As part of an ongoing feature during the COVID-induced postponement of football, our writers and friends will share their favourite games at Villa Park.
Words: Ben (HR DESIGNS) | @designs_hr
The 1990’s were a great decade to be an Aston Villa fan. There were so many good memories during those ten years. This made it unbelievably difficult to pick my favourite game at our beloved Villa Park.
My first game was a 2-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday in 1993. I could have picked our 3-1 win over Manchester United on the opening game of the 95/96 season. Then there’s the Semi-Final win over Tranmere or beating Inter Milan on penalties. A lot of my favourite matches are from the fantastic seasons we had under Brian Little and John Gregory and the quality of the team we had back then. Although I may look back with rose-tinted glasses, the 90’s was a decade littered with amazing memories.
Before the season, 1997/1998 was a season of optimism. We had finished fifth in the Premier League the previous season. We had just signed Stan Collymore, a self-proclaimed Aston Villa fan for a then club record £7,000,000 fee. Although he came with a reputation, on his day he had genuine quality and added another dimension to our already potent attacking force.
We had also qualified for the UEFA Cup through the FIFA Fair Play Rankings. On our day – we were a match for anyone. Even Europe’s biggest teams. And it was our UEFA cup run against one of Europe’s biggest sides that brings me to my favourite game at Villa Park. Aston Villa 2 – 1 Atletico Madrid.
My mother was in her fifth year of being Matchday Staff in the old Holte End Ticket Office, I was a 12-year-old kid and Aston Villa was my life. If I wasn’t watching the claret and blue, I was pretending to be Dwight Yorke in the playground and if it wasn’t in the playground, I was losing multiple balls over the fence pretending to smash a ball into the top corner. My mom applied for the job as her way to keep me quiet. From when I went to my first game, I was constantly asking if we could go to watch the Villa. Being matchday staff, she would get a free ticket for home games and buy me a ticket next to hers so we could go together. An Aston Villa ticket was my pocket money, and it was my world.
I know we went out on away goals that night, but for me, that night was about more than that. Of course, a UEFA Cup Semi-Final would have been a special occasion if we’d have got through, but on this particular night, being under the lights at Villa Park was special for many reasons.
Eight days before the first leg, Brian Little was sacked as manager and was replaced by another fan favourite and ex player, John Gregory. A man who wasn’t backward in going forward. His first game was a 2-1 win over Liverpool and Collymore scored twice against his old club. His second game was a 1-0 defeat in the Atletico first leg, losing a closely fought game to a single Christian Vieri goal – but back at Villa Park it was still game on.
This was when the UEFA Cup meant something. It didn’t play second fiddle to the Champions League like the Europa League does today. It was a competition that teams with real quality wanted to win. The atmosphere that night was incredible and will always stay with me.
I was nervous, and understandably so. We started sloppily and couldn’t get hold of the ball, while Atletico passed it around like you would expect the modern Spanish sides of today to. The first few minutes meant we had to defend three or four corners after a mix up between Bosnich and Ehiogu. The ever dependable Alan Wright was struggling to get the ball over the first man. If a cross did make it into the box, Atletico’s defence snuffed it out.
There were a couple of half chances, until just shy of the half hour mark, the killer. A ball over the top caused confusion and Bosnich left his line to try and see it off. It fell kindly enough for Caminero who got it out of his feet and finished into the bottom corner through two diving challenges. I remember seeing Ian Taylor with his head in his hands and that summed up how I felt perfectly.
We now needed to score three on the night and didn’t look like we could score one. We had a mountain to climb and even though we played with more urgency after their goal, only half-chances were coming. Mark Draper had a half-volley from the edge of the area, and Yorke had a left-footed drive go over the bar. ‘Savo’ was quiet and Joachim was playing out of position on the right. It just wasn’t happening. And yet, I always remember the Holte End roaring every time we moved past the half-way line, willing the team forward.
Half-time came, and I sat there freezing, getting the all familiar sinking feeling Aston Villa fans know far too well. We came out in the second half, with no substitutions. The Holte End roared, and so did I, breaking my voice a couple of years early in the process.
John Gregory must have given them a rocket at half-time, because we came flying out of the blocks. Whilst Andrei was down and injured for Madrid, we had our best chance. A well worked move saw Yorke play in Joachim, who tried to go across the keeper when he should have played in Savo for the simple tap in.
Madrid still posed a threat though. They went close with a free kick that Bosnich pushed aside and my nerves were starting to kick in. It was time for a change, and a double one at that. To no surprise Collymore, who injured his ankle in the first leg and wasn’t 100%, was coming on along with Fernando Nelson. Numbers 8 and 9 were held up on the old school yellow signs with black numbers. It wasn’t really a surprise to see Savo going off. I loved Savo. He was one of my favourite players back then but he was having a quiet game and Draper had seen a lot of the ball but hadn’t been able to create too much with it.
We now had two full backs pushing on and within minutes it nearly paid off. Collymore and Nelson both started Villas best move on the right hand side, the ball was fed to Lee Hendrie, who played it to Wright, who now had the space to deliver one of those quality balls in. He did, and Dwight Yorke smashed a header against the bar. It was so unlucky. It was coming and I cheered in hope.
I still believed and now the players started to as well. The Holte End roared again. The passes had more zip about them, we were challenging for every ball. The game was opening up and we had a genuinely penalty claim turned down and almost immediately at the other end, Vieri went close and maybe should have sealed the tie for Madrid.
Quality balls were being sent into the box more frequently. Taylor and Ugo had decent chances but we just couldn’t get that goal. My head firmly glued into my hands every time a half chance went begging. Then a breakthrough. Southgate pinged a ball out wide to Lee Hendrie, who took it down on his chest played a lovely little ball into the box to Joachim, who laid it off to our very own, Ian Taylor, waiting on the edge of the box. Taylor caught it well and with the help of a deflection, it nestled into the bottom corner.
At this point I was singing my heart out like never before, as was the rest of Villa Park. Then, no more than two minutes after the first goal, something that will forever be one of the best football memories I will have. Lee Hendrie was having his best performance in his young Villa career. He was everywhere. Hustling Madrid’s midfield and winning the ball. Again, played a lovely ball inside to Collymore. He moved the ball to the right, using the defenders momentum against him and smashed a shot that I’d could have only dreamed about whilst losing balls in the back garden. It rocketed into the top corner. No finesse, no side foot curl just pure laces, power and technique.
The noise when the ball hit the net was something else. It was immense. Something that I have only experienced a few times since. If you ask anyone who was there that night, I promise you they will say the exact same thing. If Villa Park had a roof, we blew it off and it would have landed somewhere near spaghetti junction. To this day, I find myself watching the goal on YouTube and I still get goosebumps. What had I just seen and heard?! I had just witnessed a moment and you haven’t got to be a lip reader to see what it meant to Collymore. This was Stans cup final moment and it will live long in my memory.
There were still 15 minutes to go and we now had a real chance. We had nearly reached the peak of the mountain that only half hour ago seemed impossible. We kept coming forward. We wanted it. Steve Staunton was brilliant on the night and his hard work created another chance. He went shoulder to shoulder down the left wing, lost the ball, won it back which fell to Lee Hendrie, who was having arguably his best game in a Villa shirt. I said to myself “This is it, this the moment.” Hendrie curled it around the defender in front of him and somehow the keeper got down and produced an amazing save.
That was THE chance. Again, we chased everything but Atletico weren’t lying down. Vieri broke away from Southgate and hit a low shot and Bosnich produced a save that was as good as if not better than Atletico’s keeper at the other end and inexplicably Kiko smashed over the rebound with goal at his mercy. Five minutes of injury time was to be played and although we didn’t give up, we couldn’t create anymore clear cut chances. The players were dead on their feet. The final whistle went and that was it.
We were out. I was devastated. It felt like a massive sigh of disappointment was exhaled at the final whistle but almost immediately though, that changed. A standing ovation from all sides of the ground to salute the effort the players had put in. Disappointment turned to pride.
Me and my Mom left the stadium and headed back to the car with a sense the future was bright and with an overwhelming sense of pride in my team but also that I had shared that moment with my Mom. A person who had sacrificed a lot for me to be able to be lucky enough to watch Villa play and that’s why this is my favourite game at Villa Park and its only now I’m a parent myself, I can understand what that means. I can only hope that I am lucky enough to share memories like this with my son in the future