Fulham U21 2-0 Villa U21: Gardner returns in U21 defeat
Gary Gardner made his long-awaited comeback as Villa U21s slipped to a 2-0 defeat at Fulham.
Goals from Stephen Arthurworrey and Jack Grimmer all but ended Villa's chances of topping their Barclays U21 Premier League group.
But the return of Gardner provided the boys in claret and blue with a huge plus point.
The midfielder got 45 minutes under his belt at Motspur Park - his first match action since the U21 clash against Stoke at Bodymoor Heath on August 22.
Villa were forced to go into the game without a recognised striker, meaning the job of leading the line went to Samir Carruthers and 15-year-old midfielder Danny Crowley.
With six minutes on the clock, Carruthers came close to delivering the goods in his unfamiliar 'No.9' role.
Daniel Johnson teed the Republic of Ireland U21 ace up from 18 yards but his volley was smashed just over the bar.
It took just 10 minutes for Gardner to exert his influence on the contest although he couldn't keep his 30-yard effort down.
But the home side scored with their only really attack of the first period.
Arthurworrey was well placed to score with a glancing header from Sean Kavanagh's inwinging left-foot free-kick on 25 minutes.
Derrick Williams and Josh Webb both miscued with half-chances, while Jack Grealish forced Neil Etheridge into a low save before the break but the strikerless claret and blues were finding it tough in the final third.
Villa threatened again at the start of the second period with Etheridge failing to hold Williams' powerful header but the home side managed to scramble it to safety.
Carruthers also had a shot saved from 25 yards, while Webb just missed the target with a diving header.
On 75 minutes, Jack Grimmer doubled Fulham's lead with a neat touch to help Cauley Woodrow's cross-shot over the line.
In the closing stages substitute Omri Altman's volley came back off the post, while Daniel Johnson powered a header wide from Grealish's corner.
Altman also forced Benjamin Siegrist to tip his curling effort over the bar.
The defeat means Everton - who visit Bodymoor Heath next Monday - can seal top spot in Qualification Tier One with a win over Sunderland tomorrow or Chelsea on Thursday.
FULHAM: Etheridge, Passley, Kavanagh, Christensen, Arthurworrey, Grimmer, Na Bangna, Tankovic, Woodrow, David, Frei. Subs: Joronen, Minkwitz, Altman [for Woodrow, 84], Banya [for Frei, 80], Williams [for Na Bangna, 80].
VILLA: Siegrist, Bateman, Kinsella, Gardner, Webb, Williams, Stieber, Crowley, Carruthers, Johnson, Grealish. Subs: Lyden [for Gardner, HT], Watkins, Calder [for Crowley, 74], Abdo.