The end of the line

Dave Collett writes about the end of an era that was far too brief.

Graham Taylor, 5th May 1990.

How often have we experienced this scene? On the last day of the season, two teams with nothing left to play for meet up on a pleasant sunny afternoon to go through the motions before heading for the beach after nine months of solid graft. After a brief rest – some would not even get much of one this particular year as it was a World Cup summer in Italy – they would get the chance to start all over again.

There are always exceptions. Graham Taylor’s 1990 Aston Villa side had just fallen short in the last few weeks of the season after looking likely candidates to walk off with the big prize as we moved into the early days of Spring. Hopes were especially high after a memorable two-goal win at Spurs where Villa looked every bit the stuff of title-winners. In the final analysis injuries, dips in form and the inability to use the transfer market to give the side a genuine boost before the window closed, proved decisive. Having lost their chance to continue their pursuit of Liverpool by losing a two-goal lead against Norwich at home the previous Saturday, it was now a matter of merely fulfilling a fixture rather than straining for glory.

All this was a step-change from the way the season had started. After seven games, Villa fans had had only one win to celebrate. The summer spending on two new centre-backs, and restructuring the club’s wage bill to accommodate the signing of Paul McGrath from Manchester United, meant that such a poor opening spell did not match what the chairman had envisaged when laying out this expenditure. Already under pressure after the previous season’s narrow escape from relegation, Doug Ellis was rumoured to be sharpening his axe/getting ready for the latest stroll around his rose garden, according to local rumours. Then Villa won the next five on the bounce and all was sweetness and light again as we surged up the table and stayed there.

Under normal circumstances, such a good season, and a markedly improved one from the experience of 1988-89, would have left fans anticipating more improvement in the years ahead. Alas, all that had been thrown into the pot by developments at the FA. England boss Bobby Robson had finally endured enough of the carping criticism of the tabloids and had decided to move back into club management at PSV Eindhoven, once the summer’s World Cup tournament was over. Needless to say, the fascistic world view of some tabloids was that in ‘running out’ on his country like this, Robson was nothing more than a grade-A traitor. The newspapers’ own role in his departure was, of course, deleted down the media memory-hole, especially when Robson’s team did conspicuously well in Italy. No doubt any new appointee would be hoping for fairer treatment…

With a replacement needed, the London media focus was, inevitably, on perennial wide-boy Terry Venables. The field wasn’t closed to other entrants, though. A year earlier, no-one would have put forward Graham Taylor’s name as a candidate for the top job. Such was Villa’s improvement and the length of their title challenge and the media exposure that went with it, that he now had to considered as a serious runner. No-one was saying anything, but there was a sense that if offered the job, Taylor would go, leaving Villa with their own vacancy to fill.

Back on the pitch, this last game was a good chance to put out a squad team to allow some relief to the possessors of heavy legs. But things weren’t really done that way as we entered the nineties when football was about to be decreed a socially-acceptable pursuit again. In fact, the only change was the young Mark Blake being brought in as a replacement for the absent David Platt. A real shame, this, for Platty. It’s a cause for celebration for strikers to get twenty goals in a season, let alone an attacking midfielder from Crewe enjoying his best-ever season at the top. Still, he couldn’t play and had to settle for nineteen and out.

Otherwise, the usual collection of familiar faces was in evidence. Spinky was in goal, protected by the three rocks, Mountfield, Nielsen and the nonpareil, McGrath. On either side were Price and Gray at wing-back. Sid Cowans and Blake were entrusted with running the midfield while flying winger Tony Daley backed up twin strikers Ian Olney and big signing Irish international Tony Cascarino.

Even in successful, or near-successful seasons, some fans need a useful figure to put the blame on, the reason we didn’t quite make it to the top. Cascarino seemed a good fit. Signed at the start of March when Villa were very much in the title race, it was hoped that his goals would boost our chances for glory. Some rumours die hard and the one that suggests that the Millwall striker that Taylor was really after was Teddy Sheringham has stuck around for a long time. Apparently, Lions boss John Docherty wouldn’t let us have Teddy so it was Tony instead, after a reported £1.5 million had changed hands. The deal seemed to make sense at the time, with young Ian Olney struggling a bit halfway through his first full season at the top level. Alas, despite his obvious power in the air, Cascarino failed to deliver, to the extent that his first goal for his new club had only come in the previous week’s draw against Norwich. The fact that Villa didn’t have players out wide to produce the quality of crosses for Big Tony to feed off seemed to escape discussion.

Everton had been instrumental in kicking off whatever “Villa for the league” hysteria there was when, in the autumn, Villa had stuck six past the Toffees in a live TV game at Villa Park. This was a highly-valued win at the time; had Everton won, they would have been top of the pile themselves. The Toffees were to fall away but would have wanted to send the home fans happy for the summer.

They got off to a decent start when a cross from the left by Neil ‘Dissa’ Pointon was swept into the net by …Tony Cascarino!! The hapless striker had inadvertently committed the error while seeking to assist with defensive duties. Had a defender been at fault, it might have been more excusable or understandable. Those watching might have been excused for thinking that Taylor had put his/our money on the wrong horse. Or carthorse, in some views. That goal remained the difference between the two side at the break. During the half-time interval, a lot of Villa fans clearly didn’t think too much of the local entertainment provided and thought it would be a good way to show their feelings to the man who they hoped would remain the boss of their club for the foreseeable future by starting a chant of, “Graham Taylor’s Claret and Blue Army!” only finishing it when the two teams appeared for the resumption. The home fans were duly impressed and showed it.

Soon after, things were switched around when Blake’s run down the right was completed by a good cross into the box which was forced home at full stretch with his left foot by… Tony Cascarino!! Those who were now anticipating a re-enactment of Chris Nicholl’s feats at Filbert Street in 1976 were to be badly let down. The buzz that followed the leveller was soon augmented by a full-throated roar of approval as Everton moved back into the lead. A left-wing corner was allowed to ping around the six-yard box and the last contact in a mini-game of head-tennis was by Mike Newell who nodded it past Spink.

Things had only just quietened down when the linesman flagged Neville Southall for carrying the ball just outside the penalty box before clearing. This is the sort of decision that the flag-wavers tend not to give as the infringements are so marginal so it might be argued that Villa got lucky on this particular afternoon. For at least half of the previous decade, Southall had been regarded by many players and watchers of the game as the holder of the mythical title of The Best Goalkeeper in the World. He was, perhaps, in something of a decline from that high peak but was still regarded as a very fine ‘keeper. From the resulting free-kick, it needed something special to beat Nev -and Sid Cowans duly flipped the perfect chip over the wall and in by the near post. A superb strike.

Further confirmation that it just wasn’t Big Nev’s day came when Tony Daley, surging down the left, crossed the ball to the waiting Cascarino in the middle, only to see the ball float into the far top corner of the net. At least the brilliantly unpredictable winger had the decency not to over-celebrate this piece of good fortune. It looked like a happy ending for those favouring claret-and-blue but there was still time for a diagonal cross to break for Tony Cottee who nudged the ball past ex-Toffee Derek Mountfield before falling over convincingly enough to persuade the ref into awarding him a penalty. Both Mountfield and Spink protested vehemently over the decision. Once everybody had calmed down, Kevin Sheedy, he of the lovely left foot, placed the ball just inside the post.

And that was that, with both sets of supporters happy to have such a memorable game to see them through the summer. Unless, of course, you were amongst the large number of Villa fans who decided that they definitely weren’t going home, or anywhere else, until one Graham Taylor came out to take the applause from his supporters after a brilliant season. It took a while, but after the visiting fans had exercised their lungs with the chant that had filled the half-time interval, Taylor emerged with a certain chairman, not known for his reticence in plugging for public approval, for company. Whether they had guessed that this was the parting of the ways and wanted to say a last farewell, who knows? Either way, it was quite odd to see a manager on his way like this, with all parties happy, even if the sweetness had a slightly bitter flavour to it.

His final reception at Goodison must have been a happy memory for the Great Man, in sharp contrast to his treatment in his next managerial role. There’s a saying in sport that nice guys finish last. Well, second place wasn’t too shabby this time round. He gave us many great memories as well, which is why he, and moments like these, are so fondly remembered even today.