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FA Carling Premiership, 24/8/99
Aston Villa
Brilliant in defeat
By Ian Grant

Building work delayed flat full of filth need to hire a van need to pack must get some boxes buy some paint need a car to buy the paint haven't got a car bed not arriving for two weeks nothing to sleep on carpets not being fitted for a month no money in the current account have to transfer a cheque building society's closed due to flooding swearing even more than usual work getting neglected new relationship likewise so much to do so little time stress stress strrrrrreeessssss WATFORD.

I might feel like hell this morning, having ripped apart my already-ailing throat and exhausted my depleted energy reserves over the course of ninety passionate minutes, but it was worth it. Watching Watford last night was like sticking your head in a jet engine and blasting all your worries away. It felt bloody fantastic.

Yeah, we lost. I know.

We were also, I'd argue, as magnificent as we've been at any point in the last couple of years. Against comfortably the best team we've encountered thus far (impossible to evaluate Villa's title-race credentials since, from where we're standing, they all look rather tasty), we were competitors and equals. Never has the term "winning goal" been more accurate - Delaney's sensational strike was all that separated the two sides, for the remaining eighty-nine minutes Aston Villa and Watford were neck and neck.

Naturally, there will be those eager to hold a post-mortem. We lost, which is bad, therefore we must be bad...or logic to that effect. Among the mutterings as I stumbled back up Occupation Road last night, the favourite subjects seemed to be our lack of goalscoring power, our failure to pass it around in pwetty twiangles in midfield, and how Villa's class eventually told. All fascinating, all irrelevant. Sometimes you lose and you've done nothing wrong.

It would be easy to point to our shortcomings - in the final third, particularly, we were often hopeful and rarely thoughtful - but that would be far too kind to Villa. Courtesy of towering defensive performances, our attacking shortcomings were also their attacking shortcomings - the star names that we feared before kickoff were reduced to anonymity, their pressure yielded very few clear chances. Don't let's sell our players short by talking only about passion and commitment - Robert Page and Mark Williams' suppression of Dublin and Joachim, and Steve Palmer's astonishing kidnapping of Merson (you half expected John Gregory to put out a missing person appeal over the PA), were displays of the very highest quality. Villa fans might argue that we dragged them down to our level, but I'd say that we at least met them halfway.

The rest ought to be obvious. If, in order to live with our visitors, we sped the game up to a hyper-frantic pace at which clearances were hurried and passes went astray, then that's just the way it has to be. It may not provide a platform for the sweetest skills of our own players...but if we play at our opponents' pace, we'll get murdered. That little bit extra in finding damaging wide positions and delivering dangerous crosses is all it'll take, no fundamental re-thinks. Apologies to anyone who bought a season ticket expecting to see proto-Chelsea.

Although Joachim scuffed a shot wide early on, it didn't take us long to assert ourselves. Again, and this time with the tremendous backing of the home fans, there were key moments that generated enough self-belief to last ninety minutes. Firstly, some feverish midfield pressure that eventually found a chink in Villa's armour, leading to a blocked shot by Michel Ngonge and general mayhem in the opposition area. Proof that the foundations of our game are solid, no matter who we're playing against. Two minutes later, Page intercepted on the halfway line and set in motion a chain of passes, to Lyttle to Ngonge to Hyde and back to Lyttle, that swiftly carved open the Villa defence and ended with a fairly desperate clearing header from the arcing right wing cross. This might've been a league fixture rather than a cup tie, but nobody had bothered to tell the Watford players.

Better was to follow, Clint Easton's left wing cross drifting over to the far post and finding Ngonge unmarked. His diving header just didn't quite have enough power to beat James, the Villa keeper scrambling across and pushing the ball around the post with some difficulty. The sight of John Gregory anxiously pacing the touchline was the source of much encouragement - I imagine that he does it most of the time, but it can do your confidence no harm to see the opposition manager frantically trying to communicate with his players.

As the half faded away, Villa created half-chances but nothing more. Joachim took on Page and shot tamely at Chris Day, Hendrie's twisting and turning took him into the six yard box where he was foiled by a fine block by Easton.

Goalmouth action was in short supply (which ought to tell you something about our defending), yet it was an absolutely engrossing encounter. These are the games that we want to see, Graham Taylor's wits and his close-knit side against the best that this country has to offer. The Villa fans' chorus of "There's only one Graham Taylor", drifting over from the Vic Road end and then echoed by the Rookery, was touching and appropriate.

The impression that John Gregory was not a happy man (body language: straight back, arms tightly folded, beady-eyed glare) was emphasised by Villa's opening to the second half. For the first and only time in the match, they threatened to tear us apart. That they didn't - indeed, that they only created one chance in a period when we could barely get over the halfway line - was entirely due to the defence.

Faced with the pace of Joachim, the height and strength of Dublin, the guile and invention of Merson and Hendrie, they stood firm. Joachim was rarely able to stretch his legs, Dublin won nothing but scraps in the aerial confrontations, Merson and Hendrie were shut out. Robert Page, not only bruisingly committed but also calm and controlled when appropriate; the walking revelation that is Mark Williams, unthinkable that he only became part of this side a few weeks ago; Steve Palmer, still this almost magical awareness of everything around him. The rest were all in there too, a team effort as ever.

As in the first half, there was a turning point. Innocuous enough - Micah Hyde's merciless harassing driving Hendrie back towards his own half and finally forcing him to mis-place his cross-field pass into the main stand - but it was like the storm clouds had parted, a joyous standing ovation as the sun finally shone through.

We were in business again and went about our work as if nothing had happened, still causing the occasional problem for the Villa defence in spite of some haphazard approach work - as Mooney's half-blocked shot threatened to run to Ngonge, the clearance was thumped into Paul Robinson and rebounded wide.

But, a minute later, Villa were ahead in quite stunning fashion. As I've said, it was the only thing that separated the sides - Easton's defensive header falling to Delaney wide on the right, his first-time half-volley swerving and dipping past Day's dive and burying itself in the bottom corner. It was a strike that would've graced any game. Dublin ought to have made it two as Watford stumbled, directing a very rare unchallenged header straight at Day.

Facing undeserved defeat, we rolled slowly forward. The triple substitution brought fresh legs but no fresh ideas, and it was difficult to escape the conclusion that we need to score first in games like this - breaking down a team like Villa is tough enough when they're not protecting a lead. But even then, even as our attempts grew more frantic, that ecstatic equaliser didn't elude us by much. Kennedy's free kick scraped across Foley's forehead, the return ball from Lyttle headed wide by Mooney.

And closer still, Foley's knockdown falling to Mooney on the edge of the box, his athletic volley bringing the very best from James. Equal in ambition and execution to Delaney's goal, that would've brought the house down. Let nobody tell you that Villa had "that extra bit of quality" - the margin of victory was no more than the foot or so that took Delaney's shot past Day and Mooney's towards James' left hand. Nothing more.

Be proud of them. They're learning fast and they're already proving people wrong. With each game, there's another Watford player who looks at home in the Premiership. Sure, we need to be careful that the season doesn't end with a truckload of hard luck stories and relegation...but reacting well to defeats is all part of that.

We've grown used to playing in divisions where our best performances will always reap rewards and where defeat always means that there are problems to be solved. This season, we'll sometimes be brilliant and lose.