Two generations of Aston Villa supporters have no idea what it looks like to see their players lift the FA Cup.
In May, it will be 67 years since they last won it while next month marks the 28th anniversary of their most recent League Cup triumph.
Domestic cup campaigns have not been kind to Villa in the 21st century and this season’s FA Cup fourth-round exit represents a real missed opportunity.
A goalless draw at Stamford Bridge 13 days ago opened the door for a cup run. A replay against an underperforming Chelsea side at Villa Park, where Unai Emery’s men have lost just once in 11 Premier League matches this season, provided hope.
The Spaniard does not hold the FA Cup in the same esteem as some of his peers, but a full-strength starting XI indicated his intentions at a time when he could have easily justified a rotated team. That team did not, however, look anywhere close to the one that has put itself in pole position to secure fourth place in the Premier League.
Other than a bright opening 10-minute period, Villa were a shadow of their best and Chelsea, coming into the game with two wins from their last six, punished them. Well-taken goals from Conor Gallagher and Nicolas Jackson gave the visitors a two-goal lead after 21 minutes and Enzo Fernandez put the tie beyond doubt with a sublime free kick in the second half before Moussa Diaby’s late consolation.
The Briefing: Villa 1 Chelsea 3 – Gallagher’s goal, Pochettino’s trust repaid, Emery’s AWOL midfield
By the time the full-time whistle was blown on the 3-1 defeat, the stands housing the home fans at Villa Park were half empty.
It was not rage or fury on the faces of the supporters leaving early, it was disappointment and dejection.
They could not be too angry at a team that is having a fantastic season, but they knew an opportunity had gone begging, especially with Championship side Leeds United waiting at home in the next round.
Victory against Chelsea would have put Villa within two wins of a trip to Wembley. And those have not been forthcoming in recent years.
Since the start of the 2010-11 season, Villa have played at Wembley four times: the 2014-15 FA Cup final (lost 4-0 to Arsenal), the 2017-18 Championship play-off final (lost 1-0 to Fulham), the 2018-19 Championship play-off final (beat Derby County 2-1) and the the 2019-20 League Cup final (lost 2-1 to Manchester City).
For many fans, football is about moments. Moments that they can tell their children and grandchildren about in years to come. Moments that they themselves dreamed about as they grew up.
Football is changing and the financial benefits of finishing in the Premier League’s top four far outweigh winning a domestic trophy. But, as a fan, there is no such feeling as watching the club captain lift a trophy high into the sky.
And John McGinn still might get the chance to do that with the Europa Conference League trophy in May. But, for now, a promising opportunity to reach the latter stage of a tournament is gone.
It was the manner of the performance that disappointed the Villa fans.
They will be the first to admit that they have been spoiled by the football they have watched at Villa Park this season. Brilliant pressing structures, smartly worked passing sequences and an abundance of chances created have been the hallmarks, but it was the opposite against Chelsea.
The passing, at times, was abysmal, the press was disorganised and the midfield was non existent.
Villa are without key players Tyrone Mings, Ezri Konsa and Lucas Digne in defence while centre-back Pau Torres was only fit enough for the bench after an ankle injury. But it was the same starting goalkeeper, midfield and attack on the pitch that helped beat Manchester City and Arsenal in consecutive matches in December.
It is, however, far from all doom and gloom at Villa Park. According to Opta, Villa are the favourites to finish fourth in the Premier League, and fifth may even be enough for Champions League football if they and their peers perform well in Europe over the next few months.
Despite their defensive reserves being depleted due to injuries, there are capable players deputising, and Torres could be in line for his first start since December 17 for the visit of Manchester United on Sunday. Likewise, Jacob Ramsey will be available to start after coming on from the bench with Diaby against Chelsea.
Progression to the final of the Europa Conference League would mean Villa play 22 matches in 108 days and it is up to Emery to decide when is best to stick or twist with his team selections.
He is going to need his squad over the coming months as he uses FA Cup disappointment to ensure that a promising campaign goes on to become a successful one.
(Main image: McGinn and Martinez applaud the remaining home fans after the defeat. Top photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images))