Underdogs they may be but Sherwood’s men have the ability to turn the tables on holders Arsenal
The pundits arrayed on BBC-TV’s Final Score programme last Saturday, a trio of old pros led by Garth Crooks, were pretty confident. Aston Villa would, or at least could, win the FA Cup.
‘The influence of Scots has been pronounced throughout Villa’s 141-year history’
They gave their reasons for believing Villa might prevail against Arsenal, the holders, at Wembley next Saturday. “I think their name’s on the trophy,” said one, demonstrating the value of having played the game. “Because Tim Sherwood’s just a lucky manger,” declared another, ignoring the fact that Villa had just surrendered 6-1 to Southampton.
In fairness to the studio sages, if FA Cup history tells us anything it is the folly of writing off underdogs. The litany of final shocks is long, with Wigan Athletic’s defeat of Manchester City two years ago an astonishing recent example.
In the earlier rounds this season – when the competition rediscovered some of its soul after years of decline – City and Chelsea were humbled at home by Middlesbrough and Bradford City on the same heady afternoon.
So while logic dictates that Arsenal should retain the prize won so arduously against a team of similar pedigree to Villa, Hull City, Crooks and co may yet be proved right.
Villa have not lifted the cup since 1957, the same year, coincidentally, that Saturday’s Hampden finalists Falkirk last won the Scottish Cup. If they break that spell it will surely have less to do with luck than with how successful manager Sherwood – a boyhood Arsenal fan – is in coaxing the best from potential match-winners Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph.
That said, their then-record seventh cup success, when they overcame even stronger favourites than Arsene Wenger’s Gunners in the shape of new league champions Manchester United, owed much to an injury to the Busby Babes’ goalkeeper Ray Wood. With substitutes still years away, United defender Jackie Blanchflower played in goal for 84 minutes.
It was all so long ago that Lonnie Donegan stood at No.1, Harold Macmillan was in No.10 – and some of the 100,000 people who watched Peter McParland’s two goals win it for the Midlanders must have known William McGregor personally.
McGregor, from Braco, Perthshire, served Villa as president, director and chairman in the Victorian era, founding the Football League to boot. He wanted his club to be Birmingham’s equivalent of Queen’s Park, the great Glasgow amateurs. Long before his death in 1911 they had won a league and cup double.
The influence of Scots has been pronounced throughout Villa’s 141-year history. The club crest, introduced by McGregor, depicts a lion rampant and, echoing Rangers’ “Ready”, trumpets the word “Prepared”.
George Ramsay, who ventured from Cathcart to captain Villa in polo cap and long pants, then became secretary-manager for 42 silverware-strewn years. The club’s first wealthy benefactor was George Kynoch, from Peterhead.
Their first cup-winning captain was Archie Hunter, of Joppa, Ayrshire, followed down the decades by Charlie Aitken, who left Watson’s College in Edinburgh as a rugby-playing trialist and stayed for a club-record 659 appearances; then came Andy Lochhead, Alan McInally, Johnny MacLeod, Bruce Rioch, Alex Cropley and Andy Gray; and from the European Cup-winning class of 1982, Allan Evans, Des Bremner and Ken McNaught.
Eight Scots have been Villa manager, including Tommy Docherty, although the reigns of Alex McLeish and Paul Lambert, like that of Billy McNeill, are not remembered fondly. When Lambert was fired in February, coach Scott Marshall oversaw a fifth-round win over Leicester before departing. The son of ex-Hearts goalkeeper Gordon Marshall, the Villa “caretaker” is also the last Scot to play for Arsenal, in 1997, whereas the claret-and-blue squad for Wembley will contain current Scotland right-back Alan Hutton, pictured right, once of Rangers.
Sherwood’s arrival, nine months after he was harshly fired by Tottenham, has transformed Villa, who lost 3-0 and 5-0 to Arsenal in the Premier League under Lambert.
In the former Celtic captain’s last 12 league matches, they scraped together nine points and five goals. The newcomer’s record over an identical run – during which he has been assisted by Kevin MacDonald, the Inverness Caledonian discovery who went on to play for Liverpool – has been 16 points and 19 goals.
A switch from Lambert’s cautious 4-2-3-1 formation to 4-4-2 – or, when Gabby Agbonlahor has been unfit to start up front, 4-4-1-1 – has given Villa greater attacking threat. In the middle of their relegation-averting surge, they confirmed their new-found positivity by coming from behind to beat Liverpool in the semi-final.
Their goals at Wembley came from the two players who have become talismans under Sherwood.
Benteke, the Congo-born Belgium international for whom Lambert paid Genk £8 million in 2012, has scored 12 in his last 11 games. He had three in 21 before the change of manager. Sherwood has proclaimed him as “the best striker in Europe”. Even allowing for the hyperbole, reports that Chelsea and Liverpool value Benteke at £30m should not be dismissed lightly. Central defence is not Arsenal’s strongest suit, and if Villa can exploit his pace and power, he is capable of following McParland into folklore.
That is where Delph comes in. Gary McAllister made him the lynchpin of Leeds United’s midfield when he was 18, and his passing range, ability to break up play and penchant for important goals persuaded Martin O’Neill to invest £6m of Villa’s money in him before he turned 20.
Now an England player, Delph, has also stepped up a level since Sherwood and MacDonald took over, enhancing the service to Benteke and scoring the winner himself against Liverpool. Sherwood is pitching him, not unjustifiably, as “the best midfielder in England”.
Joining Delph in the engine room, or operating just behind Benteke, is the precociously talented Jack Grealish, 19, whose great, great grandfather Billy Garraty won the FA Cup with Villa in 1905.
The past, it is evident, has a presence at Villa Park. At the devoutly religious McGregor’s funeral, the clergyman praised “not so much the genial, kindly, honest sportsman, but the Christian behind it”. Unless Arsenal can contain Benteke, another Christian may just be the man to reacquaint them with the FA Cup.