Aston Villa and the F.A. Cup – the Good, the Bad and the buttock-clenchingly Poor

Dave Collett writes about 1992, when it was our year for the cup again.

When new manager Ron Atkinson arrived at Villa Park in the summer of 1991, it didn’t take him long to begin the task of revitalising a squad that contained much quality but which had almost got relegated under the leadership of the distinguished Doctor Joseph Venglos in the previous Spring. Chairman Ellis finally got his man at the third attempt, though Sheffield Wednesday weren’t too impressed at the manner of his departure. The sale of Bari-bound David Platt deprived Villa of their top scorer of the past two seasons but provided the financial wherewithal to allow the new manager to bring his own team together.

The money was duly spent and no fewer than twelve players arrived before February was out, most of them signing before the season started. Unsurprisingly, with so many new faces results were uneven, though clearly an improvement on what had gone before. After a stuttering start, Villa put on a run of five consecutive wins to take them into the top four. Just as some might have been wondering if Villa might join Manchester United, Leeds and Wednesday as part of the upper crust, three defeats in four calmed things down a bit and fans had to settle for a more entertaining style of football and a top-half place as the new year approached.

Platt’s prodigious goal record was always going to be missed, but Villa did a decent job of sharing the goals around the team. Dalian Atkinson, more often injured than fit, didn’t score another league goal after the opening day of the season. Free transfer Coventry reject Cyrille Regis was happy to join up again with his ex-Albion boss and even happier to have six goals at the halfway stage. The surprise leader of the scoring charts was the young Dwight Yorke, playing out wide but always able to get into the box where he hit double figures in his first full season.

Villa Park felt like a happier place and while few had illusions regarding league glory, the approach of January meant that the cup juices started to flow. After all, the Villa boss had won the treasured trophy on two occasions while at Old Trafford; why couldn’t it be Villa’s year this time? Such optimism took a blow even before a ball was kicked. The draw paired us with the current cup-holders Spurs, hardly the kindest outcome. Still, at least we were at home, supposedly an advantage.

Any benefit arising from this was soon drawn into question. Watching the game, you were aware that something was not quite right. Suddenly the penny dropped; as both sets of players tried to work their magic, bits of green grass flew into the air. Did the players have mini lawnmowers on the end of their studs? No, on closer inspection, these tiny missiles were better identified as chunks of sand. As the game was to be televised, some producer/prize prat had decided that the heavily-sanded Villa Park pitch, in bad need of repair, would be fine as long as it looked good for the cameras by being painted as green as the grass it had replaced. The last laugh was on these style-before-content idiots and the game of football itself, as neither side was able to construct anything decent on such a substandard surface. With the home tie now gone, the replay took on an even steeper gradient.

In the league, an all-round dismal game at Highbury provided another goalless encounter, offering at least the encouragement that we were hard to beat. Few would have dared predict the performance that lay ahead at White Hart Lane. Perhaps the reason we stick with the game through all its injustices and corruption is that it still carries the potential to make us shake our heads in smiling admiration. The first-half performance at Spurs was one such; rarely can a team have overpowered rivals from the same level for so little reward. As chance after chance was repelled, it looked like a case of total frustration when, from a corner kick, the ball was scuffed over the line. Dwight Yorke has always been credited as the scorer, though it seemed a Spurs defender had inadvertently applied the decisive touch. Still, it was the only goal and gave a little cushioning from the expected second-half onslaught. The reality was that Villa matched their opponents in the second half without being able to take a decisive lead and had to hang on a little until the end. We should have made it much easier for ourselves but it was a fine showing and a deserved win.

There now followed a bit of a wait to find out who our next opponents would be. With the unsatisfactory nature of our pitch, perhaps it was just as well that we were drawn away against either Derby County or Burnley. By a coincidence, I went to both ties. The first, on a glorious third round afternoon, saw both sides give their all in a 2-2 draw. Back to the Baseball Ground it was, though not for a while, as heavy fog meant that the replay could not be played on the agreed date. Instead, it was played on the following Saturday in an occasional light mist, where Derby went through 2-0 with few problems.

The knock-on effect of this was that we had to play the fourth-round tie in the midweek. During the wait, Villa had played three league games and registered precisely no goals, our last successful strike in this competition coming on New Year’s Day – Big Cyrille, in a defeat at Norwich. If we were hardly in a rich vein of form, the consolation might have been that Arthur Cox’s side had a mediocre home record, losing the last three on their home turf. Any relevance this might have had on the outcome of this contest was wiped out by the fact that this was Cup Night. Many Villa fans speak of the difference in the Villa Park atmosphere for night games. You could safely multiply that several times for the Baseball Ground, a venue with four tall stands close to the pitch, the crowd often generating a level of noise where I have sometimes literally not been able to hear myself speak or think. The crowd size of 22,000 may not look that impressive but the sound levels were.

It didn’t help, either, when Villa conceded early to further stir up the locals. Ted ‘Tin Man’ McMinn, no stranger to the grass in the Derby penalty areas, beat Dariusz Kubicki and passed the ball across for Phil Gee to tap into the net. With our current goal-drought followed by this early setback, the game now looked as much a test of resolve as much as anything else. If so, Villa were quick to pass the test. A right-wing corner was allowed to bounce around the six-yard box before Yorke scuffed it home. Villa may have gone to school on this one and realised that the veteran keeper, the legendary Shilton, was no longer capable of springing up for high balls (and hadn’t been for some time – see World Cup 86). A second dead-ball saw a repeat performance with Yorke once more the happy beneficiary. When midfielder Garry Parker carried the ball forward from the halfway line and pinged a twenty-five yarder in off the crossbar leaving Shilton a helpless spectator, it was possible for Villa fans to relax and contemplate a two-goal interval lead.

Opps! Before you knew it, the Tin Man was on his left-side beat again. With Kubicki nowhere to be seen, Paul McGrath was pulled towards the source of danger. McMinn dummied his way past the Great Man and crossed perfectly so that Gee had a simple task to head the ball back across goal past Les Sealey. Clearly Villa now needed to use some nous to keep hold of the ball until the interval, to take some of the steam out of the Derby revival. No doubt some of the older heads would be able to deliver on this.

Oops!! Never mind the Baseball Ground, it should have been named the Basketball Ground for this particular night as a goal-attempt at one end was followed by excitement at the other. So it happened that Derby centre-back Simon Coleman was adjudged to have fouled Yorke in the box. The penalty-kick looked like a great chance for Dwight to complete his first-half hat-trick but his weak penalty was pushed out by Shilton only for the Villa striker to push the rebound into the net. 4-2 to Villa and a treble for Yorkie with a combined yardage of about ten. Hey, why waste energy?

Villa fans were soon anticipating a 5-2 scoreline and a Yorke quadruple when a handball offence by Coleman meant another spot-kick and effectively the end of the game shortly after the break. Yorke’s second attempt was just as insipid as the first, the only difference being that Shilton was able to complete the save this time. This escape boosted Derby’s morale and it was clear now that the next goal would be vital. It came for the home side when a right-wing cross found midfielder Paul Williams and his spectacular mid-air volley was too much for Sealey.

With Villa running out of steam on a slightly heavy pitch (though nothing like the Derby swamps of the seventies) Villa were now in a battle. Big Cyrille did his best to keep the attack moving but the momentum was now going in the direction of the Villa goal. This pattern became even more pronounced when Kubicki was sent off for a second yellow card for a foul on McMinn near the half-way line. Villa now had to dig in. Gee, unmarked beyond the far post put a difficult chance wide to deny him his own hat-trick then another good effort from Williams brought a good save and catch from Sealey. The whistling from the away section had been going on for some time before the ref blew up and we could make our way home while trying to convince ourselves that we had gone through without too much trouble. Honest.

The late staging of this tie and the closeness of the fifth-round set of matches meant that we had only one game between cup-ties. This was at Wimbledon, where, once again, we did not disturb the scorers in a two-goal defeat. The Derby game having whet the appetite, further Pavlovian juices were set flowing by the anticipation of a trip to second-level Swindon. Managed by Glenn Hoddle, in what now seems like a previous life, the Robins had earned a reputation for a good passing and moving game, matching their boss’s ideals perfectly.

Steve Staunton’s welcome return from injury meant that Bryan Small went to the bench. Swindon, with Micky Hazard prompting constantly, made a strong start and Villa were far from comfortable on an awkward pitch with a blustery wind another factor, though the hosts seemed unperturbed by these inconveniences. Full-back Kerslake shot narrowly over the bar, then Mitchell evaded the defensive cover to run through, his shot being saved by Sealey. Martin Ling was running from the midfield and he joined in the attacking, having two shots held by the Villa ‘keeper. With the supposedly superior side unable to find any rhythm, it looked like the best that we could hope for would be to keep the game goalless until the break then Yorke controlled a forward ball on his chest and ran across the face of the home goal and slotted a neat finish, using home centre-back Taylor as a shield. Undeserved, but there were no complaints about that.

The goal should have calmed any nerves and the management team would no doubt have fired a few home truths in the visiting dressing-room, or so you would have hoped. Whatever happened it made little difference, with Swindon still driving the game to settle the injustice they had been dealt. Top scorer Shearer (not that one) scuffed wide. With Yorke missing a chance to double the lead, the game was still very much alive when Stephen Froggatt, picking up a loose ball in the midfield, lashed an absolute belter high into the net from a full twenty yards for his first senior goal. For older readers, Bruce Rioch would have been proud to own this one.

With the Goal of the Round contest taken care of, things looked like plain sailing but, of course, it didn’t quite work that way. Swindon refused to concede the tie and clawed a goal back through Mitchell after Bodin got down the side of Villa’s defence too easily and Villa, once again, had to hang on. Nothing more typified their spirit than the sight of Shaun Teale, already blooded and patched up from a head-clash with his partner McGrath, sticking his head in where it hurts to nod the ball clear as a home striker was primed to shoot. You don’t see this type of thing on the match highlights too often but this was just as worthy of a goal as the Froggatt strike, even if rather more painful for the recipient of a boot. Shaun, as we recall, was the Man of Steel, but even he needed the trainer after this one. Once again, we saw the game out and the excitement of the win was mixed with the heady anticipation of the quarter-final draw. Could we at last be about to experience our first home draw at this stage since 1960? Please??

Somewhere, the ghost of Bert Millichip is laughing quietly at the memory of Villa being drawn at Anfield to face the Mighty Reds (yawn). Many of the top sides had already been eliminated so this was about as tough a draw as Villa could have been dealt. Optimists no doubt felt that Liverpool were no longer the dominant team of the seventies and eighties and were nowhere near that season’s title race. Many felt that manager Souness had blundered by selling the redoubtable Steve Staunton to Villa the previous summer. Might he be able to make the Merseyside club regret this move? Villa certainly travelled with hope, as Liverpool’s progress had been unconvincing, including the necessity of replays to get past Bristol Rovers and Ipswich Town. In between rounds, Villa had actually registered their first league goal since New Year’s Day when the bloke who scored the last one, Cyrille Regis, headed home Staunton’s perfect cross for the winner at home to Oldham.

Andy Gray relates that the selection policy at this time was that he and Big Ron would get their heads together the night before the match. Each would select their own side, they would discuss any differences of opinion and then the boss would have the final say. The only area of the pitch where there was any disagreement was out wide, where Stephen Froggatt and Tony Daley were competing for one place to allow for the returning Dalian Atkinson, finally fit again after a long absence. Gray went for Froggy but Ron’s decision was to play Daley. Gray recognised that Daley was an outstanding player on his day but questioned how often his day came around. He saw the more consistent Froggatt with his pace and crossing ability as a better bet. Everyone hoped Andy would be proven wrong this time.

Another area of contention was right-back. Ron had raided Oldham Athletic for defender Earl Barrett, a clear sign that his previous signing for right-back, Kubicki, had not been up to the mark. Barrett, who could play a number of positions, looked like an upgrade, but was cup-tied by his involvement in a previous round with Oldham. Many assumed that Kubicki would come straight back in, but promising midfielder Mark Blake was chosen for the spot. With Nigel Spink having reclaimed the ‘keeper’s shirt, the side looked like the regular outfit that Ron had been picking all year. Liverpool’s struggles were partly a reflection of an injury list that contained several big names. Like Villa, their league season was more or less dead, so this cup game grew in significance. It can’t have been a coincidence that Ronnie Whelan, John Barnes and Michael Thomas were all deemed fit enough to return for this key clash. But would they be sharp enough to make a decisive impact on the day’s events?

Andy Gray did his bit to fire the players up by making it clear to them that this clash was between the two strongest teams left in the competition. For Gray, the stakes were clear. The winner of this game would win the F A Cup; this tie offered the players the chance of glory they might never see again. If Big Ron’s last words to his players was to demand a fast start, he wasn’t disappointed. Skipper Kevin Richardson, already a scorer at Anfield in the league this season, almost managed a replica -a shot from the edge of the box after a McGrath flick-on, that seemed to bring a fingertip save from Grobbelaar, though a goal-kick was given.

Villa certainly looked keen, with their strikers giving makeshift centre-half Steve Nichol plenty to worry about. Atkinson was next with a shot from the edge of the box that he didn’t quite truly catch and Grobbelaar was able to push it away for a corner. The home full-backs were largely untroubled, allowing Venison to get forward for an effort that did not worry Spink. The experiment with Blake was proving a problem. It was clear that the home side were targeting the newcomer and most of their moves came down that channel, including one effort from Dean Saunders that was their best of the half, the striker escaping thanks to McGrath’s slip and firing inches wide of Spink’s left-hand post.

The break saw Ron replace Blake with Kubicki. The game remained too close to call, though the Liverpool midfield were seeing more of the ball, whereas Villa struggled to build moves. Saunders went down the channel and provided the perfect cross for a Thomas tap-in but the former Arsenal man put it wide of the post for the biggest let-off so far. Then Barnes, coming off his wing into central midfield, played a perfect through-ball with his left foot for Thomas. Though Teale was in hot pursuit, he couldn’t catch the former Arsenal player and he placed the ball beyond Spink.

Almost immediately, Froggatt came on, though not in place of Daley but of the equally invisible Yorke. The effect was instant. Immediately, Venison was under pressure, and had to concede a corner to stop the winger. A free-kick that was only half-cleared came to Parker whose fierce shot looked good enough until it was clawed away by the home ‘keeper. In the next piece of play, Froggatt created the room for a centre, finding Atkinson unmarked about eight yards from goal. Depending on your viewpoint, the cross was just behind the player or the finish was woefully tame. Either way, Villa had just mucked up their best chance of the half. Villa piled forward but Liverpool were happy to defend in depth and hit Villa on the break.

Big Cyrille had one last run but the shot curled over and wide. The boys had given everything they had but Liverpool clung on and the road to Wembley was barred for another year. Grobbelaar clapped the away fans at the end. How many of them had the sporting goodwill to applaud the man of the match, who had done more than any other home player to deny their team, is not known.

The semi-final draw paired the winning side at Anfield with second division Portsmouth. In the other half, mid-table Norwich were up against another second level team, Sunderland. With the way seemingly clear, Liverpool made no mistake.

There have been longer cup runs in recent Villa history, even a couple of finals but probably never a year when the cup seemed so tantalisingly close but somehow once again it evaded our grasp. Whisper it, but there are some who reckon it’s as close as we’re ever going to get in our lifetimes. Until next season, anyway.