Last fall my wife gave birth to our youngest daughter. You often hear that child birth is an incredible, breathtaking event. A miracle. Yeah, it’s that. It’s also awful.
My wife was in labor for twenty hours. Eschewing pain killers, she moaned in the shower, took turns clutching me, her sister and her mother in absolute agony waiting for our daughter to come. As she’d begun going into labor at nearly midnight, after the initial excitement wore off, both of us were absolutely exhausted and as the hours ticked by with nothing happening and nothing to do but wait, I broke down.
With no way to help the pain that my wife was dealing with or to assist the hard work she was doing, I began weeping. The love of my life working harder than I ever have—or will—in brutal pain, with nothing for me to do. I let her squeeze my hand as hard as she could and grab me around my shoulders and hold me in order to release pressure in her legs, but as such a passive participant, after a certain amount of time I couldn’t do anything but stress-cry in helplessness. My wife and her body—in one of the most natural activities that it could operate—were in charge and they were executing a perfect plan, and if we could wait it out, we’d meet the daughter we’d waited years for.
It’s been a similar feeling for 180 minutes and some change over the past few days and I can’t help but remember that feeling I had from late November. Fans in Villa Park and around the world probably feel the same way I did then—though with a varying amount of tears. The process of winning a playoff tie, this tie in particular, involved trust of the process and for all eleven participants on the pitch to execute a game plan that would prove pleasing neither aesthetically nor emotionally.
The first half plan seemed to invite pressure and create chances on the counter. It was easy to see who came ready for the pressure of the evening with a number of critical tackles and diving headers to erase opportunities for Middlesbrough. Robert Snodgrass, James Chester, John Terry, Conor Hourihane all laid themselves out to keep the visitors away from testing Sam Johnstone. Jack Grealish and Albert Adomah, as would be expected, worked to create chances going the other way. Though ceding possession, Aston Villa created more and better chances and a key tackle on Hourihane right in front of goal by Boro left back George Friend kept Villa’s best chance of the half out of net and Claret and Blue hearts in their throats.
Even as Ahmed Elmohamady-replacement James Bree played through nervous energy and Lewis Grabban did little to distinguish himself, Alan Hutton provided enough stress for Adama Traore and Mile Jedinak controlled every ball in the air that went his way, as is his custom, and the strength of the effort of the rest of the team made up for those who slipped.
It’s necessary to say that the plan was created and communicated by the tone-setter of our club, manager Steve Bruce, whose sole appointment to his post was to succeed in these matches. His confidence and his steady presence exorcised this club and though his match day tactics have been criticized often in this space, the culture change that was necessary to get Aston Villa to this point has proven to be his best work. The accountability of all participants to lift their efforts in support of one another was evident on the pitch and evident in a man who has experienced true personal tragedy this season and still pushed forward to give his players his best. Bruce put in the work for his players, and deserved the effort and the result his players gave him.
His pitch-perfect game plan for the second half seemed to demoralize a Middlesbrough club that couldn’t hold onto possession let alone create chances on net for the entirety of the night. Villa held pressure on the Boro side of the pitch for the bulk of the final 45 and if it weren’t for a few spectacular saves from keeper Darren Randolph, Villa’s 1-0 aggregate lead, held from their Riverside victory at the weekend, would have extended and erased doubt of who would head to Wembley to face Fulham whose ticket was punched yesterday.
Nothing is without nerves and everything involves a certain amount of luck and Villa were the day’s recipient in the an 87th minute as Adama Traore nearly dropped a touch shot over Sam Johnstone from just outside of the penalty area. Johnstone got a hand on the shot, but being outside of his box, was assessed only a yellow card by referee Mike Dean. Dean must have judged that the ball wasn’t a clear goal without the interference, however, and didn’t send Johnstone off. The ensuing free kick from Stewart Downing rattled the crossbar and counted as the closest Boro would come to levelling the tie. As the final whistle sounded jubilant fans joined the celebration on the pitch and all could breathe a sigh of relief.
Aston Villa are on to face Fulham in Wembley in eleven days. Ninety minutes of action will determine the winner who will return to the Premier League. Both clubs will have earned the advancement and both will be bitterly disappointed to miss the opportunity.
My wife and I constantly joke these days that we will never have another child biologically. It was too stressful for me; too painful for her. But we always say it with smiles and laughter. It’s through the joy of the outcome, a delightfully chubby five-month-old, that the process became a good memory. We made it through the creation of a memory we’ll hold and cherish for the rest of our lives.
Aston Villa are halfway through theirs.