The miracle of Villa: how Dean Smith’s side proved the doubters wrong and survived the relegation battle
Words by Anish Dogra
We all have reasons for loving our football clubs, some may point to success whilst others may adore the fans who show immense support wherever their team plays. One thing every football fan can agree on, whether their club is or isn’t involved is the drama associated with the game, Aston Villa’s finale to the 19/20 Premier League season will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest escapes in the league’s history.
Four points adrift with four games to go, things were looking bleak for the Villains who were facing an immediate return to the Championship. It had been a season of inconsistencies for Villa having reached the Carabao Cup final only narrowly losing to Manchester City, but sloppy defending coupled with poor concentration at the back ensured Dean Smith’s side needing a miracle from their last games.
It seemed a lost cause, but football has a strange way of giving teams exactly what they need in the time they need it. Following a 3-0 home defeat to Manchester United, Villa hosted Crystal Palace in an enormous game for the club. Palace well clear of relegation didn’t have much to play for and appeared at Villa park as a team already thinking of their holidays. That being said, the Eagles would have been flabbergasted following a VAR decision that went against them. A Mamadou Sakho goal following a Palace corner was ruled out after the officials deemed the goal as handball despite the ball clearly coming off his shoulder. VAR hasn’t been everyone’s cup of tea this season, but Villa will have certainly enjoyed that brew. Villa were fortunate to have that decision fall in their favour, but they certainly made the most of that luck as a double from Mohammed Trezeguet earned his side a first league win since the 21st of January.
At long last the former European champions had some hope. Despite still being four points behind the safety line with three to go the club had some much-needed momentum. Just as Dean Smith’s side thought that momentum would continue, a late Theo Walcott header minutes from time in their next game against Everton at Goodison park saw Villa drop two crucial points following Ezri Konsa’s effort 15 minutes before the dagger to the hearts of every claret and blue supporter.
Just as hope diminished, Villa’s fire was once again reignited just over 24 hours later. A scintillating first half display from West Ham United all but ensured their status as a Premier League team but cast a major doubt into Watford’s immediate future. A 3-1 win for David Moyes’ side saw Villa cut the gap to 3 points with only two games to go.
Throughout the season Villa wouldn’t have much to complain about should they have been sent packing to the Championship. However, in a matter of just four days everything changed. A point at Goodison Park as well as Watford’s demoralising defeat against West Ham United ensured Smith’s side would go within three points from safety with two to go. Just as momentum started to swing towards Villa, their hopes of survival were boosted more following reports that Nigel Pearson had been sacked as Watford FC manager on Saturday afternoon. The club confirmed the stories the following day.
A bizarre decision to say the least from the Pozzo family who have been known for chopping and changing managers frequently, however this decision especially the timing of it ensured Watford would go into their last two games against Manchester City and Arsenal without a leg to stand on.
Hayden Mullins was put in charge and had the tall order of somehow keeping his side in England’s top division. Needless to say, he could not produce the results or performances that saw Watford steer clear of relegation during Pearson’s reign. A 4-0 battering against City produced more damage than the Hornets hoped for as their goal difference took a massive hit which gave the Villains a chance to move above them later on in the evening as they hosted recent FA cup finalists Arsenal at Villa Park. Villa’s recent goal hero Trezeguet once was again the match winner as his solitary goal earned Dean Smith’s side a massive victory in their final home game of the season.
As D-Day approached Villa knew that a victory at the London Stadium against West Ham United will ensure Premier League football for a second season. With Watford travelling to the Emirates and Bournemouth, still within a fighting chance travelling to Goodison park, realistically a point will have been enough to stay up.
A tight, nervy game at the London Stadium. Villa were undoubtedly nervous against West Ham who had no need to reproduce their heroics in 2006 having secured safety a few days before with another positive result at Old Trafford earning a 1-1 draw against Manchester United. As long as the game remained level Villa knew they were safe, especially after Arsenal raced into a 3-0 lead after 35 minutes against Watford. However, on the final day Watford weren’t the team causing Villa stress as Bournemouth produced a fine performance against Everton to secure a 3-1 win against Carlo Ancelotti’s men.
The pressure was ramped up, any mistake from Villa would see all their recent performances and results go down in vain. However, step forward the man, Mr Aston Villa Jack Grealish. With just six minutes plus added time to go, Grealish’s first goal since the resumption of the league saw the Villa players, bench, and every fan at home go crazy. They had believed it was over, minutes away from victory and Premier League football for a second successive season. Lady Luck had been with the Villains for the last few weeks, but she deserted them as soon as Grealish’s goal went in. Credit to West Ham who bounced back immediately and the man who was the hero turned into the villain, if you pardon the pun, a minute later. Yarmolenko cutting inside as he always does onto his stronger left foot saw his shot take a massive deflection of Grealish which enabled the ball to loop over the despairing Pepe Reina into his net. All of a sudden Villa’s happiness had turned into a nightmare.
For so long of the season Villa had given away countless late goals which saw them in this predicament, and another late goal would have been the biggest blow of the season. Nevertheless, that would not be the case this time around. Aston Villa were smart, relentless, and determined. Their heroics for the remaining minutes of the match ensured Reina did not have a save to make. Four minutes after the 90th and Michael Oliver had blown his whistle. Bournemouth’s victory was in vain, but Dean Smith could not celebrate yet. Watford needed to score twice in the final minutes against Arsenal to turn a 3-2 loss into a 4-3 victory in a game where Mullins’ side were 3-0 down.
The Hornets could not produce a miracle of their own and as all the Villa players stood in a huddle on the London Stadium pitch waiting for the good news from one of the coaches, he eventually told the players the final whistle had blew as the players, coaches and Dean Smith went into euphoria.
West Brom in 2005, Leicester in 2015, Sunderland in 2014. Villa can now add their name into the Premier League hall of fame as another club to produced one of the greatest relegation escapes in the league’s history.