Normally our From the Stands writers cover two matches and then pass the mantle to the next writer. We also normally stay at Villa Park. But Pete Sutton, who has written our last two entries in the series, was headed to St. Mary's to see Aston Villa take on Southampton with safety on the line. When he offered up another report, I could hardly say no! All pictures and videos in this report are Pete's.
In the midst of what has been a turbulent season there has been one constant: the vociferous support the team gets at away games when Villa fans turn up in numbers to give the players the encouragement that can genuinely motivate them and help achieve better results.
As an irregular member of that particular army I'm always amazed and uplifted by the intensity of the support and how it manifests itself before and during the game. It's rooted in what remains the deeply tribal nature of football at this level and in the dying out of traditional communities based on geographical location and social class. The sense of belonging to a group with a common identity and purpose that you get at the match is one of the few ways left to do so.
And there's a sense of excitement in invading 'enemy' territory and dealing with the unfamiliarity of the surroundings that makes it so different from supporting at a home game.
When the singing starts in the pubs, or in the concourse under the stands while final filling-up takes place before the game starts, it can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
During the game, generally only ever watched whilst standing because it sets you apart from the home spectators and emphasises the intensity of your support, there is a constant barrage of singing and noise intended to spur the players on. The chants cascade down the stand and the feeling of solidarity with those around you is unique to the occasion.
And today we can actually achieve what we have been striving for since Sherwood's arrival, which is mathematical safety, providing that we at least equal whatever Hull do at Tottenham. Then there is the potential for an absolute out-pouring of relief at the final whistle and the opportunity to turn our thoughts to Wembley.
With this in mind we discuss on our way to the south coast what might be the team - particularly if Sherwood has half an eye on the cup final. Is Hutton a possible starter for defensive strength; Gabby or N'Zogbia to play alongside Benteke; and might Sanchez be reintroduced to play alongside Westwood to protect the defence at Wembley?
As it turns out Hutton plays due to an injury to Richardson. The support outside and inside the ground is phenomenal and when the fans roar out 'We're (pause) the pride (pause) of Birmingham, we shall not be moved' it brings tears to your eyes. And then the roof falls in.
You can trot out as many of the 'blip' or 'that will shake them up' or 'get all the errors out in one game' cliches as you want; the reality is that the defensive cracks that have been there for weeks for all to see finally were smashed apart by a good Southampton side who were totally ruthless when provided with chances by inept individual and collective defending. It was also clear from TV highlights that the defensive line was much too far up the pitch, which was presumably down to the manager.
The defence was shocking and the midfield not much better. Benteke did ok and it was difficult to criticize Given - he made a number of valiant attempts to block scoring shots and was unlucky with the way that the rebounds fell. Otherwise, it's difficult to remember when Delph had such a poor game and N'Zogbia was back to his very worst. And as a very odd endnote Villa actually had 65% possession. Still, Hull have made us safe so in the end it didn't matter, and Sherwood has effectively two weeks to prepare for the final without distractions in the league - having achieved what he was brought in to do when all seemed lost under Lambert. He deserves great credit for having brought about that transformation. It will be interesting to see his team selection next week.
And the manager in his post-match interview was explicit in his regard for the fans who had turned up and his regret at what we had been put through. Sort of spoiled what had otherwise been a beautiful day out and these fans really did deserve better.
Thanks, again, for another great report Pete. I'm glad you didn't focus too much on the match because none of us want to re-live that nightmare. Really great to hear the Villa faithful were so inspiring, though!