After a rather sour week, it took just forty-five minutes of action at Hillsborough to place Aston Villa back on the expressway to promotion.
There’s no other way to describe last week’s loss to Fulham at Craven Cottage than gutting. It was probably as expected as the sun rising in the morning, but still - it was a bitter pill for all of us to swallow after caning seven teams in a seven game winning streak. At the first opportunity to bounce back from defeat, Villa were pushed around for the best part of ninety minutes by a Preston team determined to beg, borrow and steal the points at Villa Park. Still, the true turnaround might not have been at Hillsborough after all.
After a dour opening spell at home, the gung-ho introduction of Lewis Grabban and Keinan Davis provided Villa with enough attacking momentum to steal a soft penalty and push Preston for the rest of the game, with a number of chances begging to be put away. Grabban’s penalty was weak, but it found the back of the net and thanks to some key Sam Johnstone saves, Villa grabbed a point to slightly steady the ship and headed into a clash with Sheffield Wednesday with bit of hope clutched in their palm.
Then, it fell apart. Sam Clare snatched a lead for Wednesday to pen in the Villa fans with a roar of ecstasy and fear. After all that, has it gone? Hope scrambled through the clouds as Grabban played the role of the equaliser once more, just before Lucas João bundled home to drop Villa to the floor with a weighty smack on the cusp of the half-time break.
With a broken heart and a heavy-hung head, the Villans resumed business as usual, until a solitary slice of gameplay changed everything.
A Robert Snodgrass ball seemed to freeze in the air, linked to the charging Glenn Whelan by nothing else except destiny - the path of the cross could have only met the Irishman as though the ball was a direct express flight to his head. He bundled it home and celebrated as though he were in a state of intense negotiation with the scoreline. 2-2, at this point, was accepted by the faithful in the Leppings Lane end of the stadium. Job done, let’s shake hands and be on our way!
Conor Hourihane would ruin any instance of professionalism in the side as his dojo-trained half volley sliced into the corner of the net and sent fans into delirium. Wednesday bottled it and lost the game, a game in which their hands were truly wrapped around the throat of their opponent. Still, Villa pushed and pushed - as Robert Snodgrass weaved and ducked between a defense desperate to take the ball off of him.
The Scot, a hated figure by the Hillsborough crowd at this point, was taken out and a penalty was awarded. One vicious hit later, and it was all over, with Snodgrass only too eager to take every earful of praise streaming his way from a jubilant away following.
All of a sudden, it all seems like it was planned. Okay, we’ll drop points to Fulham, who are really good. Then we’ll give Preston and Sheffield Wednesday a chance before turning one of those two over - just to show that we can do it, sound good lads? Okay. Good. Let’s do it.
It’s all scribed into fate and it would seem that this Aston Villa side are proving that it doesn’t end when you’re knocked to the canvas - just that you’re not the last body on the floor. When you’re hit hard with a bone-breaking riposte, you’ve got to push those weary muscles once more and rise - not because it’s your job, and that you should do it, but because it’s what you deserve.