munich in 1982.

Ah that year again.

On Saturday 16 October 1982 – forty-years ago to the very day – Chelsea lost 0-3 at Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers. The gate was a paltry 6,062. It was that bad that Alan Mayes made his first appearance of the season.

There is no punchline.

I was really happy with our start. In addition to the early goal, we were moving the ball well and the whole approach to attacking seemed to hark back to a more free-spirited time. We were looking to attack in a variety of ways.

Long and short. Over the top. Sideways into space.

And despite my ambivalence on the way up, I was absolutely enjoying this game. I was on it and hopefully not likely to fall off.

But then, imperceptibly, the home team grew into the game and for the rest of the first-half we were second best. There were defensive errors – Cucarella was the main culprit but even Silva on occasion – as Villa ran at our retreating backline.

A cross from the Villa left resulted in a melee at the back post. A header crashed against the top of the bar.

Kepa had already been involved before we were treated to three magnificent saves during the same move as Villa peppered our goal. The second one, especially – down low – was magnificent. The third save, in the end, did not matter as an offside flag was raised.

Regardless, our ‘keeper was cheered loudly by the Chelsea contingent.

“He’s magic, you know.”

An errant pass from the poor Aubameyang let in Danny Ings. Kepa was equal to a strong shot, pushing it away for a corner.

The best was yet to come. On the half-hour, Ings headed at goal from close in and I absolutely expected a goal, the equaliser. From right underneath the cross-bar, the Spanish ‘keeper managed to claw it out. I always cite a Carlo Cudicini save at Tottenham as the best save that I have ever seen by a Chelsea ‘keeper but this might well have beaten it.

I was in absolute awe.

“He’s better than fuckin’ Thibaut.”

We had spotted that Loftus-Cheek was now asked to deploy the right wing-back berth with Sterling further forward. Mount withdrew deeper. Both players then initiated a fine move, our first for a while. Loftus-Cheek strode out of defence and passed to Mount. The ball was moved on. A strong run from the previously quiet Kai Havertz was followed by a pass to Raheem Sterling.

“Curl the fucker.”

Curl it he did, but the ball smacked the bar.

Ugh.

At the break, we all knew that we had rodden our luck.

“Getting roasted here Gal. On and off the pitch.”

Potter reacted with some substitutions.

Kalidou Koulibaly for the battle-weary Cucarella.

Dave for the weak Havertz.

The team was re-jigged.

We were soon treated to a John Terry-style chest pass from the current “shirt 26 wearer” Koulibaly. I am sure that I wasn’t the only one who noticed JT’s trademark resurfacing.

The Chelsea crowd were giving the Villa manager some Ba-llistic pain with a certain song from 2014 being repeated again and again. This was followed up with a chant that was also aired in Milan last week.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

Now, I can concede that Internazionale might well have a claim to “own” the Italian city. But I wasn’t having Birmingham City being the top dogs in our Second City.

I turned to Gal : “Maybe they are including West Brom too, a joint bid.”

Chances were shared at each end.

Further changes ensued.

Conor Gallagher for a quiet Aubameyang.

Jorginho for Kovacic,

“Kovacic has run about today but he hasn’t done too much, Gal.”

On sixty-six minutes, a run into space by Mount resulted in a foul by Mings the merciless.

“I fancy this, Gal.”

Mount sized it all up. His dipping free-kick was perfection personified.

Goal.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 2.

Phew.

Steven Gerrard was again getting it in the neck.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning…”

On the right wing, down below us, Gallagher mirrored the current government with a quick U-turn to free himself of his marker. A fine searching cross found the head of Sterling but his downward header bounced past the near post.

In the last minute, one last sub.

Armando Broja for Sterling.

I fancied us to score another to rub salt in the wound, but it stayed at two.

Phew.

I’ll say it again.

Phew.

“That’s five wins in a row now, John.”

“Four clean sheets too.”

“Unbeaten in six.”

“Off to a great start, Potter, eh?”

Mason Mount, with his first two goals of the season, took the eye, but Kepa – surely – was our star man. Without him, we could have been 3-1 down at the break. Conor Gallagher injected some energy and movement when he came on. Thiago Silva was excellent. Kalidou Koulibaly looked like the footballer that we thought we had purchased rather than a mistake waiting to happen. I liked Ruben Loftus-Cheek too; steady, though I am not sure that when he runs with the ball he is deceptively fast or deceptively slow. The negatives were Cucarella, Havertz and Aubameyang.

On the walk back to the car, PD mentioned the now missing underpass by the A34 as being the location of an almighty ambush by some Villa lads after the mad 2-2 draw on the last day of the season in 1990/91.

As is so often the case, we called in at “The Vine” at West Bromwich for an early-evening curry. PD enjoyed his Lamb Madras. Parky and I had the same dish, Manchurian Chicken. All very tasty, all immediately served within five minutes of ordering. I was just surprised that Michelle, Dane and Frances didn’t show up.

Please come back into the top flight West Brom so we have another excuse to stop off.

It was a decent drive home.

I was back inside at about 8pm.

Next up, our sixth game of nine in October is on Wednesday at Brentford.

I will see some of the lucky ones there.

Outside

Inside