We buried my grandma, Laura, on Tuesday, in my hometown of Missoula, Montana. It was a moving ceremony and I struggled through the words I had written down. As we carried her coffin from the hearse to the grave, the temperature was eighteen degrees, and a light skiff of snow crunched under our feet. We dropped roses on the casket, and scattered tea leaves as well, because she loved her tea. We should all love, and be loved as much, and remembered so well, as Laura.

Me, my dad Tom, my uncle Jon, my cousin Shane
Me, my dad Tom, my uncle Jon, my cousin Shane

It takes a funeral to get us all together, these days. And I was glad to have the chance to spend a little more time with family before my flight back to Chicago on Wednesday—at a conveniently scheduled midweek game. Given my grandma’s deep Christian faith, and given how many times she’s been described as saintly, it seemed only fitting that we were to play the Saints.

On hand would be my dad, Tom, a Barca fan who’s never really chosen a Premier League side (but who I can report is definitely leaning toward the Villa); my Uncle Jon, who follows Manchester United but is a great guy, anyway; and my cousin Shane, who was wearing his Portland Timbers scarf but just appreciates good soccer wherever he finds it. Jon and Shane played soccer when it was still a new thing in Missoula, and it was Shane who first taught me how to appreciate the game as a spectator.

The Press Box, Missoula, MTMy first call to a sports bar (“I’m wondering if you can show the Aston Villa – Southampton game, it’s streaming on the internet”) didn’t go well, and my second call, to the Press Box, didn’t start well, either. But, after a dubious waitress put me on hold while she consulted someone else, she came back on with a cheerful, “We’re your connection!” My dad and I showed up ten minutes before kickoff and waited while the IT expert, a cook named Paul, was dispatched to the bar’s tech closet.

And waited. Man United – Everton kicked off on a nearby screen while a wrung my hands helplessly. Eventually, Paul came out, looking frazzled, and asked whether I had a DIRECTV password. I did, but it still took several reboots, and a poorly timed Microsoft update, before we got the game up on the big screen. When it finally came on at 21′, I practically yelled in Paul’s ear when I saw that the score was already one-nil to Villa.

Villa had scored! Away to Southampton! Who were, as yet, undefeated at home!

Press Box TVI’ll spare you the minute by minute. You already know what happened, how each time we pulled ahead, the Saints pulled one back—until that final, magnificent goal by Delph, who shot and scored while I was screaming “PASS!” . . . a goal for which the Saints had no answer.

We won the game with 23% possession. With 9 shots to their 21. With 2 corners to their 8. (And 13 fouls to their 9.)

But the only stats that ultimately matter are goals scored and goals allowed. And all three of our shots on target hit the back of the net.

Reasons for Pessimism

Benteke . . . coming off the bench? I back Lambert on this, but, still, we need him to find his form.

Our first touch, our passing, and our ability to hold the ball. You know, the small stuff.

Our inability to play away as we do at home. We’re 2W 1D 4L at home, and 3W 3D 1L away. It just beggars belief.

Reasons for Optimism

Fabian Delph opens his account
Fabian Delph opens his account

We can win without Benteke. With goals from 9 different players, we are getting contributions at vital moments. Delph’s goal (an absolute cracker) was his first for Villa, continuing the recent tradition of notable scoring debuts. Against the Baggies, Westwood’s first secured the draw. Against Norwich, Kozak’s first gave us the win. (And last year, who can forget Lowton’s winner against Stoke? OK, OK, that was his second goal.)

We’re tenth in the table. (And we’ve fallen to eighth in the injury table.)

We are unbeaten in the last five.

We are second only to Chelsea in points gained from losing positions, proof that the lads don’t quit.

Three of our five victories are against teams above us in the table: Arsenal (currently first), Man City (currently third), and Southampton (currently seventh, but until their recent skid they were riding much higher).

All of this, I think, is testament more to Villa’s fighting spirit than their talent and technical prowess. But, in a youngish side, where we’ve seen improvement on defense, and where new acquisitions are still finding their place, maybe fight and spirit are the most important thing. They will sustain the team through the inevitable rough patches and, hopefully, allow them to hold together while they cohere as a unit. And if Lerner sees fit to add a top talent or two in January, or over the summer, I think our progress will continue.

It will continue to be gradual, but it will continue.