Dean Smith hadn't reached the halfway point of his playing career on August 19, 1995, when goals from Ian Taylor, Mark Draper and Dwight Yorke earned Brian Little’s team a 3-1 opening-day win, a result which prompted Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen to survey Alex Ferguson’s youthful visiting line-up and infamously proclaim: “You’ll never win anything with kids.”
Since then Villa’s record in this particular fixture is a catalogue of futility: Played 21, won none, drawn seven, lost 14.
Of the likely home XI aiming to make it 22nd time lucky on Sunday, six were not yet born at the time of the 1995 triumph while the five who were: John McGinn, Tyrone Mings, Anwar El Ghazi, Ross Barkley and Emiliano Martinez, were mere toddlers.
“It has been too long,” remarked Smith on Friday, reflecting on what is now more than a quarter of a century of frustration. “In some ways it shows the success Manchester United had for many years under Sir Alex Ferguson. But it also shows we need to be doing better.”
Smith’s own record against United reads one draw and two defeats, though Villa had their moments in all three matches. That includes last July’s 3-0 home loss when they were actually on top before United were handed the initiative by a controversial penalty award, as Ezri Konsa was penalised when he appeared to be the man fouled by Bruno Fernandes.
That loss, which also came with five matches to go in the season, left Villa staring down the barrel of relegation. This time there are no such worries. Instead a fixture list which also features dates against Tottenham and Champions League-finalists Chelsea would appear to offer opportunities to deliver further statement results in a campaign which has already featured several.
“I’d rather have five 1-0 wins over the rest of the season than one stand-out,” admitted Smith. “But I think every time you win a game in this league is well-earned because it is a tough league to win games.
“The win against Everton last week was as good against Liverpool or Leicester. On Boxing Day we beat Crystal Palace 3-0 when we were down to 10 men.
“I expect a really good game (against United). They are second in the league on merit, have had a really good season and just reached the Europa League final as well. You can see the progression Ole (Gunnar Solskjaer) has made at the club.”
Villa head into the match buoyed by last Saturday’s win at Goodison Park, which came courtesy of their most complete performance of the calendar year.
After a frustrating period which, barring a minor miracle over the season’s final fortnight, has erased the chance of European football, Villa finally look a team that has regained its mojo. So too, noticeably, does Ross Barkley. The on loan Chelsea star has been Villa’s most consistent performer over the last two matches after being restored to the starting XI for the 2-2 draw with Albion.
“Ross has just been a bit like our team were, a bit inconsistent,” said Smith. “I don’t think it matters whether you are an elite footballer, the future King of England, an NHS worker, you deal with confidence.
“You can feel whether you are confident or not. That happens with footballers, and because he’s an elite performer, he’s no different to anybody else.
“His confidence was hit that he wasn’t playing as well as he would have liked or how he was at the start of the season.
“But he certainly wasn’t terrible and he worked hard. His numbers showed that he was working hard. I’m just pleased for him that the last couple of performances have been good for him.
“We all need that inner-belief and spark that can push us up to that next level. He’s found his spark again and we’re grateful for it.”
Smith continued: “There have been periods of delight this season but there have been periods of frustration as well.
“What I want from the last five games is a certain performance level that we had against Albion and Everton.
“We need to take that into the next five games. It won’t guarantee results but it will give us the best chance.”