Pessimism pulses through the veins of every ardent Villa fan. To expect anything other than defeat detracts from what it means to wear the claret and blue of the Brummie club; suffering has become part and parcel of a Villan’s existence. Fate has cruelly conspired against us on more occasions than not, typically between 85 and 94 minutes of a football match. We’ve become the masters of losing leads and losing heads as Carlos Sanchez invariably fells an opponent on the edge of the box. I am a keen hygiene freak, but the main reason for keeping my fingernails short is to avoid biting them through stubborn spells of rear-guard action, spells which can span an entire match. Still, here we are on the brink of FA Cup glory, but rest assured the road to potential success has been a long one.
I vividly remember seeing Villa in the flesh for the first time on a crisp, but dry autumnal afternoon in 1998. Nottingham Forest stood between John Gregory’s side and three precious points; it was an experience that would prepare me for the roller-coaster life of a Villa fan thereafter. It took little over half an hour to fall behind; Chris Bart-Williams was credited with the forgettable 32nd minute opener. With the half-time whistle fast approaching, disaster struck again for my six-year old self. Already a goal down, my misery was compounded by Dougie Freedman’s pile-driver that surprised just about everybody in the ground. It was a ripsnorter of a strike from 30 yards and, 16 years on, I haven’t seen many better.
Bart-Williams’ tap-in and the ruthless Freedman arrow threatened to puncture my spirit just 45 minutes into my Villa career. During the interval, I had the opportunity of waving the white flag and beating a hasty retreat into footballing obscurity. It sure would have spared me subsequent years of heartache. Somewhat unfortunately, I opted to sit tight and watch the second period unfold. Julian Joachim reduced arrears before the hour mark and followed this up five minutes later with an identically scruffy goal, the ball ricocheting off a hapless defender to allow the forward to apologetically poke home. Forest huffed and puffed for the remainder of the game without further success meaning that when the referee checked his watch and blew for full-time, I punched the air in celebration. ASTON VILLA HAD DRAWN. It was an almighty achievement! (Forest would eventually finish bottom of the 1998/99 table with a whopping minus 34 goal difference, but what was a young lad to understand of these statistics?)
A solitary point was all it had taken to form a life-long affiliation with Aston Villa, or Aston Nil-Niller as I affectionately rename the club during barren spells in front of goal. Whilst friends would tear around the streets in Gerrard 8 and Rooney 10 shirts, I’d outsprint them all in the unmistakable Agbonlahor 11 jersey. Pundits would pour praise over the classy Thierry Henry and the quick-thinking Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for minutes on end, when all I wanted was a 10 second mention of Juan Pablo Angel’s close range header against Leicester. Incidentally, I’m still waiting …
Over the last fifteen seasons, Villa fans (I use the plural because, contrary to popular opinion, there are some of us out there) have seen the Joey Gudjonsson, the bad and the ugly. For every Freddie Bouma, there’s been a Jlloyd Samuel, for every James Milner, a Yacouba Sylla. For every stunning 2-1 comeback at Norwich, there’s been an order restoring 8-0 drubbing to Chelsea. For every 16th placed finish, there’s never been cup silverware … Although Villa is the fifth most decorated club in history, their last trophy, discounting the Intertoto cup, was secured back in the 1995-96 campaign, a league cup triumph over Leeds United. You have to turn the clock back another thirty-eight years to discover Villa’s last FA Cup success, whilst six of the club’s seven league honours pre-date the First World War. Astonishing.
Tomorrow’s clash against Arsenal represents a chance to set the record straight, for Benteke to batter Koscielny in the air and for Gabby to uncharacteristically keep his cool before Ospina. Of course, the Gunners are electric on the break; the agile Alexis Sanchez and the blisteringly pacey Walcott will destroy Vlaar and Baker should the Villa defenders get pulled out of position. Ashley Westwood will have to keep his wits about him in order to deprive the unpredictable Mesut Ozil of time and space, and if Bacuna and N’Zogbia occupy Villa’s full-back positions as they did against Burnley last time out, it could be a cricket score. However, believe in the magic of the cup and hope springs eternal!
Supporting AVFC was never going to be a walk in the park and rarely one down Wembley Way. Only this week has somebody assured me that my soul shall ascend straight to heaven for backing the “zombie-club” through thick and thin. I sincerely doubt that He above will use this same rationale, but I sure hope that tomorrow’s final judgment works in my favour.
9 minutes of madness fire Hull City to Wembley semi!
Fringe forward, Matty Fryatt rounded off an excellent day for everybody associated with the Tigers as the hosts cruised to a 3-0 victory over Sunderland in the FA Cup 6th round. Other second half strikes from Curtis Davies and ex-Black Cat, David Meyler, ensured that Hull reached the semi-final of England’s biggest domestic cup competition for the first time in 84 years.
Although both teams occupy bottom half Premier League positions, neither seemed deprived of confidence in a first half of honest endeavour and increasingly expansive play. Sunderland, having suffered Wembley heartbreak in the Capital One Cup final only a week ago, began confidently in possession, but it was Hull’s first foray into opposition territory that almost produced the game’s opening goal. After 4 minutes, Maynor Figueroa picked the ball up on the left wing. His seemingly innocuous cross sailed over Oscar Ustari’s head in the Sunderland goal as he helplessly watched it rebound off the woodwork.
The Tigers looked to build on their almost good fortune. With 9 minutes on the clock, the wily Sone Aluko teased his way through the visitors rear-guard only to pull his left-foot shot well wide of the target.
Moments later, Ahmed Elmohamady and pantomime villain Lee Cattermole became embroiled in fisticuffs when the home player tumbled too theatrically for the tough tackling Wearsider’s liking. Any abuse handed out by Cattermole was ultimately ill-advised though as the midfielder’s afternoon would be one to forget.
With 18 played, Sunderland carved out one their only opportunities in the match. Neat combination play between Phil Bardsley and Emanuale Giaccherini eventually resulted in a low driven cross from the former. The finish didn’t match the delightful build up play though as Ignacio Scocco blazed over from just 10 yards out.
The pendulum swung back in the favour of the home team and Fryatt, having already netted twice in the FA Cup this season, will only himself be able to answer how he didn’t add a third to that tally in the 25th minute. A deliciously whipped right-wing cross was begging to be headed home, but the forward couldn’t convert. Having escaped the attention of his marker, his diving effort missed the left hand post by inches.
There was to be a greater Hull City culprit than Fryatt however just after the half hour mark. Having magically turned away and been caught by Sebastian Larsson for a penalty, there was nothing bewitching about Aluko’s strike from 12 yards, a tame spot-kick that was comfortably saved by Ustari.
Some serious pouring through the history books has to be done to find the Tigers’ only previous experience of a Wembley FA Cup last four tie. Going into the break at 0-0, this would have been ample motivation for the home team’s players as the people of Hull were desperate for another London date to add to their diaries.
There was little evidence of it having the desired effect though, the second half a slow burner. Spaces began to emerge as both sides pressed for the opening goal, looking to counter the opposition with both speed and quality. Sadly, the quality wasn’t forthcoming and both managers pondered turning to the cavalry on their benches, the ineffective Yannick Sagbo hauled off for George Boyd.
The former Peterborough United player’s introduction was a positive one. In the 62nd minute, no Sunderland player tracked Meyler’s surging sprint from midfield. Cutting inside onto his left foot, his cross-shot couldn’t quite be converted by Boyd who had John O’Shea for close company.
The staunch resistance was finally broken with 68 gone though when set-piece specialist Tom Huddlestone planted a free-kick onto the head of the towering Curtis Davies. Having found his own scoring boots of late, he rose majestically and the powerful header soared into the top-left hand corner.
There was twice the reason to be jubilant shortly after as midfield maestro Meyler pounced on a blocked Cattermole clearance to punish his former employers. Running through on goal unopposed, there was plenty of time to overthink where to strike the ball, but the Irishman had the presence of mind to roll his shot past the despairing Ustari into the bottom left-hand corner. The celebration that followed was a memorable one. Alan Pardew had a sore head thinking about it.
At 2-0 with 18 minutes left, there was no looking back. Unfortunately from a Sunderland perspective neither did Cattermole. Blindly side-footing the ball towards his own goal with 77 played, it was silver service for a player of Fryatt’s calibre. Making the most of his unexpected fine-dining experience, the 28 year old collected the ball on the edge of the Sunderland box, picked his spot and watched the net ripple with satisfaction.
There was almost time for a fourth when Meyler – uncharacteristically losing his cool – swung wildly at a chance from 25 yards but the miss proved academic.
There will now be further blood, sweat and tears for those in black and amber stripes as they seek an elusive cup final. Next up: a galvanised league one Sheffield United side in a fiery Yorkshire derby on 12th/13th April. In a year that’s seen Hull announced as the capital of culture for 2017, some cultured football may just help them attain the Holy Grail in May.
Hull City (4-2-3-1): McGregor, Rosenior, Chester, Davies (c), Figueroa, Meyler, Huddlestone, El Mohamady (Quinn, 81), Aluko (Koren, 67), Sagbo (Boyd, 58), Fryatt.
Unused subs: Harper, Bruce, Faye, Henderson.
Scorers: Davies (68), Meyler (72), Fryatt, (77)
Sunderland (4-2-3-1) Ustari, Bardsley, Vergini, O’Shea (c), Dossena, Cattermole, Colback, Larsson, Scocco (Borini, 67), Giaccherini (Johnson, 67) Fletcher.
Unused subs: Mannone, Celustka, Cuellar, Bridcutt, Ki Sung-Yeung.
Referee: Mr C. Pawson
Man of the Match: Davies