It owed much to a dramatic improvement in the second half, and to a miserable display by Middlesbrough, but Aston Villa?s 2-0 victory on Saturday had a significance that went deeper than the three points it secured.
Before the match, approximately 20,000 Villa supporters protested against the job performance of Doug Ellis, the beleaguered chairman, by showing him a specially prepared red card. Ellis, seemingly the most thick-skinned person on earth, seemed unmoved but he must have been relieved at the end.
If this result did anything, it ensured that the post-match conversation was about the interventions of Martin Laursen, Mathieu Berson, Steven Davis and Nolberto Solano, not to mention the goal that sealed the victory by Luke Moore, rather than the mysterious workings of Ellis.
Laursen looked assured in his first match since August, scored the opening goal in the 64th minute, and helped to give Villa a composed look that was absent in previous home matches against Everton and Arsenal. When Moore scored in the 79th minute, his first goal for the club, it revived the possibility of European football.
You would not tempt a Villa player into talking about it ? it is as if they have all been told to avoid the subject ? but the Premiership table suggests that Villa are still in the hunt. Besides, whereas a top-five place was needed to qualify for the Uefa Cup last season, the qualification zone this season could be as low as eighth.
Of course, Ellis has previously talked of the Uefa Cup as a competition that offers relatively little in terms of financial reward, but it is the lack of European football year after year that puts a question mark over the perception that Villa are one of the world?s leading clubs.
And yet, when one considers the quality of players on show at Villa Park on Saturday, there should be more optimism than is evident. Laursen, back after a serious knee injury, is as talented a centre back as one would expect of a former AC Milan player. Davis is the emerging star and Solano, with his tricks, movement, and intelligence, is easily Villa?s most accomplished player.
It helps when the tactics are fitted to the ability of the players available, rather than the other way around. This time, David O?Leary had it right. The Villa manager played a 4-5-1 formation, packing the midfield in much the same way as Everton did the week before. Just as it worked for Everton, so it worked for Villa ? eventually.
The first half was, alas, no more exciting than watching Ellis?s facial expression change. There was barely a serious attempt at goal and the frustration was so tangible that it threatened to manifest itself in more protests and deeper enmity between supporters and directors. There a few clubs in the Premiership where the relationship between those who watch the team and those who run the club is as defective as it is at Villa Park.
Fortunately, the Villa players improved in the second half, pegging Middlesbrough back and scoring the goals that will help to revive the careers of the men who scored them.
For the first, Laursen poked the ball over the goal-line from inside the six-yard box after Moore flicked on a teasing cross by Solano. For the second, Moore scored with a shot on the turn after Carlo Nash, the uncertain Middlesbrough goalkeeper, fumbled another cross by Solano.
It took Moore 28 first-team matches to score his first goal, a record that evokes images of how Darius Vassell began his own Villa career. Vassell has since become a veteran, even though he is only 24, and his place in the starting line-up on Saturday was his first since breaking an ankle against Fulham in October.
Vassell did not come close to scoring but his fitness is improving and, with a long term injury to Juan Pablo Angel, is sure to become the team?s most important player as the bid for a European place intensifies.
Middlesbrough are also in the hunt for a Uefa Cup place, although they are still involved in the latter stages of the 2004-05 competition. Perhaps their European exertions are one reason why they were so poor against Villa. Only Gareth Southgate, the former Villa defender, looked on top of his game. Celebrated players such as Ray Parlour, Stewart Downing and Boudewijn Zenden were hopelessly short of acceptable standards.
Not that O?Leary was concerned about that. His ?honest bunch of lads? did what was necessary to win, even if concerns about the team?s consistency remain. ?We are a mid-table team who got into sixth place last year,? O?Leary said. ?Can we achieve what we did last year? It?s a big ask. I thought it was a big ask last season, and we did it. We needed that after the 3-1 defeat by Everton the previous week. I knew it wasn?t going to be pretty, but the bottom line was to get a result, and we did.?
Steve McClaren, the Middlesbrough manager, agreed about the lack of art but, unlike O?Leary, he had nothing to smile about. ?The Villa players showed more passion and urgency,? McClaren said. ?I was disappointed with our performance ? so disappointed, in fact, that I can?t even get angry about it.?
No, it was not a day for anger, but one feels that undercurrent of frustration at Villa Park. That is a good reason why the Villa players have to keep winning.
Scorers: Laursen (64); L Moore (79).
ASTON VILLA (4-5-1): Sorensen; De la Cruz, Mellberg, Laursen, Samuel; Solano, Hendrie, Berson, Davis, Barry; Vassell (L Moore, 57). Substitutes: Hitzlsperger, Postma, Djemba-Djemba, Ridgewell.
MIDDLESBROUGH (4-5-1): Nash; Parnaby, Southgate, Riggott, Queudrue; Nemeth (Graham, 65), Parlour, Doriva, Zenden, Downing (Job, 82); Hasselbaink. Substitutes: Knight, Cooper, McMahon.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).
Bookings: Villa ? Davis (foul); Middlesbrough ? Doriva, Parlour (fouls).
Villa man of the match: Steven Davis ? it was Laursen who won various sponsors? awards, but Davis used his quick feet and short passing to good effect.