Aston Villa will probably not want to release a DVD to commemorate this season. There are, after all, only so many times you can ask your supporters to watch being denied a place in a Wembley final by Bradford City. However, if they did, the goal from Matthew Lowton that decided this match would certainly be the highlight.
It was the 12th goal of a career that has embraced the unlikely combination of Sheffield United and Ferencvaros and, if there were to be 100 more, it would be hard to imagine a better one.
The 23-year-old took a hooked clearance from Charlie Adam on his chest 30 yards out and sent it dipping and screeching over the Stoke City goalkeeper, Asmir Begovic. “You will not see a better goal in Europe, let alone Britain,” his manager, Paul Lambert, said.
You would certainly not see a better goal scored by a full-back. It was followed up by Christian Benteke driving through an invisible defence to produce a scoreline that reflected the true flow of the game.
The celebrations from those who had made the short journey up from Birmingham were long and loud. Had Aston Villa drawn a match they might by a conservative estimate have won 4-0, this might have been the result that relegated them. It would have taken a lot of recovering from.
Lowton and Jordan Bowery, another of the lower-division footballers brought to Villa Park by Lambert to a rash raised of eyebrows, were part of a side that against Reading, Queens Park Rangers and Stoke, have won the matches that absolutely mattered. They are a young team and, as Lambert remarked, young footballers tend to play without fear. Fear is now stalking every corner of the Britannia Stadium.
All the basics that have made Stoke such a force in the Premier League seem to have deserted them at precisely the wrong time.
Only in the seven minutes between Michael Kightly’s equaliser and Lowton’s goal from nowhere did Stoke look remotely capable of salvaging even a draw.
By the time the final whistle came, Tony Pulis was standing, his arms folded and legs crossed, on the touchline with his stadium virtually deserted and the away support jeering he would be “sacked in the morning”. Stoke’s manager took the post-match press conference with a lad who had been the match-day mascot, although that did not protect him from questions as to whether he expected to keep his job. “That is up to Peter [Coates] and the rest of the Coates family,” came the reply.
Despite the fact that they are playing as badly as the other club in red-and-white stripes, Stoke will not be following Sunderland in search of emergency managerial surgery to shake them out of their sleepwalk.
However, Stoke need something quickly because with five points from 12 games, they are now clear candidates for relegation, something Pulis has never experienced in his managerial career. On New Year’s Eve 1994 Norwich beat Newcastle to go seventh in the Premier League, won one more match in the next five months and went down. Stoke are travelling down the same road.
Since their Plan A – launching the ball long for the big men – is most clubs’ Plan B, they seem to have little room for tactical manoeuvre. Here, Stoke were cut apart with ridiculous frequency.
A once-reliable defence never came to terms with Lambert’s three forwards and had Andreas Weimann not struck the post and Begovic, armed with icy instincts, not brilliantly denied Bowery when he was through on goal, Villa would not have had to rely on wonder-strikes from their right-back.
The opening goal typified Stoke’s malaise. Bowery was on the turf when he shovelled the ball out to Lowton, who in turn found Gabriel Agbonlahor. His first shot was blocked by Geoff Cameron. The second was not. “It was a poor goal,” Pulis said. “Really, really poor.”
Stoke City: (4-4-2) Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Wilson (Jerome, 52); Shotton (Adam, 77), Whitehead, Nzonzi, Etherington (Kightly, h-t); Walters, Jones.
Aston Villa: (4-4-1-1) Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Baker, Bennett; Agbonlahor (Sylla, 74), Delph, Bowery (N’Zogbia, 82), Westwood; Weimann (Bent, 85); Benteke.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Man of the match: Lowton (Aston Villa)
Match rating: 7/10