A week of remarkable footballing comebacks continued with Aston Villa’s 2-1 win over West Brom in the Championship play-off semi-final first leg.
Second-half goals from Conor Hourihane and Tammy Abraham cancelled out Dwight Gayle’s opener, with the latter getting himself sent off in the second half, meaning he will now miss the return leg on Tuesday.
But what did we learn from this electric midlands derby?
1. Experience counts for nothing
Glenn Whelan was a rock for Stoke City during their Premier League years and there’s no doubting his presence at Aston Villa over the past couple of years has added balance to the midfield.
The Republic of Ireland has well of almost 600 games from which he can draw on experience to guide those around him and become a calming influence when his side needs it.
However, that counted for absolutely nothing on Saturday as the 35-year-old’s horrendous mistake from a Jack Grealish pass gifted West Brom a chance to open the scoring.
After receiving the ball from Whelan originally, Grealish played what appeared to be a simple return pass but the former Stoke man looked every inch the 35-year-old he is, struggling to position his body to take the ball and ultimately allowing it to run through to Dwight Gayle. Gayle may have struggled at Premier League level but in the Championship, there are few who can match his goalscoring prowess in recent years.
Whelan was given a great reception from the Villa faithful when he left the pitch and but for Hourihane’s screamer and an Abraham penalty, this mistake could have had eye-watering consequences heading into the second leg.
2. Graceful Grealish
Six goals, seven assists and a highlights reel of absolute bangers. It’s fair to say Jack Grealish has had a brilliant season as Villa’s captain.
In the first half on Saturday, Grealish actually looked unusually poor. Tentative with his touch, wasteful with his passing and generally nervous. It really showed on Villa’s build-up play, too, as Dean Smith’s side struggled to ask any serious questions of an often leaky Baggies backline.
However, in the second half, captain fantastic stepped up. All of a sudden, the England U21 international’s passes were zipping to their man, defenders looked nervous at his weaving in and out in possession and most importantly, Grealish was getting the ball in far more advanced and dangerous areas.
The reward for Villa was a Conor Hourihane screamer in the 75th minute assisted by Grealish, followed by an Abraham penalty just four minutes later. Who won the penalty? Yep, Grealish, who was alive to a loose ball in the area, drawing the foul from Kieran Gibbs.
Second half Grealish is much more fun than first half Grealish, let’s just hope he can carry that form into the opening whistle at the Hawthorns on Tuesday.
3. Leaky West Brom
Ahead of Sunday’s first leg, West Brom had kept a grand total of nine Championship clean sheets. Nine in 46 regular season games. The fourth-worst in the division and simply nowhere near good enough for a side challenging for Premier League football.
In the first half at Villa Park, the Baggies seemed to have put their issues behind them, with the likes of Kyle Bartley and Ahmed Hegazi making blocks and winning headers at will.
Of course, that wasn’t to last and their 1-0 lead was surrendered in a four-minute spell during the second half. In truth, though, it could have been a lot worse with Villa piling immense pressure on their rivals from the first whistle after the interval.
West Brom couldn’t cope with this but simply must learn to if they are to stand any chance in the second leg.
4. Super sub screamer
Is there a better way to introduce yourself as a substitute than firing a rocket home from the edge of the box?
Prior to kick off, one of the big talking points about Dean Smith’s team selection was the omission of Hourihane from the starting line-up, with the 28-year-old having notched seven goals and 11 assists already before the playoffs.
No matter, though. Smith introduced the Irishman in the 67th minute and just eight minutes later, he was on the end of a Grealish pass to blast home the Villa equaliser.
Will Smith learn his lesson for the second leg? Or was it all just part of his grand plan?
5. The good, the bad and the Gayle
And the award for most stupid sending off goes to… Dwight Gayle!
Trace this one all the way back to the original yellow card and you can’t help but laugh at Gayle’s stupidity. Imagine getting yourself booked for time-wasting at a throw-in, in the 62nd minute of what will be at least a 180-minute affair.
Of course, his goal in the first half, and his 23 others this season, would have gone a long way to making that daft act a mere footnote had he not slid at a no-hope ball into the Villa box, clattering into Jed Steer and simply awaiting his fate from referee Graham Scott.
Like a naughty schoolboy, Gayle knew what he had done and trudged off with that same resentment a student would have for their headmaster, no matter how wrong they are.
Gayle is now out of the second leg and given he is their one true poacher up front, he will be sorely missed by James Shan.