Measuring maturity is difficult, but on Wednesday night Aston Villa have a chance. Last December they were humiliated 8-0 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the worst defeat of the season. They did not look at all cut out for Premier League football, nor that they would be involved in it for much longer. But they played brilliantly and bravely in the spring and they stayed up.
And like a pivotal scene in a coming-of-age story, this evening Paul Lambert's side will return to the scene of their great belittling, hoping for a different result.
Aston Villa go to Chelsea buoyed by a remarkable start to the season; a perfectly executed counter-attacking 3-1 win at Arsenal on Saturday. It was a performance of confidence, character and conviction, one that looked as different as is possible from their collapse last Christmas.
Villa looked like a different team. But in fact seven of those who started the 8-0 defeat played on Saturday. Brad Guzan, Matthew Lowton, Nathan Baker, Ashley Westwood, Andy Weimann and Christian Benteke all began both games while Ciaran Clark was brought on in the first half last weekend. The team has changed; it has grown up.
Lambert's plan, in that sense, has been vindicated. He built a young team last year hoping that they would grow into their roles. The fact that they are still here in the Premier League shows Lambert was right. But last December it was not so obvious.
Villa went to Stamford Bridge off the back of their best result of the season, a 3-1 win at Anfield not dissimilar to their victory last weekend. They were unbeaten in five with a healthy 18 points from 14 games.
But at Chelsea they were painfully exposed. They gifted three goals before half-time and collapsed afterwards. This correspondent described them as "callow and out of place" and it was rather painful to watch. The back five – all aged between 21 and 24 – struggled desperately (but only Eric Lichaj is no longer at Villa.) They lost their next game 4-0 at home to Tottenham and did not win again in the league until 10 February.
That win, though, changed something, and a run of five victories from nine in March and April kept them up. Those painful winter lessons, which could have killed this team, now seem to have made them stronger.
"In a roundabout way the experience did them good because you get a spirit through adversity," reflected Lambert. "Sometimes you have to go through that to be stronger."
Lambert admitted, though, that his bold experiment, his risky trust in youth, might not have worked. "It showed they have great character, it really did. No one was quite sure if they would carry it through but full credit to them."
The fact that the club – the board, manager, players and supporters – stuck together through that difficult spring, in which things certainly could have gone either way, may be recorded in the future as a crucial moment in Villa's history.
"The big thing was the crowd," said Lambert. "It would have been easy for the crowd to turn up and criticise after five or 10 minutes. They never once got on our backs, which is a unique thing. It bounced off the players brilliantly and they could play with the freedom knowing the crowd were behind them. No doubt, from about February onwards, you could sense they were starting to click."
The result and the reward of that is Villa, who have confirmed Stiliyan Petrov is to step back from helping run the Under-21 side after taking on "a little too much too soon", can now come back to Stamford Bridge and play again, making it clear how they have changed.
They will face a different Chelsea side too, but one set on another big result. Jose Mourinho's team started ferociously against Hull City on Sunday and the manager has vowed he wanted to "destroy" opponents.
"We want to win matches," Mourinho explained. "But what I like is that when you have the chance to destroy [teams], to beat them by three, four or five, we have to do it, as if someone has the chance to do it to you, they will not forgive you, they will give you nothing. If someone feels that they can do it to us, they will do it."
Villa might not quite get full revenge like that, but they can show how far they have come.Reuse content