FA Cup pitch invasion: Villa Park scenes throwback 'to dark ages'
Aston Villa's season has come alive in the space of five days - electrified by the touchline presence of new manager Tim Sherwood and a re-energised Villa Park.
West Bromwich Albion were twice the victims of the Sherwood effect as Tuesday's vital Premier League win was followed by the 2-0 victory in the FA Cup quarter-final that takes Villa to Wembley for the first time in five years.
Sadly, for every word that will be written about Villa's finest week this season, more will pore over the disgraceful scenes that threaten to overshadow a landmark win for Sherwood and his players.
The return of football's ugly face
This was a game that always had the capacity to be, to use West Brom manager Tony Pulis's word, "tasty" given the obvious deep ill-feeling between the two sets of supporters separated by less than four miles.
The antipathy was evident from the kick-off and provided an uneasy undercurrent throughout inside a thunderous Villa Park that reflected the tension and importance the FA Cup still carries, especially with a semi-final at Wembley as the prize.
And when Fabian Delph gave Villa a 51st-minute lead the first signs of the behaviour that will result in a Football Association investigation were detected as the sight and smell of smoke from a flare, claret in colour, filled the air.
Sadly, the inevitable happened as the frustrations of Albion's fans at a harsh red card for Claudio Yacob and Villa's second goal from Scott Sinclair manifested itself in casual, mindless vandalism as claret seats were ripped out and hurled on to the pitch and in the direction of home fans housed directly below.
This was the signal for an unsavoury response from Villa supporters, goading their opponents mercilessly before embarking on scenes plucked from the dark days of the '70s and '80s. It was an atmosphere heavy with threat.
There was a mini-invasion before referee Anthony Taylor sounded the final whistle which held up play while stewards attempted to restore order, accompanied by the soundtrack of Villa supporters loudly jeering their own. And as fans congregated on the perimeter before the official conclusion, it was only too obvious this game would not end well. In truth it could not end soon enough once Villa went two-up.
Ground authorities were powerless to stop thousands of Villa supporters pouring on the pitch as referee Taylor headed for cover, not just celebrating with their own players but also surrounding and taunting members of the beaten Albion team.
Pulis understandably called for greater stewarding but it is also hard to judge how many you would actually need to halt that human tide intent on getting on to the pitch.
Many Villa fans were on the pitch in jubilation but this misses the point entirely. This is still an offence and it was clear that the safety of some West Brom players was threatened and compromised.
Goalkeeper Boaz Myhill had already been mocked and subjected to abusive gestures by a fan and at the final whistle Callum McManaman was one who was jostled and provoked, getting involved in angry altercations before finally being led away.
Irrespective of, as Sherwood said, "emotions running high" these fans should not have been on the pitch and it was clear plenty were not offering words of commiseration to McManaman and his cohorts. It was a throwback image.
And it may have been wise to wait before slipping the celebratory song "Que Sera Sera" on to the public address system while such a toxic environment was still being brought under control.
Pulis was correct when he said: "It's disgraceful. We don't want to see those scenes. They've beaten us and for that to happen, that's just mindless idiots. If you're Villa you need to look at the stewards as they came over to our fans and there was nobody there."
Former Villa and West Brom forward Kevin Phillips, an analyst for BBC Radio 5 live, was concerned for the visiting players as he said: "I can see West Brom players still on the pitch which, for me, is very dangerous. For me this has been very badly policed. Why are there still away players on there?
"They should be punished for it."
And BBC Sport's Mark Lawrenson told Match Of The Day Live: "It's like a scene from the 1980s all over again. Absolutely ridiculous."
Villa's fans have had so many dark days in recent times that exuberance and excitement is not only expected but understood. There can be no excuses, however, for much of what a watching nation witnessed. And those Albion fans ripping out seats deserve equal condemnation.
Of course, the vast majority of supporters were well behaved and had no intention of transgressing, but a largely vibrant atmosphere was laced with a little poison throughout.
It was to be hoped the sight of seats being thrown on to the pitch, invasions of the playing surface, players running for the cover of the tunnel and police drawing batons on fans had been consigned to the past - sadly this was not the case here and did a disservice to a big FA Cup occasion and another big win for Villa and Sherwood.
Sherwood the catalyst for revival
Those who question the managerial credentials of Tim Sherwood asked whether he could back up his bold, brash talk with actions. In this week, at least, he has.
Sherwood has won the hearts of Villa's fans with his ambitious, open approach that is mirrored by his body language in the technical area. Sherwood is so animated he almost seems on the brink of entering the footballing action himself.
He has struck a chord with a club and its support that looked to be sleepwalking towards the Championship under his predecessor Paul Lambert, starved of goals and entertainment, the season was almost being played out in monochrome.
Now Sherwood has added colours to the canvas. The relegation fight is still on and Sherwood himself admitted: "If we were to win the FA Cup and get relegated it will be a failure."
Villa will have to battle against the drop but there is no question the mood has been transformed. Resignation and pessimism has been replaced by an upbeat feeling.
Sherwood exudes confidence in front of the media, admittedly easier with two big victories in the locker. Always ready with a quip and currently also with a smile, he has made an excellent start.
Villa's players spoke of how a rousing, angry speech from their manager transformed their second-half performance and this was a victory gained without main striker Christian Benteke, who has a hip injury.
And what about Scott Sinclair? The manner in which a player who threatened to kill his career stone dead by accepting a move into Manchester City's reserves from Swansea City took Villa's second - composed, clinical, assured - suggests he is reaping the benefit of Sherwood's influence.
Survival is still the priority but a trip to Wembley is always a welcome embellishment.
If Villa owner Randy Lerner felt the club needed to come out of the darkness of Lambert into the light of Sherwood, then it is so far so good. It is only a start - but a good one.
Pulis suffers rough justice
West Brom manager Tony Pulis clearly felt the pain of defeat, both in the Premier League and the FA Cup, had been made worse by rough refereeing calls.
On Tuesday, Villa defender Alan Hutton was lucky to escape a red card for a nasty, high lunge at striker Saido Berahino, referee Jon Moss declining the most severe punishment.
And here Pulis again had a case when referee Taylor appeared to wait before he delivered a second yellow card for West Brom's Yacob for what he adjudged to be a foul on Leandro Bacuna.
Pulis said: "Yac's had three more touches before the game is stopped. That's a block tackle, something you're taught at five years of age. The referee lets it run for a few seconds."
It was a view shared by most, if not all, observers and Lawrenson said: "If that's a yellow card we might as well ban tackling forever."
Phillips added: "That is never a sending off in a million years."
Villa youngster Jack Grealish also went for two yellow cards, the second for diving, and Sherwood summed up the situation with tongue firmly in cheek as he said: "I thought both sendings off were harsh. I thought the referee had a good game apart from those two huge decisions."
With Hutton staying on to help create Villa's winner on Tuesday and Albion suffering a harsh numerical disadvantage while chasing an equaliser in the FA Cup, there was no mistaking how aggrieved Pulis felt.
Sherwood found Villa's injustice easier to manage with an FA Cup quarter-final victory in his pocket.
Sadly, this will be a game not simply remembered for a result but also for a brief return to English football's dark ages.