This was just the latest chapter in what has frankly been a bewildering season. The result should never have been questioned; as heroic late failure follows British sport the phrase 'away victory' follows this fixture, however this was a vibrant and memorable match that lived on the edge of extremity; the crowd was loud and large, there were goals and incidents galore, attacking of the highest quality, defending of the lowest. And Rob Styles once again showed off his senseless television personna.
The warning signs for us were there from the outset. After five minutes United had worked the ball well on several occasions and almost created chances, I remarked to my Dad that we couldn't get away with defending as deep as we did against Chelsea and giving them so much space, that turned out to be the understatement of the day (not that it had much competition on an occasion drenched in flair). We raised our game, albeit to a level slightly below their's, and an absorbing game raced around the pitch. Then on twelve minutes came another North Stand goal from Gabby against a top team. It is hard to translate into physical English the maelstrom this was met with but needless to say it was raucous and prolonged. For the first time in a league match at Villa Park for over six years we were leading Manchester United.
For around twenty minutes after that we battled in our own half and created in theirs. A lively Luke Moore robbed Wes Brown and skimmed a shot just wide. Craig Gardner showed a lovely turn and touch of skill before again shooting wide. Ashley Young had the audacity to flick the ball up and rocket it just over the bar. Brimful of confidence we set about trying to extend our lead and maybe, just maybe consider the unreckonable victory.
But then, and hopefully this isn't a portentous metaphor, our brave new dawn faded and lost its hope with one non-swing of Zat Knight's left boot. The cross Nani delivered was actually one of the least threatening situations of the half, though it followed some more crisp movement from the visitors, but even before the ball had rolled out of Knight's reach I, like half the Holte, had turned away in disgust. The goal was affirmed by a typically affronting travelling support of Mancs and the shift in atmosphere was so tangible you could feel it. Now the old habits started to kick in and supposed new era only had three representatives left on the pitch; Gabby, Young and Laursen. I don't want to describe the last ten minutes of the first half, they were continual heavy body blows from a playground bully who has just been let back onto his feet.
The Villa Park crowd will always believe in Aston Villa, though, and we didn't bow to the inevitable at the start of the second half. Our opponents were clearly enjoying themselves, possibly a little too much for the stage in the game, but we responded positively and pushed United back, almost scoring ourselves. Than Nigel Reo-Coker committed his second foul of the game and Rob Styles, half turned to allow an advantage, saw his opportunity to get some camera time. I have talked at length about this decision since but nothing has changed the view I had at the time. It was a foul, and had Styles not needlessly booked Reo-Coker in the first half maybe a first yellow. But a second yellow without a warning? Only an imcompetent, petty, inconsistent, unnecessary autocrat like Stiles would have sent him off.
Then in the next significant action we sent everyone but Bouma up for a corner which was cleared far too easily and were struck with a classic counter attack. Carson scyther Tevez down and a clear penalty was rightly awarded. But not content with these already large contributions Styles ignores a blatantly covering Isiah Osbourne and reaches for another red card. Interesting that the last time he refereed this fixture at the same venue Style sent off two players, both for Manchester United. Both were also examples of his staggeringly unreasonable and almost evangelical style of refereeing - Fletcher sent off for twice kicking the ball away (no warning given) and Ronaldo for playing on after the whistle had gone. Later in the game Nelson Pique took Gabby's legs away on the edge of their area but despite reaching for a card Styles decided this offence had not been worthy of his coward-tinged flourish, and its effect on the game would be far too minimal.
It may seem that I am deflecting blame for our defeat on the referee. I am not. He did, however, stop us from having any chance of coming back into it and his performance was so irritating yet predictable that I can't help but comment on it. Scott Carson aptly summed up his dismissal when he said "I think at 3-1 down with only ten men, I think it is a bit harsh but if it it was 0-0, then fair enough." If only Rob Styles had any such common sense, or even awareness of common sense.
And so a second palpable shift in atmosphere occurred. The empty seats of rugby viewers became apparent before the second loudest, but most intensely felt cheers of the day when Rooney's spot kick was saved. This was our outpour of aggrievance. The Holte End now became a collective statement of defiance. And home pass was cheered, and move exulted, any away movement booed and any contribution from Mr Styles ridiculed, probably by both sets of fans as he followed the usual and most annoying pattern of trying to even things up with weak free kicks. Young and Agbonlahor clearly felt let down by most of the rest of the team and the frustration was clear in their play as they fought against an overpowering tide.
An irrelevant fourth goal was added, and this further polarised the home support as more rugby viewers snuck out early. I'm glad they lost. Meanwhile up on the Holte we were having, relatively, a great time. I could stand freely without anyone being annoyed, as could a fair few others and the atmosphere was lit with pride as our nine Villamen bravely battled. On leaving the ground I was struck but how many people were still singing, loudly, walking through the car park. The belief was still there and the pride was still there. There is a collective force about our club that is united and total, and it will take more than a sound home thrashing to halt it.
*Editorial* Reading this back I have given nowhere near enough credit to Man Utd for their performance. The last twenty minutes of the first half was the best football I have ever seen and Tevez and Rooney, if they weren't shredding us, would have been a joy to watch. I feel we yielded too much ground but a lot of teams will struggle to cope with Manchester's front six this season. It was quite breath-taking at times.