Before Jack Grealish’s return to first-team action, Villa faced a tough path to a play-off position. Three matches into his return, Aston Villa have thumped three separate promotion contenders, with two of these victories coming away from the comfort of Villa Park. It wasn’t at all easy, but Villa were once more able to respond to adversity to snatch three points. This time around, the victory came at Nottingham Forest.
Aston Villa were unlucky to concede after winds took the ball from a Jack Colback cross and ghosted it over the drifting Jed Steer. Steer, collapsing into the net, cut an exasperated figure. The chance was created after an excellent darting run form a typically jittery Joe Lolley. The Villa fan in Joe Lolley would be clearly delighted after enjoying consecutive spells of brilliance against AVFC this season. Do you think these moments are classed as a ‘job interview’ in his eyes?
Thankfully, Steer’s blushes would be spared just moments later. Forest’s goalscorer, Jack Colback, was beaten to the ball by a surging John McGinn. The Scottish cannonball dragged himself to the corner of the box, before cutting inside a pasting the ball past Costel Pantilimon.
Villa buried the ball once more after Anwar El Ghazi met a Jack Grealish free-kick, but the Dutchman’s effort was flagged out instantly for offside. However, the Villans wouldn’t have to wait long to take the lead. John McGinn, once more, found the ball in space and drove a trickling shot into the corner of the goal to cap off a nightmare first 15 minutes for Forest.
Martin O’Neill’s side rarely threatened for the ten minute spell following McGinn’s second goal - with the biggest scare coming after Iranian forward Karim Ansarifard flopped to the floor inside the box to demand a penalty. Conor Hourihane roared into the agonised face of the Ansarifard who was quickly booked for his efforts by referee Mike Dean.
The balance of the match fell into the hands of a frustrated Nottingham Forest team, led mostly by Joao Carvalho and Ansarifard who linked well in the final-third. A number of Forest corners led to close encounters of the goalmouth kind, but Jed Steer and his defensive corps were more than up to the task.
An unsavoury incident (another) occured after Tammy Abraham hit the deck after a soft challenge in the Forest penalty area. As the Chelsea loanee milked the challenge, he was jeered with homophobic chants of ‘Chelsea Rent Boy’ (which brings to mind my earlier thoughts - why can’t we be a whole lot nicer as fans?).
The atmosphere in The City Ground was one of hostility - with Forest fans feeling aggrieved at the actions, or lack of them, from Mike Dean - but apart from the chants, nothing of note occurred in the final moments of the first half. Villa held onto their lead.
Forest put the fear into the Villa by quickly dispatching a Joe Lolley cross, but the goal was rather cruelly pulled back after it was judged that Yohan Benalouane fouled Kortney Hause in the build-up to the goal.
Villa were able to fashion a chance of sorts as the 60th minute approached. Anwar El Ghazi, switching sides with Andre Green, found Tammy Abraham with a deep cross. Abraham headed wide over and was once again met with chants of ‘Chelsea Rent Boy’ (55:09 minutes if you’re interested). The problem for Forest? It was that a slight bit of justice would be waiting around the corner.
After Jack Grealish was sliced down (count ‘em) by Milosevic, Conor Hourihane was able to whip in a magical free-kick to catch an entrenched Forest defense out, with Kortney Hause stepping forward to belly-dance the ball into the net.
Both teams experienced a dull spell as the linesman came up short with a hamstring injury as Villa sought to launch an attacking throw-in. However, the break in play allowed Villa to make an aggressive substitution despite enjoying a two goal lead as Jonathan Kodjia was bought on for Anwar El Ghazi.
Jed Steer faced his first real test with seven minutes remaining as he gathered Joe Lolley’s wickedly-hit cross. Facing a stem of Forest attackers, Steer calmly claimed - and he can be rather thankful that not one of them was able to create the touch that would have afforded Forest a way back into the game.
Villa were almost able to seal the deal on two occasions as the match ebbed out. Firstly, Jon Kodjia was allowed the space to chip the ball into an open goal - but his touch was a little more than rusty and the ball simply rolled into safety. After that, the dominating John McGinn forced his way in on goal before hitting the post as 7 minutes of stoppage time were announced. Martin O’Neill very much looked a ghost of the past as Villa fans revelled in glee as their former idol crashed to defeat.
Despite Villa’s scoreline dominance up to this point, praise must be reserved for Forest’s Joe Lolley. With the rest of his team staring blankly ahead, Lolley lead the line with dynamism and aggression. He is a gem of a player, and should Forest find their way into the Premier League, it will no doubt be down to his buccaneering efforts.
As the final whistle blew, all criticisms of Villa’s ‘one man team’ status were blew away. John McGinn walked into Nottingham and built his house, and he’d have refused the assistance offered by his teammates. By finding and restoring their key player in Grealish to the team, Villa have been able to find the space to grow and develop once more - and everyone is looking so much better for it.
Villa are back. And this isn’t just Jack Grealish’s team.