Aston Villa and the FA Cup

Dave Collett writes about another Our Year for the Cup.

The Good, the Bad and the buttock-clenchingly Pisspoor.

2000 – Darlington, Southampton, Leeds United, Everton, Bolton Wanderers and Chelsea.

HEALTH WARNING! The following article contains details of victories involving Aston Villa in the Football Association Cup. Modern-day fans may wish to read it from a seated position.

The early draw for the third round came at just the right time for John Gregory and his Aston Villa side – it gave them the hope of being drawn against a side that they might actually be able to beat. The winter of 1999 had been a long fall for Gregory, who had started the year as something of a phenomenon. Arriving in February after the resignation of Brian Little, he had revived a struggling side, winning nine of the remaining eleven league games. A memorable Uefa cup tie against Atletico Madrid that Villa were unlucky to lose was an added bonus. With several key players departing that summer and few coming the other way initially, it was a pleasant surprise to see Villa get off to a flying start. When they stayed at the top for three months, adding names like Merson and Dublin to the team, fans began to wonder if this might last the whole season. In 1999 it all started to go wrong, with a series of injuries shredding what was a thin squad to start with. A sixth-place finish was quite an achievement, if a disappointment after that remarkable beginning.

With some squad strengthening in the summer, Gregory and Villa looked ready to go again for the new season. Four wins and a draw from the opening half-dozen suggested that confidence was restored and there was hope that Villa might be able to sustain a European chase rather better this time around. There followed a miserable run of league results with the exception of a single-goal win at home to Bradford City which saw the team slowly sink down the table. It seemed only Dion Dublin was capable of finding the net with any regularity and even he began to find the going tougher as autumn turned to winter. Suddenly, the seemingly-invincible Gregory couldn’t buy a win – at least not in the league. The League Cup was a different matter, as Villa moved towards the quarter-finals with a run of victories. Typical of the split-existence were the two home games against Southampton. In the league game, Villa spluttered after a promising start and lost to a goal from a late corner. When the same opposition rocked up in the League Cup, Villa clinically stuck four past them with little fuss.

The aforementioned cup draw at least represented a break from what was beginning to look like a new year relegation battle. Had these been normal times, Villa would have been drawn at home to Manchester United, hardly the most attractive of pairings as far as making progress was concerned. However, the Manchester club had conceded to the blandishments of the Blairite government and entered the new-fangled World Club Championship which clashed with the third round dates. Thus, they were left out of the draw and replaced by a team of lucky losers who had been knocked out in round two. So it was that Darlington, already beaten 3-1 by Gillingham, were drawn to play at Villa Park in December.

If this was meant to give Villa an untroubled passage to the next round, it didn’t really work. There was a certain unease around the ground at the half-hour mark until Beni Carbone’s twenty-five yard left-footer put us in front. The sigh of relief at that one became a more relaxed feeling when Big Dion cleverly notched a second after an angled run from a corner. The tie looked over, with Villa continuing to attack and all money was on us nabbing a third. Suddenly, Darlo’s Duffield was brought down in the box. The same player took the penalty, David James doing well to guess the right way and save it but Mark Heckinbottom was on hand to slot the rebound into the net. With nothing to lose, Darlington poured forward and it was gratitude rather than conviction that greeted the final whistle. The following Monday brought more good news – the fourth-round draw had given us another home tie, yet another game against our friends from Southampton.

By the time the new year rolled around, the picture had changed again, as it so often does. Villa had suddenly hit on a winning run and some good form. The loss of Dion Dublin to a neck injury that saw him put out of football for three months, rather than into a wheelchair for the rest of his life, had pushed Gregory into a re-think involving the use of Carbone and the speedster Julian Joachim together up front, with young Darius Vassell pushing for a place, too. Behind them, having recovered from a recent bout of ‘lifestyle’ problems, Paul Merson had returned and tucked himself near the front two while always being prepared to break the line himself. A run of three wins from the last four meant that optimism abounded for the home tie. While hardly memorable, Villa did more than enough to get through, though lack of finishing skills meant that they had to settle for a lone-goal win, with Gareth Southgate continuing and concluding a recent goalscoring spurt with a close-range first-half finish from Merson’s free-kick. Paul was now the designated dead-ball taker, seemingly as part of his rehabilitation process.

My own view on the cup is that once you get through to round five, you start to get twitchy feelings about whether this could be The Year. Another home draw only fed this unfamiliar sensation, even if it was to host league leaders Leeds United. As Villa had deservedly beaten Leeds at Elland Road at the start of 2000, there seemed no reason to reject the prospect of doing it again, especially as our unbeaten run continued. In the first half, such positive thoughts seemed destined to be frustrated. Leeds, playing far better than they had in the earlier clash, went in front with an Ian Harte shot that caught out the unsighted James. It came as something of a surprise when Carbone, latching onto a headed square pass from Steve Watson, knocked in an equaliser from the edge of the box. No sooner had the wave of joy swept over the ground than Leeds were back in front. Eirik Bakke met a cross from Stephen McPhail and headed them into a halftime lead.

Stone and Boateng proved that old saying about the game of two halves by taking a firm grip of midfield after the break. Leeds rarely built up any steam in attack in this half, but Villa might have wondered where the goals were to come from. Both were exceptional yet completely different. Little Alan Wright must have earned the easiest assist ever. A five-yard square pass just inside the Leeds half didn’t seem particularly meaningful. The recipient, Carbone, had noticed that Leeds ‘keeper Nigel Martyn had strayed from his line and his thirty-five yard effort found the net. Now it was all to play for and didn’t the Holte End know it. The decider may not be the best goal scored at Villa Park but it was probably the bloodiest. Merson went on one of his dashes into the area, looped the ball over one defender, then went to head the ball across the area towards the lurking Carbone. Unfortunately for him, Michael Duberry had no intention of being second to this particular ball and went to intercept it. The result was a sickening clash of heads, but not before Merson won the header, flicking the ball across for Carbone to complete his hat-trick. Merson had to be helped from the pitch, blood streaking down his face. Merson, apparently, didn’t know where he was and neither did Duberry who, while both were getting treatment, told Merson that at least he had stopped the Villa man from scoring. Sorry, Michael.

Football is really about players and teams but it can be about fans as well. If you were there that day, you will probably recall that wonderful old sound of the Upper Trinity Road Stamp. When I first discovered Villa Park in the 60s, the noise was supposed to reflect the discontent of those folk in the posh seats at what they were having to watch. Time changes things and more recently it had become a way of signifying support and encouragement to the home team. We still needed the players’ skills and effort, of course, but a good round of shouting and stamping didn’t seem to do any harm, either. At least it worked on this occasion. Sadly, this glorious old stand was to be demolished that summer.

Modern sports are always developing new ways of ruining good things in the name of ‘progress’. While Villa fans buzzed their ways back to cars, buses and trains, the rest of that Sunday afternoon and Monday morning would have been spent nervously permutating the possible draws that lay ahead in the quarter-final. No such luck now. The draw was made straight after the game and we came out second for the first time in this cup run (Bert Millichip must have been locked up in a broom cupboard for the previous draws) which meant we had to make the trip up to Goodison Park. This venue had some significance for the manager. Gregory’s team had travelled to Goodison shortly after his appointment and secured a 4-1 win. Villa returned to the venue for the season opener a few months later and did well to claim a goalless draw in front of a crowd galvanised by the recent appointment of Walter Smith as manager. Just over a year later Villa recorded the same result, at a time when the winless run meant that every point seemed like gold dust. Now Villa were on the up and anticipating further progress in the cup.

Nothing from the league form suggested any cause for concern. In the run up to the Toffees game, Villa went to Middlesbrough and secured a four-goal win, one of the memories of which was Gazza breaking his arm against George Boateng’s jaw. Gascoigne’s flailing elbow was deemed to have been thrown deliberately by many but he went unpunished. Villa’s only concern was when David James pulled up lame and had to be replaced for the last few minutes by one Neil Cutler (not yet known as Big Cutts) for his only appearance in Villa colours. This led to some concern. How badly was James injured? Would Enckelman, himself recently out with injury, recover by the weekend? Would young Cutler be thrown into action for such an important clash? If so, would he become a new Nigel Spink of sorts?

All these worries were at least partially laid to rest when the Finnish ‘keeper passed a fitness test and was able to replace James, who would be out for a few weeks. Villa went into the game with markedly more confidence than in the league fixture at the turn of the year and this was boosted further with an early goal. Merson’s corner kick was headed back across the face of the goal by Ugo Ehiogu for Steve Stone to knock the ball into the net past an unsighted ‘keeper. Villa’s well -organised defence looked well up to the task of keeping the home forwards at arm’s length but Barry, as ever willing to bring the ball out from the back, was caught in possession and American striker Joe Max-Moore forced the ball home. This unexpected goal galvanised the home side and Villa had to grind their way back into the game. Then came a moment of Merson magic. Subdued until this moment, Merson went on one of his slaloming runs down the left, cut in and unleashed a shot that Myrhe could only parry into the path of the waiting Carbone who duly touched the ball home.

Such was the lateness of the goal that boss Gregory, making his way down the tunnel, had missed it. He lambasted Merson at half-time for his poor performance, not realising the ex-Arsenal man had effectively put Villa back in front thanks to an act of individual brilliance. Merson was devastated to be withdrawn at the break, and Villa certainly missed his creativity in the second half but were able to keep Everton at bay, with Enckelman only required to make one save of any significance. Many were the celebrations at the last whistle, with midfield comrades Taylor and Boateng cheered loudly as they went to the Villa fans.

This win put Villa into the semis for the second time in four years, or the third time in forty years, depending on how you see these matters. One thing was certain; a win in the next stage would send Villa through to the final for the first time in forty-three years. The desperate search for a team you can beat becomes unavailing the more you progress in a competition. Clearly, by this stage there were no ‘easy’ matches left. Out of the other three teams for the draw, there was only one that Villa fans wanted -second division promotion challengers Bolton Wanderers. Revitalised by Big Sam Allardyce, they would be no pushovers. They were, undoubtedly, a preferable pick over Chelsea or Newcastle United. The bookies seemed to agree and some even made Villa the cup favourites after the draw, a unique experience in my Villa-supporting lifetime.

Still, the Villa form had more or less held up as Spring arrived and the eager masses turned up on a dull day at Wembley. There was little enough in the game, memorable or otherwise. The talented Icelandic striker Eidur Gudjohnsen curled in a good early shot which took a small but probably crucial deflection off Alan Wright to take it past the post. Twice, a subdued Paul Merson, suffering with twin hamstring niggles, put the speedy Julian Joachim through on goal but cool finishing wasn’t JJ’s forte. The fans must have wondered where a possible winner might come in a tight game. Then winger Johnston took the ball round the onrushing David James and knocked the ball across to Dean Holdsworth in front of goal. There were two Villa defenders between the ball and the goal-line but this was the best chance of the match. Few would have blamed the Bolton man if he had seen his shot blocked but to blaze the ball over was a big waste, not that we were complaining.

Match referee, the ineffable David Elleray then took centre-stage (some thought this was the sole point of his refereeing ‘performances’) and sent off the unlucky Mark Delaney for two innocuous fouls. ‘Twas ever thus. Ten-man Villa tried to apply some pressure and came closest when Dion Dublin, on for the ineffective Carbone, placed an agonising, creeping header against the post. Manager John Gregory had his wits about him and made some substitutions at the end of extra time that at least meant we would have a full hand of penalty-takers for the big shoot-out. Stone, Hendrie and Barry all hit the target despite the best efforts of Jussi Jaaskelainen. When it was Bolton’s turn, Holdsworth slotted home but James, a big figure who seemed to fill all of the goal, made two precious saves. This left Dublin, to step up. He duly thrashed his shot high into the net and Villa were through!

When everyone had calmed down and stopped hugging nearby people they’d never met before in their lives, we had a final against Chelsea to contemplate, the London side having just squeaked past Newcastle United. Chelsea were now the favourites, except in the eyes of the neutrals who, like most normal human beings, hated ‘The Blues’ with a passion. Villa had finished the season in sixth place and, if not quite as sparkling as they had been in the new year, must have felt confident of their chances. The only false note struck was the story that Ugo Ehiogu had turned down Villa’s offer of a new contract. The big centre-back had become an important part of the team by now. Rumour had it that the big pivot had taken offence at comments from the manager earlier in the season when Ugo was injured, that “the player would have declared himself fit had we been playing a cup final this weekend.” This seemed to be another example of Gregory liking the sound of his own voice and not realising that under football’s current contract arrangements, it was vital for any boss to keep the players on their side.

On the biggest day since 1957, we took up our positions at the knackered old ground that, like our beloved Trinity Road Stand, was soon due for demolition. Make that overdue. Villa put out their strongest team, so there were no excuses on that score. Villa were competitive from the off though we didn’t stoop to Chelsea’s tactic of serially kicking at and stamping on George Boateng, no doubt seen as the player who might win precious possession for Merson and Carbone to use. Perma-smiling match referee Graham Poll seemed content to let this pass. The closest thing in the first-half was Ian Taylor’s header from a right wing cross. It’s impossible to tell but without the deflection that took it out for a corner, it might have found its way into the net. The resumption saw us attacking the ‘Villa end’ and we hoped for the best.

In fact, Chelsea took over the game for a while. It even seemed that the worst thing imaginable had occurred but Dennis Wise’s ‘goal’ was disallowed for offside. That gave us some breathing-space but not for long. A free-kick award of dubious merit saw the ball come into the box. James, often the hero of this cup-run, came for it but the blocking Chelsea players prevented him from getting a full contact. Even so, it would have been enough to take the ball away from danger had it not bounced off Southgate’s chest and back to the goal area where Roberto Di Matteo had a simple task to smash it into the net. Villa’s response was immediate. A long cross from the right to the edge of the box saw Dion win the header from ‘keeper Ed de Goey, knocking it into the path of Carbone. Benito could certainly hit them but his slightly underpowered effort was kicked clear by Frank LeBoeuf. Carbone, who had done little in either of his Wembley appearances, was withdrawn for the pace of Joachim but Villa’s only other look-in was right at the end. Ehiogu won a far-post header and attempted to send it back across for the lurking Dublin, but Big Ugo misdirected it over the bar.

In the post-match assessments, the most common theme was that Villa had lost without really trying that hard to win. Caution had ruled Gregory’s approach, strange for a manager who prided himself on his upbeat attitude. In fairness, Chelsea were above us in the table and Villa wouldn’t have been worried about penalties had they been needed, not with the full hand of shooters they could call on and the formidable James to hand. If Villa fans were desperate to see us win the trophy, it seemed the team and manager were more concerned with not losing. Perhaps Gregory would have changed his outlook if given another chance but in the world’s oldest cup competition you only ever get one.