A long, traumatic season for Steve Bruce could yet deliver a happy ending of sorts as Aston Villa moved to within 90 minutes of a return to the Premier League. For Bruce, who has been through such a distressing time after losing both parents in the last three months, it would be a remarkable achievement if he can see this gruelling campaign through and mastermind his
fifth promotion to the top flight.
Fulham await at Wembley on Saturday week after Villa, playing with resilience and courage, frustrated a Middlesbrough side that were left to rue the goal that Mile Jedinak headed in at the Riverside in the first leg and the lack of conviction in their attacking play on a night when they started with only one striker and failed to register a shot on target.
On an evening gripped with tension from start to finish, the real drama arrived late and left Tony Pulis bemoaning Mike Dean’s failure to send off Sam Johnstone after the Aston Villa goalkeeper, dashing from his line, handled outside the area to prevent Adama Traoré’s shot from looping over his head in the 88th minute. Although John Terry was trying to get back and cover, it was questionable whether the Villa captain would
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have been able to retrieve the situation, yet Dean decided only to show a yellow card to Johnstone.
Stewart Downing’s shot from the free-kick that followed clipped the crossbar and with that Middlesbrough’s hopes of returning to the Premier League at the first time of asking were extinguished.
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Pulis, in fairness to him, made the point afterwards that Fulham and Villa deserve to be in the play-off final after finishing third and fourth respectively, but there was no getting away from just how frustrated he was with Dean’s interpretation of that controversial incident.
“I’m really disappointed. Everybody can see it and everybody understands the rules. And you need the referee to make the correct decision and I don’t think he made the correct decision,” Pulis said. “I know it’s a big game, he’s
a Premier League referee with lots of experience and you’d expect him to get those decisions right. I’m not saying it would have made a difference because it was so late in the game, but that doesn’t stop him making the right decision.”
Bruce had some sympathy for his counterpart, with the Villa manager conceding“maybe the referee got that one wrong,” yet the truth is that Boro never did enough to win this play-off semi-final. It was not until 20 minutes from time that Pulis showed any real ambition by playing with two up front against a Villa rearguard that were always going to be difficult to break down.
“I think what’s got us through is defensively over both games,” Bruce said. “Defensively we’ve been very, very good all season. And if there is any team that deserved to win tonight, I thought it was us. Their goalkeeper made two or three good saves but, the longer it goes on, towards the end, when he hits the crossbar, you think dear oh dear, you can’t put me through that. Thankfully the little bit of luck was with us today.”
Lewis Grabban and Jack Grealish came closest to scoring in a game where the stakes were much higher than the quality of the football. The best move of the match saw Albert Adomah, who was a lively presence on the Villa left, swap passes with Grealish before delivering a low cut-back that ended with Grabban’s near-post shot being saved by Darren Randolph. The goalkeeper later clawed away Grealish’s curling 30-yard effort.
Middlesbrough, in contrast, created little despite enjoying more possession and pinning Villa back for periods. Traoré showed a few bursts of
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speed but he was generally well shackled by Alan Hutton, who Bruce described as “absolutely outstanding” over the two legs. Indeed, it was hard to see the visitors scoring from anything other than a set-piece.