CLASS OF ACE IN THE PACK JACK...
Jedinak goal has Villa in control
VICTORIOUS Villa boss Steve Bruce hailed “wonderful” Jack Grealish after the youngster put lacklustre Boro to the sword.
The 22-year-old teed up Mile Jedinak to give the visitors a first-leg lead and turned in a dazzling display that recalled his nerveless emergence against Liverpool as a teenager back in 2015.
Questions have since been raised over the attacker’s fitness and attitude, but Bruce said a match-winning performance is proof of Grealish’s growing maturity.
“He gets you off your seat, doesn’t he?” said Bruce, who moved one step closer to a fifth promotion from the Championship. “He’s a wonderful talent. He did all the bits and pieces that we asked him to.
“He’s only 22. The penny is starting to drop. And with people like John Terry, Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak – he’s now looking up to people who do things properly, rather than being surrounded by people who don’t.
“Jack has grasped the nettle in the last four months and you’re starting to see a real world-class talent. If he keeps progressing, he’ll have a wonderful career.”
Bruce also praised Alan Hutton, the veteran full-back who expertly shackled Boro dangerman Adama Traore.
“We’ve based all our training around stopping Traore,” he revealed. “And Alan was terrific. He rolled his sleeves up, as I knew he would do. He’s out of contract at the end of the year and if any performance deserved a new one, it was that. He was immense.”
For all the talk of life-changing riches, this was a play-off that put promotion in perspective. In the Villa dugout, Bruce was reeling from the death of both parents in the space of 88 days, an experience he said had shaken him to the bones.
Boro meanwhile, welcomed Leo Percovich, the popular former coach who lost two young daughters in a car accident in Brazil last year. Teessiders raised thousands to help pay for funerals, and the medical care of his wife and son, who both survived the crash.
The Uruguayan’s moving prematch address rocked the Riverside to its foundations, igniting an already buoyant atmosphere. Boro’s players, however, were far from ablaze.
Hesitant. Edgy. Error-strewn. For 20 minutes, the home side sat suicidally deep and it was no surprise when Mile Jedinak lost Ryan Shotton to glance home a Grealish corner.
Grealish, positive and fearless, was everything Boro weren’t. Improvement had to come and, with Traore toiling, it was Jonny Howson who took the initiative.
Twice in five minutes the midfielder picked out Britt Assombalonga, who had peeled off James Chester at the back post. Twice the striker fluffed it, thrashing over and wide.
In-between, Robert Snodgrass missed a free header. The Scot also saw a curling strike brilliantly tipped onto the post by Boro keeper Darren Randolph as Villa ended the half on top.
“A magnificent save,” said Bruce. “If that goes in, it might be all over.” Tony Pulis took a different tack. “A good save,” he said. “But that was their only shot on target.”
Maybe, but it was still more threat than Boro offered. Fabio – impressive after coming on for the injured Daniel Ayala – had a header saved, flashed a cross through the six-yard box, then had a strike deflected wide.
Never, though, did they build up a head of steam as Villa, expertly marshalled by John Terry, sat deep and contained with ease.
“We’re obviously disappointed, especially conceding through a set piece,” said a disappointed Pulis, who walked out of his press conference after fielding just a handful of questions. “Even so, I thought we did enough not to lose.”
CRUNCH: Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish puts in a crunching tackle on Middlesbrough winger Adama Traore