Stephen Hawking could probably explain it - the rest of us not so much.
This Peterborough United side is not the best seen in recent times. It’s certainly far from being the worst. But few have been as baffling as the team transformed on successive Saturdays from hopeless. against an out of form side with nine men, to quite brilliant, away from home against a team from a higher level, with seven FA Cup final wins proudly woven into their history.
Once these players can play with the same poise, precision and passion against poor sides like MK Dons as they have shown against quality outfits like Wigan and Villa this season, there might just be some tangible success at the end of a long campaign.
The doubters will point to the 10 changes made by Aston Villa, for a third round tie in the greatest knockout competition of them all, to a side that thumped Championship hopefuls Bristol City in their previous outing, but manager Steve Bruce still fielded, eventually, 14 players with 144 second tier appearances this season, including a former England skipper and current pantomime villain in John Terry.
There was plenty of talent on show, but most it was wearing blue rather than claret yesterday (January 6). When the euphoria dies down, the interest in two-goal Jack Marriott and mercurial Marcus Maddison will go up (as will their price tags) and there might even be a suitor or two looking at Alex Penny as he must be some player to have kept specialist right back Liam Shephard out of the starting line-up for so long, Shephard was excellent yesterday as were back-to-form midfielder Chris Forrester and central defender Ryan Tafazolli as Posh dominated most of this contest after falling behind in the early stages.
Grant McCann, who at 18 months in charge almost counts as a long-serving Posh manager, was naturally beaming with pride after one of the best wins of his tenure, but he also displayed good sense, both in terms of the immediate future and in keeping his own fans onside.
“We were outstanding,” McCann said after the game without fear of starting an argument. “But as far as my best wins as a manager go, it’s tough to beat away games at Northampton.
“It’s important we don’t get too excited though. We have to stay level-headed as we have some more big games coming up.”
McCann honoured his pre-match pledge to attack Villa. He pushed his full-backs high up the pitch to join three out-and-out attacking players. Positivity became necessary once Villa striker Keinan Davis took advantage of a defensive muddle involving Forrester and Anthony Grant after just eight minutes, but even before that goal, the Posh intent had been obvious as Danny Lloyd crashed over under pressure from 10 yards.
Posh did wobble briefly, but they soon took control against Villa’s back-up boys. Only goalkeeper Jed Steer stood between Posh and a sizeable half-time lead as he saved well at full stretch from Marriott and Leo Da Silva Lopes, and with his feet just before the break to thwart Marriott again.
Shephard also struck the crossbar with a looping header before Lloyd struck the rebound wide. Grant’s grit in midfield allied to Forrester’s passing ability were major factors in the domination, as were Maddison’s class and the workrate and movement of Marriott, a player linked with a move to Villa earlier this season.
Clearcut chances were not so obvious after the break, but still Posh kept pushing Villa back. Ironically the home side were enjoying a rare spell of dominance when Posh finally broke through, and then raced away in a 15-minute spell which will live long in the memory of the near 5,000 visiting fans who watched with increasing delirium as events unfolded right in front of them.
Posh goalkeeper Jonathan Bond’s speed off his goal-line to deny Callum O’Hare a second Villa goal was a crucial moment just before Marriott headed home Lloyd’s thumping cross as was Birkir Bjarnason’s failure to convert Conor Hourihane’s free-kick from close range straight after the Posh equaliser. The ball crashed against the underside of the bar before spinning out of play and Posh promptly cashed in when Ryan Tafazolli’s header from Maddison’s corner found the roof of the net following a kind deflection off a Villa head.
But it was Posh’s third goal that summed up the quality of performance. There were just seconds left when Villa were awarded a free kick in a decent crossing position. Anthony Grant headed it away, but Lloyd spurned the easy option of hoofing the ball downfield, instead transferring it calmly to substitute Junior Morias. He in turn found Maddison galloping away and his cross to Marriott was sheer perfection for a striker in the form of his life. One sublime moment probably scuppered a few ‘dry January’ resolutions.
After the game losing boss Bruce looked shell-shocked. An FA Cup run is low on his priorities this season, but he still felt he had picked a team capable of beating the ninth-best team in League One.
“It was a horrible afternoon for us,” Bruce admitted. “The better team won, there’s no doubt about that. They had 20 shots on goal which is very disappointing from our point of view, but Peterborough were very impressive and deserved to win.”
They did. Stringing together a few performances of similar quality is now the challenge.
Posh: Jonathan Bond, Liam Shephard, Andrew Hughes, Steven Taylor, Ryan Tafazolli, Anthony Grant, Chris Forrester, Leo Da Silva Lopes (sub Junior Morias, 72 mins), Danny Lloyd, Marcus Maddison, Jack Marriott.
Unused substitutes: Conor O’Malley, Jermaine Anderson, Alex Penny, Michael Doughty, Idris Kanu, Jack Baldwin.
Aston Villa: Jed Steer, Ritchie De Laet, Neil Taylor, James Bree, John Terry, Conor Hourihane, Josh Onoamah, Andre Green (sub Henri Lansbury, 46 mins), Birkir Bjarnason (sub Jack Grealish, 80 mins), Callum O’Hare (sub Rushion Hepburn-Murphy, 80 mins), Keinan Davis.
Unused substitutes: Mark Bunn, Tommy Elphick, Ahmed Elmohamady, Jack Doyle-Hayes.
Goals: Posh - Marriott (76 mins & 90 + 3 mins), Tafazolli (84 mins).
Villa - Davis (8 mins).
Caution: Posh - Da Silva Lopes (foul).
Referee: Robert Jones 7
Attendance: 21,677 (4,600 Posh approx).