Analysis: Jack Grealish rises above shameful derby fan attack to seal precious Aston Villa victory
A Second City derby which will forever live on in infamy at least delivered the only fitting conclusion.
Having been felled by a fan, Jack Grealish got back up to deliver the sweetest sucker punch and send Villa soaring over Blues and four other rivals, in a play-off race of which they are once again very much contenders.
His 67th minute strike, the only goal of the game and his second of the season against Villa’s fiercest foes, ensured the day ended with the 23-year-old reflecting on another fairytale moment.
If any more proof were really needed as to how a player who once used to make headlines with his off-field mishaps is developing into a mature leader of men, then you only needed to look at the way Grealish calmly picked himself off the ground and went on to claim the man-of-the-match honours.
Weaker characters would have crumbled and shied away in the febrile atmosphere. Not Jack, not these days.
Sunday confirmed he is now a player ready to grasp hold of his own destiny and just perhaps, shape Villa’s, if he can lead them on a successful late play-off charge.
Things, as we know, could easily have turned out very differently. Grealish’s winner was never going to be quite enough to shift the focus away from the disgraceful, cowardly attack he endured when the game was just nine minutes old.
This is a fixture which has seen plenty of shameful moments over the decades. Only last year, TV viewers were treated to the sight of visiting players at St Andrew’s being pelted by cardboard clappers provided with the intention of adding to the atmosphere.
That all pales in comparison after yesterday’s shocking incident, for which Blues must now face the consequences.
The club and their manager, Garry Monk, reacted in the only way they could, moving without haste to condemn the idiot actions of this so-called supporter, who will now never set in foot in St Andrew’s again.
It feels wrong the reputations of the many good and decent people who work and support the club should be tarnished by one individual.
The problem for Blues is that this has happened before. Back in 2002, a fan was jailed for four months after running on to the pitch to taunt Peter Enckelman, slapping the then Villa goalkeeper on the cheek following his infamous error which helped the home team record a 3-0 win.
Blues supporters, meanwhile, have topped the arrests table in English football for the last three years.
Of course, it is the actions of a mindless minority which reflects badly on the law-abiding majority. But yesterday’s attack, though carried out by just one man, should be the trigger for some serious soul-searching. Villa’s official statement referred to a “red line” having been crossed. That is putting it lightly.
Once the dust had settled, the visitors were left to celebrate nothing less than a tremendous win.
Saturday’s other results had offered the opportunity to make further ground on the top six and Dean Smith’s team duly grasped their chance with a performance which owed everything to their new-found grit and resilience.
Blues made clear their plan to out-muscle their opponents from the off, Maikel Kieftenbeld once again setting the tone by sending Grealish to the ground with a ferocious challenge.
It is fair to say only a few weeks ago Villa might have struggled to withstand either the home side’s physicality or the blustery conditions which frequently threatened to have a decisive say in the outcome.
Yet something has changed about this team. Whether it be the return of Grealish, or the extra power added at the back by the imposing figures of Tyrone Mings and Kortney Hause, Villa are no longer pushovers.
This was the kind of gutsy victory of which there have been nowhere near enough, in a season when Villa have tended to either win well or not at all.
If the 4-0 drubbing of Derby eight days earlier provided confirmation it was too soon to write them off, yesterday provided further encouragement they might just have what it takes to chase down the top six.
For now they remain outsiders, though the week could not now be set up more perfectly, with Wednesday night’s trip to Nottingham Forest followed by Saturday’s visit of Middlesbrough.
Emerge from it well and there is every chance Villa will head toward the final run-in still very much in contention and perhaps their strongest shape of the season.
While the individual journey Grealish, understandably, became the focus of the post-match spotlight, arguably the biggest encouragement for Villa came in a defence which has gone from shaky to sturdy in the space of a few weeks.
Since conceding twice in four minutes to Albion last month, Villa have conceded just once in 315 minutes. Even that goal came when they were temporarily reduced to 10 men by Alan Hutton’s injury at Stoke.
While the impressive form of Hause and Mings is undoubtedly a factor, so too is the assuredness of Jed Steer, a goalkeeper with obvious confidence in his own decision-making.
A strong Blues strikeforce of Che Adams and Lukas Jutkiewicz naturally had their moments, yet neither could find themselves on the end of a decisive chance.
Instead, the hosts saw their best opportunities fall to Craig Gardner, who twice went close finding a leveller having arrived as a late substitute.
After firing over from eight yards out after a rare Villa lapse, he then crashed a header just wide in stoppage time.
For Gardner, it was unlucky, though in the context of the day appropriate. There was only one Brummie who deserved to be the match-winner.