Dean Smith may have only been gone for 38 days but the achievements of their former manager have already long been consigned to history as far as Aston Villa supporters are concerned. Another impressive away performance will be remembered for Jacob Ramsey’s brilliant individual goal before a late tap-in from Ollie Watkins made it four wins out of six since Steven Gerrard took over as they moved into the top half of the table for the first time this season.
Inspired by the all-action John McGinn performing a decent impression of his new manager during his pomp, Smith could only watch on as Norwich were outclassed by opponents with simply too much guile and ability. It could prove to be a very long season for him and his new team, who remain rooted to the bottom of the table.
Smith insisted this week that he had moved on quickly after being sacked by his boyhood club just five weeks ago, with Norwich having already picked up as many points in their last five matches as they managed under Daniel Farke in the previous 11. Yet while the visiting supporters welcomed the arrival of their former manager before the match with a respectful cheer, Norwich’s fans were less deferential towards the returning Emi Buendía and the Villa captain Tyrone Mings, whose crime was once playing for deadly rivals Ipswich.
Judging by the way they lined up at kick-off with both full-backs pushed right up, it seemed Villa had only one intention against opponents who have now conceded 34 times in their first 18 matches. McGinn’s early swirling effort from fully 35 yards had Tim Krul back-pedalling before the Norwich goalkeeper was just able to tip the ball over the bar. Norwich struggled to create anything of note until midway through the half when Billy Gilmour and Teemu Pukki almost combined inside Villa’s box.
A sublime piece of skill at the other end from Buendía to beat his marker and play in Matty Cash down the line only needed a touch from Watkins to break the deadlock. But Norwich were to prove architects of their own downfall 10 minutes before the break when Max Aarons set off on a run upfield and was dispossessed 20 yards inside Villa’s half. Despite his best efforts to chase down the rampaging Ramsey as he sped towards the Norwich goal after the Villa midfielder had played a one-two with Watkins, the England Under-21 defender could only help divert his shot past Krul.
“I’ve been watching clips of the gaffer and he was one of the best goalscoring midfielders and that’s what I want to be,” said Ramsey, who has started all but one of Villa’s matches since Gerrard joined. They could have doubled their lead before half-time had it not been for late interventions from Brandon Williams and then Krul to tip away McGinn’s deep corner, while the departure of defender Ozan Kabak with a suspected ankle problem gave Smith even more of a headache.
“If I was a fan I would probably have booed as well because we were that bad,” admitted Smith. Norwich were presented with a lifeline when Ashley Young misjudged a back pass five minutes into the second half. Unfortunately for the home fans, it fell to Kenny McLean and the midfielder could only toe poke the ball well wide of the target. “Unfortunately at the moment we’re not taking our chances,” added Smith. “If he’d scored it could have been a different game.”
Villa responded by tearing forward once more. McGinn’s cross picked out Watkins at the far post but Krul was down sharply at his near post to save. Gerrard sent on Danny Ings to replace Ashley Young with half an hour to play and Smith also decided it was time for another striker, with Adam Idah replacing Cantwell. The midfielder seemed less than impressed and headed straight down the tunnel. Norwich’s output improved considerably after his departure, even if they never looked likely to find the equaliser despite pinning Villa back in their own half.
Buendía’s big chance to score on his return to Carrow Road came with 15 minutes to play, only for Williams and Aarons to combine to block his goalbound strike. The Argentinian was roundly booed again when he was replaced by Carney Chukwuemeka with seven minutes to play, although it was Villa who had the last laugh when Watkins tapped in the substitute’s cross to round off a perfect night for Gerrard and cue a mass exodus of the home supporters.
“We managed the game really well,” reflected the Villa manager. “We’ve got some experienced leaders who have been there and done it and you could see that in our performance.”