Despite their fantastic season, Villa’s U23 team could not find the goal needed to take them to the upper tier of England’s reserve league as Brighton ran out 2-0 winners on the day.
Aston Villa almost took the lead within seconds of kick-off. Andre Green found space following a series of step-overs on the left flank to defy Brighton’s Aleš Matějů, which gave him room to deliver a cross in that hung in the air and fell to Jordan Lyden. Lyden deftly picked out Rushian Hepburn-Murphy who broke in the box, but couldn’t get a shot off.
Villa excited again moments later, when a stray ball found the dazzling Hepburn-Murphy, who used a turn of balance to open up the pitch and charge on goal.
Villa’s neat passing game was often interrupted by the tempo of the match early on, however, when the Young Lions could complete a second-ball and open up triangles of space, they seemed to erupt forward into the box en-masse.
This was proved by Jordan Lyden, Villa’s holding-midfielder, who charged forward, using Callum O’Hare as a pivot. The Australian played a neat 1-2 to move the ball ever closer to the goal, before laying off O’Hare metres from the goal. The young Villa winger was unable to finish though, and saw his shot sky over the crossbar.
Brighton took their turn, but former IF Brommapojkarna man Victor Gyokores could only clip the post from range.
The first goal of the game came through Brighton, as Matija Sarkic’s reflex save could only be parried into the path of Brighton’s Bjordal - who had nowhere else but the net to stick the ball.
Villa sprung into life after conceding and had a shout for a penalty turned down as Jordan Lyden was slammed to earth by a defender in the box.
That would be the Australian’s last impact on the game though, as he was taken off due to injury. He was able to walk comfortably off of the pitch, but was deemed as unsafe to continue by Villa’s physio team. Corey Blackett-Taylor replaced him.
Villa continued to press until half-time, but could not find an equaliser before the refree blew the whistle for a break at 45 minutes.
As the second half broke out, Aston Villa started well. Rushian Hepburn-Murphy opened his body and let a shot rip against goal, which forced Brighton & Hove Albion keeper Robert Sanchez into a diving save.
The bright Villa forward momentarily brought his team back into the game before the goal was called back for offside. Andre Green had burst through into open space on the left, cut into the box and rolled a ball into the path of Hepburn-Murphy, who slid into the ball, slamming it off the upright and into the net. Unfortunately, the striker had strayed into an offside position before delivery.
Reality hit Rushian, who was crushed by a body-check from Brighton’s Connelly. The play was not called back for a foul, leading Villa to commit a foul in return. Tempers broke out and Villa, more than ever before in this game, started to allow frustration to creep in.
Villa were pinned back by another Brighton goal as a deep cross found Aaron Connolly in the box, who headed the ball past a leaping Matija Sarkic in the Villa goal. Callum O’Hare had been tackled on the edge of the box, giving room for the cross, which the Villa defence had no chance of containing.
With Brighton sapping the time out the game, Aston Villa’s chances of victory ebbed out. The Villans needed to push high and commit bodies forward - with obvious risk. Andre Green and Jack Clarke made way for Kelsey Mooney and Jordan Cox.
Villa’s chances depended on them blocking Brighton’s counters - and Villa were spared from conceding three by Sarkic, who stood firm and tall to block Gyokores’ close range shot in a concrete-like manner. Sarkic mirrored this play again when the Swede broke on the left and ran in on goal.
Aston Villa came close late on as Callum O’Hare attempted a divine overhead kick to bring Villa into the match before having a later shot blocked by Sanchez in the Brighton goal. Brighton almost bagged a third as a moment of indecision between Jacob Bedeau and Matija Sarkic left the ball trickling towards goal.
Villa showed tremendous fight late on,but unfortunately, it was not enough as Brighton ran out 2-0 winners and earned promotion to the upper tier of the Premier League 2.
While the result might be disappointing to some, Villa’s efforts in this league cannot be doubted. Cup winners and play-off finalists - next year will be exciting as some of this talent starts to blossom, while others will surely move closer to the first-team picture at Aston Villa.
We’ll see more of Jake Doyle-Hayes’ spring-loaded passing, Callum O’Hare’s midfield bravado, Matija Sarkic’s stonewall keeping, Corey Blackett-Taylor’s wing wizardry and Rushian Hepburn-Murphy’s dynamism. It’s not over yet. Remember the names.