Behind Enemy Lines: Aston Villa

MILLWALL are back on the road on Easter Monday – heading to Villa Park to face promotion-chasing Aston Villa.

Millwall won the fixture between the sides back in October. Shane Ferguson and Tom Elliott scored after Tammy Abraham had given Villa the lead.

However, things are very different at Villa Park now. Dean Smith was named as Steve Bruce’s replacement in October and they are currently on a record-equalling number of wins.

Victory at Bolton on Good Friday was their ninth win in a row.

Alex Grace spoke to Villa fan Jack Jackson.

Twitter: @jackodotcom

Why do you support Aston Villa?

My Dad – and before him Grandad – supports Aston Villa, so I suppose you can say it was a family tradition.

I went to my first Villa game when I was about five years old. I had all the kits as well so I was sucked into the Claret and Blue from an early age.

What has been your favourite season following the Villans?

My favourite season was probably 2007-08.

Typical Villa, a rollercoaster season in which we ended up finishing in sixth place. We did the double over our neighbours Birmingham City, included a 5-1 home win.

We drew 4-4 at Chelsea. What a game that was with goals and red cards.

Stiliyan Petrov scored from the halfway line in a 6-0 win at Derby. John Carew scored a second-half hat-trick at home to Newcastle.

There was a game away to Spurs where were leading 4-1 and ended up drawing 4-4. It was a season under Martin O’Neil that was exciting, and it always felt like we could score goals and win games.

And the worst?

The worst season has to be 2015-16. We were relegated from the Premier League with just 17 points. Looking back on it now, it really was awful. There were a few seasons before we went down that were bad but that one was awful.

What have you made of Aston Villa’s 2018-19 season?

This season has been interesting as always. We nearly went bankrupt in the summer, but thankfully the new owners have brought stability to the club off the pitch and a plan is in place for long-term sustainability.

On the pitch after the summer transfer window we were in a difficult place, with a totally imbalanced squad. I think one game we started four right-backs across the back-line. It was quite desperate.

A change of manager has brought everyone together. Dean Smith is a Villan after all so it should be expected, he understands the club and feels it. His brand of football is totally different to his predecessor, it has put plenty of bums on seats at Villa Park again.

The winter transfer window was a key point, bringing back some loaned-out players and also some new loanees. It has brought balance to the squad which was much needed.

We’ve hit form at the right time, nine wins on the spin is a great achievement. I thought after the home defeat to West Brom in February, on a run of one win in eight in 2019, that was it, our season would limp out.

How wrong I was.

Villa have won nine games in a row – what has sparked this brilliant run of form?

The run of nine wins in a row has been sparked by having a settled team and probably a great deal of emphasis on Jack Grealish returning from injury.

Tyrone Mings in defence is such a leader and having a big positive character like him in the dressing room galvanises everybody.

The players look fitter and their levels of performance have lifted by 15/20 per cent. Something has clicked, there is belief now.

Winning breeds confidence, confidence relaxes players and things drop into place. Grealish is too good a player for this level. A player opposition fans love to hate, a targeted man on the pitch often.

Villa look set for a place in the play-offs – are you confident if they get into the last four?

Our good run over recent weeks has given us a great chance of reaching the play-offs. Can we win it? Of course, but we will need to be at our very best and hope our best XI is available.

Tammy Abraham injured his shoulder against Bolton. If he’s out it’s a big loss. A potential two-legged semi-final against West Brom will be tough. It’s a local rivalry (not a derby) so adds spice. On our day we can beat anybody but as this league shows often, Wigan at Leeds recently, for example, anybody can beat anybody on the day.

What has Dean Smith changed?

The change in management has delivered a massive change in philosophy for us.

Our previous manager had his method, a method that he trusted but wasn’t easy on the eye and frustrated given the calibre of forward-thinking players available. He was intent not to lose, not to concede but in doing so was too negative and I consider the players were not playing their natural game which invites problems.

Dean Smith has come in with a much more positive game plan, more intent on winning games rather than concentrating on not losing them. It hasn’t all been win, win, win. There have been some difficult periods where the players seemed to have lost their way but thankfully it’s all dropping into place of late.

Conor Hourihane and Jed Wallace compete for possession

Millwall are battling against relegation – do you think they will beat the drop?

Yes, I think Millwall will survive relegation. Rotherham have three tough games, your games are in my opinion slightly more favourable so yes, you’re staying up. Your favourable goal difference is worth a point at this stage.

Which Villa players do Millwall need to look out for on Monday?

Jack Grealish and John McGinn. These two are very good for their own reasons.

McGinn has the best engine I’ve seen at Villa Park since James Milner and he’s a very competent player who is adding goals to his all-round excellent game of late.

Grealish, I’m sure your fan base know enough about him. I didn’t include Tammy Abraham as he will most likely not play due to injury. Anwar El Ghazi is also worth mentioning, on his day he’s decent.

Likewise, which Millwall are you worried about going up against?

Ben Thompson is a player who looks like he could cause us problems. The way he gets stuck in and challenges players is something that we could struggle with.

Shane Ferguson and Jed Wallace are two players who have caught my eye. Wallace has got pace and could make life difficult for our defence.

Lee Gregory is always a danger in and around the box, too.

What are your thoughts on Lions boss Neil Harris?

Neil Harris is a manager that demands passion from his players. Blood, thunder, aggression and commitment, don’t shirk a challenge, from what I’ve seen and heard about him. He is liked by the fans and the club which means he is a good fit for everyone involved.

If you could sign one of his players who would it be and why?

I mentioned that Jed Wallace and Shane Ferguson were two players I liked. If we were not to go up and were to lose key players in those positions, then they would be two I think would suit Villa.

What is your predicted Aston Villa starting XI and formation?

Assuming Abraham is injured and hoping Axel Tuanzebe is fit…


Steer; Elmohamady, Tuanzebe, Mings, Taylor; Whelan, McGinn; Grealish, El Ghazi, Adomah; Kodja

Will you be at the game on Friday?

Yes, I will be there.

Finally, a score prediction?

Millwall need the points just as much as we do so it will be a tough game.

I’m going to say: Aston Villa 1-1 Millwall

Graphic: @ShedCreative