Well that was more like it. Villa marked a series of firsts on Saturday with the surest sign yet that the Paul Lambert era is well and truly underway.
The new boss’ first Premier League win at Villa included a first goal for the club from Matthew Lowton, a new captain in Ron Vlaar and a debut goal from £7m deadline signing Christian Benteke.
But more than all of those things was the return of something far more important which has been missing from Villa Park for too long: Heart.
Fans who saw the draw at Newcastle were given a taste of it, and the vibrancy, brightness and energy with which Villa ultimately brushed aside an excellent Swansea team suggested all the unhappiness of the last few turbulent years can be swept away on a fresh wave of optimism.
And here’s the best bit: It’s only going to get better. It’s taken the attempts of the last two managers to dismantle the expensive remnants of the Martin O’Neill era.
But at least it’s given Lambert a blank – if not so expansive – canvas not afforded to his predecessors.
Lambert has had to spend more wisely than some of the managers that have gone before him. But, just as he proved at Norwich and Wycombe, the Scot is wily and talented enough to excel in bringing through more than the odd gem from the lower divisions. And through Saturday’s outfield squad of average age 24, the early signs look highly promising.
The pace and upright lean physical features of Lowton are not too dissimilar to another one-time highly promising young right-back, Mark Delaney. But the Wales international could only have dreamt of scoring the chest-and-left-foot-volley manoeuvre that the £3m recruit from Sheffield United executed with his ‘swinger’ to put Villa on their way on Saturday.
In Vlaar, Villa hope they have the commanding presence at the back that they have craved since the dominance of Martin Laursen. And in a no-nonsense display against two forwards in Danny Graham and Michu who mixed robustness and touch, the 27-year-old showed he won’t be fazed by the extra responsibility of leading the team.
In front of him, Karim El Ahmadi was a quiet but nevertheless effective shield from which Villa had a solid base to launch their attacks. And later in the game, Benteke provided enough in the 19-odd minutes he had on the pitch to suggest he will be a handful for Premier League defences.
But while Lambert’s new boys all did themselves proud, it was a signing of his immediate predecessor who did more than anyone to be the very pulse of Villa’s beating heart on Saturday.
Few fans were excited by Alex McLeish’s move for AZ Alkmaar wideman Brett Holman, his arrival coming as the storm clouds over the former Birmingham manager’s era were approaching their darkest before the axe finally fell.
Yet the bouncing Aussie was the fulcrum point of Villa’s gameplan to hurry Swansea out of their stride. Quite literally leading the charge with his bustling, up-’em-and-at-’em style, the busy midfielder shook the Swans out of their polished possession game with a breathless scampering a yapping dog would have been proud of.
Villa’s gameplan was clear to see as Andreas Weimann in particular, and to a lesser degree Darren Bent, chipped away at Swansea’s back-line, putting pressure on them to stop the chance of building attacks at source. OK, so it might not work as well against more accomplished opponents who have the nous to exploit the gaps Villa may leave behind them.
That vibrant tempo kept Swansea pinned in their own half for much of a highly dominant second period from Villa as they sent their fans happy – such a rare occurrence after the tortuous, tepid afternoons endured at Villa Park under McLeish.
Instead, fortified by Lowton’s stunning 22-yard strike that completely deceived keeper Michel Vorm as he dived right to allow the ball to nestle in the centre of the goal, they created several chances after the break to make the ultimate scoreline a flattering one to the visitors.
Ciaran Clark saw a flick diverted behind by Vorm, the industrious Weimann saw a shot on the turn blocked by the head then hand of Leon Britton on the line as Villa Park howled for a penalty, Vlaar’s header was tipped over and curling attempts by Benteke and El Ahmadi were deflected and pushed aside respectively.
Benteke was also put off by a vital header from Alan Tate that saw him miss from Bent’s cross, before Ashley Williams unwittingly set him up for the second goal by leaving
Vorm woefully short with a back header after the burly striker gambled on chasing Bent’s flick on from Brad Guzan’s kick.
The feel-good factor is back.
By Tim Nash
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