Graham Taylor returned to touchline duty for the first time in six months and, for most of a frustrating afternoon at Villa Park, must have wondered what all the fuss was about. Villa's third successive draw does little to further their cause for a place in Europe, but at least gave the newly restored Villa manager an insight into the travails of his predecessors. Different manager, same old story.
Emotions were predictably mixed. The familiar feeling of relief as Villa took a barely deserved lead just before the half-hour mark through Paul Merson, and the dejection of Chelsea's neatly fashioned equaliser by Frank Lampard in the second half. In between came a technicolour glimpse of Villa's strengths and weaknesses; industry and commitment aplenty, too little creativity, too few thrills.
"People want to be excited here," the former England manager said. "One of the things that gets the crowd off their seats is players being encouraged to take defenders on." David Ginola, the prime entertainer, had disappeared up the M6 the previous day.
Sven Goran Eriksson would have learnt equally little in the stands, apart possibly from noting the name of Joe Keenan, a 19-year-old youth international who made his Premiership debut as a replacement for John Terry. The boy has a sweet left foot, but a point was equally inconclusive for Chelsea's pursuit of a place in the top four.
It is a relaunch Taylor will be happy to set aside. He wanted to manage in the Premiership and now, at the age of 57, he has. The outcome could have been worse. Chelsea had two presentable chances in the closing moments and, in contrast to recent weeks, missed both. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who should have scored with an unchallenged header as early as the fourth minute, was the main culprit.
"I expected to see the net bulge," admitted Taylor. "In truth, you have to say that Chelsea shaded it. It was a poor playing surface and though it's too late to do anything about it this season, we have to get it sorted out. But I've only been here a week." Going on a lifetime.
On a lengthy walk to the dug-out he last occupied 12 years ago, Taylor was warmly applauded by a near capacity crowd at Villa Park. Back then, he took Aston Villa to the giddy heights of second in the old First Division, pitching a legacy into the laps of the Holte End that subsequent managers have struggled to match. John Gregory, much fêted if only as taunter-in-chief of chairman Doug Ellis, was the latest victim, swapping the comparative luxury of seventh in the Premieship for the prospect of awaydays to Rotherham with Derby. Yet Merson was not the only one mystified by the absence of criticism for the charmed – and often charming – Gregory and the continued vilification of Ellis.
Taylor's hop from boardroom to managerial office has taxed his powers of diplomacy to the limit. A soothing programme note – "it is essential that the club does not overstretch itself" – was accompanied by a stark marking out of boundaries. The chairman's empire, he indicated, should end at the dressing-room door. But there was much pre-match talk of fresh starts and singing from the same hymn sheet.
Rather more surprisingly, given his curdled relationship with the Press at the end of his miserable reign as England manager, was a fulsome tribute to the members of the fourth estate. "My experience with the media suggests that we know next to nothing about their job," he wrote. Not long ago, the media were suggesting it was rather the other way round.
After 27 minutes Taylor had first-hand knowledge of how easily hype outreaches reality in the Premiership. The game was a muddle of inaccurate passing, midfield incoherence and tactical sterility. Villa returned to a rigid 4-4-2; Chelsea were equally regimental. It did not help the creative quotient that Merson, Villa's one player of flair, and Sam Dalla Bona, on Chel- sea's left, consistently drifted infield to clog up the midfield. Hasselbaink's early header from Graeme Le Saux's excellent cross was the one bright moment. A chant of "There's only one Doug Ellis" began. From the Chelsea end, needless to say.
Yet, out of nothing, in the 28th minute Villa took the lead. It was a non-descript goal, utterly fitting of the early exchanges. A bumbling run by Darius Vassell was followed by a bobbling shot which Merson flicked home with some deftness from eight yards. Villa's long-suffering fans were shocked. Their side had not scored since Gregory left two matches before.
Eidur Gudjohnsen could have equalised just before half-time and, soon afterwards, shot when a simple ball to Dalla Bona was the obvious option. The Italian's body language said it all. Both defences required reshuffles, through injuries to Terry and Olof Mellberg, but clearcut chances were still a rarity. Claudio Ranieri, never one to ignore a tactical challenge, introduced super-sub Mikael Forssell for Gudjohnsen and Gianfranco Zola for Albert Ferrer, to devastating effect as Zola, with his first touch, chipped a neat ball to Hasselbaink, whose carefully placed sideways header allowed Frank Lampard an easy tap-in.
Lampard was inches away from Hassel-baink's cross moments later and only Jlloyd Samuel's desperate block on Forssell prevented the visitors from taking the lead. Hasselbaink, released by the otherwise indolent Mario Stanic, and Forssell should have won it at the end, but the Dutchman dragged his shot wide of Peter Enckelman's right-hand post, while Forssell's flick was parried brilliantly by the keeper.
"I'll always remember my reception back here," said Taylor. "My job is to repay the Villa fans over the next two and a half years." The man was always an optimist.Reuse content