Aston Villa are aiming to return to the Premier League for the first time since their relegation in the 2015/16 campaign – and they are having quite the season in more ways than one.
After a difficult start, Steve Bruce was sacked and replaced by Dean Smith, who left Brentford to take over at his boyhood club. Smith endured a mixed settling-in period at Villa Park but has now booked the team’s place in the Championship play-offs after a fine run of form.
However, a change of manager isn’t close to telling the full story of Villa’s season, one that has been full of bizarre highs and lows; unexpected results, strange moments and broken records.
So here are the nine craziest moments that have defined Aston Villa’s 2018/19 season so far – with a couple of inclusions chosen by Holte End aficionado Jack Sangster.
1. Steve Bruce has a cabbage thrown at him
Going into a home game against Preston North End back in October, Villa had won just one of their last nine matches across all competitions. Doubts over Bruce’s future had begun to intensify.
The match was a thriller – an exciting 3-3 draw – but it wasn’t the result Villa fans wanted. The hosts led 2-0 at half-time but Preston pulled off a remarkable comeback after the break, taking a 3-2 lead in the 86th minute. Villa equalised in stoppage time before Glenn Whelan missed a chance to win it from the spot.
Amid the carnage, a cabbage was hurled at Bruce from the stands, making the rest of the match’s events look rather normal in comparison.
After the game, Bruce said: “To say it’s disappointing is an understatement for a club like this, (the cabbage was thrown) before we had even started.
“The guy who is being questioned…unfortunately, it sums up the society we are in at the moment. There’s no respect for anyone.
“Certainly for someone like him, I’m surprised he knew what a cabbage was. I find the whole thing hugely disrespectful.”
2. John McGinn’s wondergoal
Villa’s 2-1 home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in September was somewhat emblematic of Bruce’s difficulties in the early part of the season. The quality in the team was evident but the results just weren’t coming.
That quality was encapsulated by John McGinn’s Goal of the Season contender. The ball fell to McGinn 25 yards out, and the midfielder unleashed a rocket of a left-footed drive that crashed down off the crossbar and into the back of the net.
It wasn’t your average volley. McGinn caught his shot incredibly sweetly, and the ball swerved from outside the post to in before the Wednesday goalkeeper could blink. Not bad for a player better known for the other side of his game; only Jack Colback has been shown more yellow cards than McGinn (14) in the Championship this term.
Goals from Marco Matias and Steven Fletcher ensured victory for Bruce’s future club, and the result certainly contributed to the former Manchester United defender’s downfall at Villa. That said, McGinn’s goal will go down as one of the best to be scored at Villa Park in recent years – even if Jack Grealish’s effort against Rotherham somehow picked up the club’s Goal of the Season award.
3. Aston Villa 5-5 Nottingham Forest
It’s not often a player scores four goals in a single match and doesn’t end up on the winning side, but that’s what happened to Tammy Abraham back in November.
When Smith was still getting his bearings as Villa boss, he was struggling to iron out the clear defensive frailties in the team, as proved by undeniably the most entertaining game of the Championship season so far.
Abraham bagged four goals but Villa could not overcome Forest, who somehow managed a 5-5 draw on the road. Forest winger Joe Lolley scored once and provided four assists in a barmy contest that neutrals simply didn’t want to end.
Anwar El Ghazi netted what he thought must have been the winner with 15 minutes remaining, but Lewis Grabban levelled things up with his second goal of the game on 82 minutes and both sides held on for the draw.
“I don’t think our goalkeeper’s made a save,” Smith said. “We’re devastated by the fifth goal because that’s something we should’ve been better at.”
4. Tammy Abraham turns down Wolves
Abraham more than proved his importance to Villa in the 5-5 draw with Forest; without him, Smith’s side likely would have lost a winnable home game heavily.
With that in mind, there must have been plenty of panic at the club when Wolves expressed an interest in signing Abraham in the January transfer window. It looked as if the striker was set to end his loan spell from Chelsea and return to the Premier League sooner than expected.
However, Villa managed to convince the 21-year-old to stick around for the remainder of the season. And it’s a good job they did.
Abraham had scored 16 goals in 21 appearances when he decided to turn Wolves down. He now has 25 goals in 39 games, including 25 strikes in the Championship, and is leading Villa’s promotion push. Indeed, he could turn out to be a hugely important factor in the play-offs.
It’s rare to see a striker resist the chance to play in the Premier League – but who could turn their back on such a bizarre season in B6?
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5. Aston Villa 3-3 Sheffield United
Fast forward three months from the draw of all draws with Nottingham Forest, and Villa were at it again – this time against an even more formidable opponent.
Sheffield United, now promoted to the Premier League, were a force to be reckoned with for most of their visit to Villa Park. Billy Sharp scored a hat-trick, helping the Blades to make yet another statement of intent in terms of their ability to reach the Premier League.
All was going swimmingly for Chris Wilder’s men until the 82nd minute when Tyrone Mings headed in what seemed like a mere consolation for Villa. But four minutes later, Abraham was on hand to tap in a rebound to close the gap to within one goal.
Four minutes into stoppage time, Villa earned their reward for a persistent final few minutes. Youngster Andre Green popped up with a brilliant header to complete a stunning comeback.
6. Jack Grealish punched by a Birmingham fan
The idiotic actions of a supporter threatened to ruin March’s derby meeting between Birmingham City and Aston Villa at St Andrew’s.
Just nine minutes into the game, a Birmingham fan ran onto the pitch and punched Villa captain Grealish from behind. Grealish fell to the floor and the attacker was dragged away by a steward.
Grealish was comforted by his teammates and a number of Birmingham players, and the 23-year-old was praised for how he dealt with the situation; he didn’t react and was smiling moments later.
That smile was transformed into a huge grin midway through the second half when Grealish scored an excellent winner to silence the home supporters, the vast majority of whom will have been disgusted by the actions of the man who punched Grealish.
7. Ten wins on the bounce
With 34 games played, Villa were 11th in the table with 45 points, eight points behind sixth-placed Bristol City. An amazing run of 10 straight wins followed, and Villa are now fifth, five points above sixth-placed Derby County.
In doing so, Villa set a new club record for consecutive victories. They scored 23 goals across the 10 matches, conceding just five and keeping five clean sheets.
It seems things began to click for Smith at just the right time. Any later and Villa may have missed out on a play-off spot. Now they are the form team going into what is always an unpredictable mini-tournament.
Villa’s winning run ended with a 1-1 draw at Leeds United (more on that later…), but Smith’s men won’t be too concerned. They look set to finish fifth, meaning they will play either Leeds or Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion in the semi-finals.
The spirit Villa showed during their historic run of form may be needed again if they are to reach the promised land.
8. Allowed a free run at goal against Leeds
Patrick Bamford faces a two game ban if he is found to have deceived referee Stuart Atwell during Leeds’ game with Aston Villa.
Will it be enforced?
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) April 29, 2019
The most controversial moment of the campaign occurred during last month’s 1-1 draw between Leeds and Villa at Elland Road. A more bizarre goal hasn’t been scored this season and isn’t likely to be scored next season, or the season after that.
It all started when the Leeds players ignored calls for the ball to be put out of play after Villa striker Jonathan Kodjia went down with an injury. Mateusz Klich cut inside and put Leeds 1-0 up, provoking a furious response from a number of Villa players.
El Ghazi was sent off following a fracas with Leeds’ Patrick Bamford, but the red card has since been rescinded after Bamford was alleged to have play-acted. When play was set to re-start, Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa admirably instructed his players to allow Villa to score.
And that they did. Albert Adomah ran through on goal uncontested – although Leeds defender Pontus Jansson made a confused attempt to stop it happening – and slotted the ball home. The game ended all square and Villa’s winning run ended, but they will be happy with the point all things considered.
9. Lack of wins against the best and the worst
More a collection of moments rather than a specific crazy moment, but a significant aspect of Villa’s season to mention nonetheless.
Remarkably, Villa have dropped points against five of the Championship’s bottom seven teams this term, losing against Millwall, QPR and Wigan Athletic at various stages of the campaign.
The Villains haven’t been much better against the sides at the top, beating only one of the other five teams in the top six. Despite doing the double over Derby, Villa have struggled against the other sides around them, which is perhaps why they have been unable to challenge for automatic promotion.
Prospering against mid-table clubs is all well and good during the main campaign, but Villa will be facing a different level of opposition in the play-offs. Their recent draw at Leeds will give them confidence in that regard, but their record against the better sides has to get better.