In an age when strength in depth is essential to any serious challenge for the Premiership, Villa's lack of it showed yesterday when they were without Dwight Yorke, lost Mark Draper after 34 minutes, and let slip a match they appeared to have in their grasp, albeit to a dubious goal.
Villa's predicament was summed up by the misery inflicted on Lee Hendrie, a spindly 18-year-old right-winger who was making his first-team debut when he came on for Draper. Booked for kicking the ball away early in the second half, Hendrie was sent off in the eighth minute of injury time for a second bookable offence, a mistimed but by no means dangerous tackle on the QPR defender Rufus Brevett.
That this was an unnecessarily harsh lesson seemed obvious to everyone except the referee, Alan Wilkie of Chester-le-Street. "The boy's heartbroken," Brian Little, the Villa manager, said. "It's disappointing, because that didn't need to be done." Ray Wilkins, the QPR player-manager, was even more dismayed by the dismissal. "I've an immense amount of sympathy for him," he said. "I spoke to the referee after the first offence and said, why don't you just speak to him. There's not enough communication between players and referees. I don't like to criticise, but this was an absolute nonsense."
By then Villa had blown it. Savo Milosevic, scorer of a hat-trick against Coventry City last week, could easily have had another one but found Jurgen Sommer, the QPR goalkeeper who has played so erratically this season, in inspired form. In terms of possession, Villa were much the more dominant, but when Draper limped off, their range of options narrowed and they lowered the tempo just enough to allow QPR to get a foothold in the game.
They made it count - just - in the 55th minute from a corner by Wilkins. Alan McDonald headed the ball back across the area and Kevin Gallen headed it goalwards. It struck the underside of the bar before another header, by Alan Wright, the Villa defender, got rid of it. But the referee, guided by his linesman, decided the ball had crossed the line. "I was virtually in line. I have to be honest and say it was touch and go," Wilkins said. "But it was nice to get a decision going with us."
After that it was always going to be difficult for Villa. Sommer made a series of superb saves, none better than his tip over the bar from Milosevic's free-kick. Ian Taylor, the Aston Villa midfielder, was carried off after a nasty clash with Simon Barker, and young Hendrie was left to reflect on the perils of the big-time.Reuse content