For the first time on Saturday morning getting up early and getting down to Leeds station seemed like a chore. The last few weeks have seen some fairly unconvincing performances to say the least; I was actually at Old Trafford but couldn't bring myself to relive the game on here. Then I got to Villa Park, the sun came out and suddenly Ashley Young ignited the side and everythings seems ok again.
I single Ashley out for special praise because, although the first half saw a steady team performance with some quality, it was his insouciance and sublimity that was key in opening a fragile Bolton side up. Whether it be from the left, the right or set pieces he was a constant threat, rediscovering the knack of beating players at will which made him an England certainty previously this season.
The fact that Young had this freedom can be accredited to a tactical masterstroke from our manager. All season we have struggled with having no natural width down both flanks, and recently Ashley has struggled to come to terms with being a doubly marked man. O'Neill's answer to both was to give our star performer a free role ahead of Barry, Petrov and Reo-Coker. Limited as Bolton may be, this change seemed to bring the best out of not only Young, but also Barry and Petrov (who had his best game of the season).
Barry's first open play goals and, as he seemed to be keen to point out in his post-match interview, two assists were no more than he deserved for an all-round display of high quality. He started the exquisite move for the crucial second goal, spinning a clever ball out to Young when Bouma was the more obvious option. Suddenly space had been created and three passes later Barry sprinted in behind the Bolton defence to collect from Young. One fine cross on the run later and Gabby had his first goal in 2008, and his first at Villa Park since October sometime. It meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to us.
When Petrov was named in the starting line-up there were a few boos from some people, and a lot of general moaning. Late in the game O'Neill clever substituted him to a standing ovation. In between he displayed nous, aggression, tenacity, vision and skill. All the attributes we paid for and expected two summers ago. One performance isn't enough for him to have made it here, but hopefully he has now found his role in the team. He can definitely expect to start the remaining games this season. What really impressed me about his display was its dynamism; one moment he was tackling in our half and winning the ball, the next he was sending a pinpoint pass over the top to Gabby. In fact the outstanding passes of the day were both his, one in both halves to Gabby that could easily have led to goals.
As if all these positives weren't enough we managed to keep a clean sheet, and I haven't even talked about Bouma who was outstanding. The team huddle at the beginning, interestingly led by Reo-Coker, seemed to do the trick. If the same movement, quality and commitment had been shown against Middlesbrough and Sunderland then we would have easily won both of those games. This standard now has to be matched for at least the rest of this season.
However the game was somewhat soured, at least at the start, by the senseless booing of Gavin McCann. I never rated him that highly, and probably shouted at him a lot of times myself when he was playing for us, but he never moaned and was a decent professional. And I got to speak to him on the phone once and he apologised for the no-show at City in the cup. Yet some felt he deserved to be booed, I have no idea why. Strangely JLloyd Samuel, who I feel disrespected us as a club more, was applauded as he warmed up. At least Gary Cahill was more deserving of the great reception he got from the home fans, I wonder if his good friend Liam Ridgewell will be in two weeks.
Next week we play Derby away. The fear of potential embarrassment is actually stronger than any hope of victory for me. Surely they are going to win more than one game this season? Maybe not, and after this weekend I can't really see it being against us, though they did quite well up at Goodison on Sunday. In two weeks time its an altogether different kind of derby, I hope my nerves aren't too frayed to be able to write up some kind of report here.