As the River End emptied last night, while King Klose was doing his well-deserved lap of appreciation, I bumped into a pal who, for me, nailed it.
‘I feel so much pride watching these boys … even if we lose, when they play like this you know another win is not far away’.
It was the word pride that resonated most. He was spot on.
There’s so much to be proud of right now it’s difficult to know where to start, but the obvious one is watching the three teenagers from the Academy mature into accomplished Championship players before our very eyes.
In fairness, Jamal Lewis is already there and consistently churns out performances you’d expect of a 300-game veteran – and thoughtfully saves any ricks for when he’s wearing the green of Northern Ireland – but in Max Aarons and Todd Cantwell we have a pair of young bucks who still collectively have played less than 20 Championship games.
But who could tell?
While they are still joyously gripped with the fearlessness of youth, Messrs Aarons and Cantwell have far more to offer than energy and bravery alone. Both are master technicians and have progressed so quickly through the hand-holding phase that Daniel Farke can trust them to deliver in the same way he relies on the more grizzled, Championship-hardened members of the group.
All three are an absolute credit to the Academy and to every coach who, along the way, has played a part in their development.
Max, last night, had probably his best game since his arrival on the first-team scene – and there have been some good ones – and that he’s now offering some serious attacking intent to his game had added another dimension not only to his own output, but to the whole dynamic of the side.
Old fool that I am, I was drooling last night at the mature way he’s able to charge down the line or cut inside, and still resist slinging in a hopeful cross or going for a 30-yard worldie; instead invariably going for the right option of a simple pass to keep the move flowing. A sign of proper maturity.
A relatively minor observation, but so vital and largely attributable to the excellence of the coaching he’s received. For those who’ve been involved, he must, or at least should be, a huge source of pride.
Yet it’s not just the youngsters who invoked the pride that Nigel spoke of.
Allayed to a method of play that has taken Team Farke 18 months to hone, there is now a hunger and appetite in this group that, in turn, produces an intensity that makes us really difficult to play against.
The high press is working well and does so because it’s done as a unit, starting last night with Jordan Rhodes and Marco Stiepermann, whose job was to deny James Chester and Axel Tuanzebe time to bring Jack Grealish and co into play. Both did it brilliantly. And from there the rest followed, with the high-energy approach leaving no room for a let-up. To a man they delivered.
That’s no say last night’s first-half display was perfect. Minus new-dad Alex Tettey, there were times when the tracking was reactive rather than pro-active and the different skillset that Tom Trybull brings to the minder role took a while to bed in. Grealish had a little too much room for comfort at times and in the final third we looked, it has to be said, a little toothless.
But, for the second time in four days, they found a way.
The second-half benefited from a few half-time tweaks and, despite Dean Smith doing his best to write it off as a “scrappy game”, City played some good stuff after the break. With Trybull looking increasingly comfortable, Mo Leitner was able to be even more influential and as ‘quarter-backs’ go there can be no better in the Championship.
His range of passing and ability to keep things ticking over is a joy to behold, and now we’re seeing a bite and tenacity to his game that makes for a formidable package. If Mo ticks the team ticks, and for minutes 46 to 95 last night he was absolutely on it – with Rhodes the main beneficiary.
It was impossible not to feel ecstatic for the ex-Ipswich man, who has had to play second-fiddle to Teemu Pukki during his purple patch, but a couple of predatory strikes later and the stripes are now Rhodes’ to lose.
Both goals bore the hallmarks of a goal poacher extraordinaire, and when we signed him on loan over the summer these are just the type of goals we’d envisaged. That the second one rounded off a fine 18-pass move was a huge juicy, delectable bonus – one that clearly narked Mr Smith, who thought his side were deserving of at least a point.
In fairness, Villa were pretty good and under their new stewardship look well placed for a promotion charge. In Grealish, they have an outstanding individual who, for all his irritating traits, can win a game on his own, and loads of other players of Premier League quality. They’ll be there or thereabouts – make no mistake.
But last night was all about City and how Farke has turned us around from a side that looked ill-equipped to cope with the brutalities of the Championship, to one that now positively thrives in that same environment.
As a couple of the Archant boys have said… something is stirring in NR1. Who am I to argue.
Be proud people.