Friday, 17 April 2015

Dear Villa, please can we keep Gary Gardner?

I'm rooting for Villa. Not necessarily this Sunday, although I wouldn't mind seeing them upset Liverpool and the 'FA Cup narrative'. No, I'm backing Villa because I'm clinging to the hope that if they stay up and, even better, if they get bought out by rich owners, they might be prepared to let us keep Gary Gardner.

It's probably a false hope, especially with Tactics Tim's record with younger players and the restrictions we have under the dreaded FFP. It'd be nice though wouldn't it?

Wednesday's night's game against Watford served as a timely reminder of the quality we've missed from Gardner while he was suspended. 

Despite carving a golden chance for Chris Burke I felt we struggled to settle for the first 15 minutes - not helped by gifting a goal to Odion Ighalo after just four minutes. 

However, one touch of magisterial brilliance from the on-loan Aston Villa man lifted us. A neat dinked ball, seemingly innocuous given it led to nothing directly, seemed to spur us into life - as if we realised we had a bit of class to rely on in the middle and could go forward with confidence.

For the rest of the half I felt Watford continued to look dangerous - how did Abdi miss 'that' chance? - but so did we. Former Spurs keeper Heurelho Gomes denying Antonio, the tigerish Osborn and Eric Lichaj, who tried his luck with an incredible acrobatic effort from distance.

Still, all that good work, inspired by Gardner's poise and sheer class, was undone when Ighalo evaded the lame defensive efforts of an off-the-pace Kelvin Wilson and his shot rebounded to Matthew Connolly, who had started the breakaway, to establish a two-goal cushion.

There were plenty of grumbles at half time but actually it hadn't been a bad game, we simply didn't have the same cutting edge up front with a front line led by a largely anonymous Chuba Akpom and the wide threat of Michail Antonio not quite hitting the heights of a couple of months ago as the season continues to take his toll on the ex-Sheffield Wednesday man (surely the clear player of the year regardless?).

The second half was even more entertaining than the first prompted, bizarrely, by the red card of Kelvin Wilson. His horror show ended with a petulant looking kick out - a lazy bit of play that showed no regard for his team mates or the desire to come back in the game. At that point, with half an hour to go, you feared the cricket season was due to come to West Bridgford earlier than Sunday's first home clash with reigning county champions Yorkshire. Surely the hungry Hornets would pile on the pressure and give their goal difference a boost with the proverbial cricket score?

What followed was a remarkable effort from Freedman's men. Mancienne was put out of his midfield misery and shifted to centre half but the real change came with the sheer display of effort and determination. It was if the players knew they had to up their game to cope with being a man down - and dug deep to improve drastically (which probably also speaks volumes for Wilson's display too).

Led by the lung-bursting forward forays of the revitalised Lichaj, the men in red stormed forward, not caring that there was nothing to play for. Burke battled and schemed, Akpom was replaced by the much more effective Tyler Walker, Antonio dug deep and probed and Gardner, the fulcrum at the heart of everything, sprayed the ball about.

When a marginal free-kick/penalty decision on 72 minutes saw the referee opt not to give a spot kick, Gardner took his frustration out on the ball and thundered in a devastating free kick into the net to pull a goal back. 

What followed from that was something of a slugfest - a shootout at the City Ground corral - as both sides continued to attack. It was refreshing to see to be honest. Our players could have given up, given there was little to play for, and Watford could've sat deep and accepted a useful 2-1 win against 10 men. Instead both strove to find that all-important next goal.

It should've come to Antonio when a shot from Gardner - that man again - found its way to him just a couple of yards out with an open goal to aim at. But, despite all of those wonder strikes he's scored this season, Michail misfired and spooned his effort wide. Anyone stupid enough not to forgive the winger, though, needs to spend a few minutes on YouTube.

The sting in the tail came when Almen Abdi made amends for his earlier miss, finishing after Darlow parried a typically vicious swerved effort from ex-Red Adlene Guedioura. 

It was perhaps cruel, I thought a draw would've been fair for our efforts with ten men, but Watford will think it was reward for their own attacking intent and impressive cutting edge. Even then a slightly rusty Hobbs was charging forward with a give and go on the half way line in injury time - epitomising the exceptional spirit on show.

We've learned that Mancienne really doesn't work as a screening midfielder, that Tyler Walker coming along nicely and that Kelvin Wilson really doesn't deserve to be an automatic starter. Above all, we've also learned that we're at our best on the ball when Gary Gardner is in the side. A permanent deal for him would be the dream - and add real class to an emerging spine of a squad for next year. Does anyone at Villa fancy doing us a favour? Please?

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