I’ve always had a wee bit of a soft spot for Aston Villa. I think one’s love for football is developed in the years between 8 and 12, when you first start to really notice players and teams – the 1994 World Cup is etched on my memory for that very reason. With Villa, it’s a fairly specific memory. On a late September evening in that same vital year of 1994, I saw Aston Villa knock Inter Milan of the UEFA Cup on penalties in my grandparents’ living room. Villa had been one down from the first leg, a penalty scored by Dennis Bergkamp a few minutes from time.
In the second leg, Ray Houghton repeated his heroics from the summer by scoring the only goal on the night. I vaguely recall Villa Park being utterly packed out – I doubt it’s changed very much since September 1994. The match went to penalties – a far more satisfying end to this tie than the shoot-out in Pasadena between Brazil and Italy a few months earlier. Villa won 4-3 on penalties, with Uruguayan Ruben Sosa (who I remember well from my Sunday afternoons watching Football Italia on Channel 4) missing the decisive kick.
Whether or not this actually happened, I’m not sure (and don’t really care), but I vaguely recall Big Ron Atkinson dancing about on the pitch and (rightly) looking like the cat who got the cream, then made a little meringue-based dessert using that cream during the post-match interview. Villa were knocked out in the next round by Trabzonspor of Turkey, but I understand it is a night that lives in the memory of Villa fans who were there, with the 20th anniversary marked in 2014.
Since then, I’ve always quite liked Aston Villa – I feel they were a big part of my early appreciation of football. Part of that was Villa’s importance in those early years of the Premier League. They were runners up to Manchester United in 1993, albeit 10 points shy of Fergie’s first title winning side. Their appearance in the 1994-5 UEFA Cup had been brought about by way of defeating Manchester United in the 1994 League Cup final – and denying Alex Ferguson’s best (and really only) chance of a domestic treble in England. Several final appearances have come and gone but with no additional trophies, but more often than not, until the beginning of this decade at least, Villa have featured in the upper half of the Premier League table.
With those memories of Dalian Atkinson, Andy Townsend, Steve Staunton and Paul McGrath still reasonably fresh in my now-31-year-old mind, Villa’s current plight pains me somewhat. This season they have that rather unfortunate mix of young players who either aren’t quite good enough or aren’t experienced enough; experienced players who are past it (I’m looking at you Joleon) and a smorgasbord of nomadic foreign players who vary wildly in quality and consistency. Despite Tim Sherwood’s replacement with the arguably slightly better Remi Garde, Aston Villa will be playing Championship football next season. They will become the latest founder member of the Premier League to be relegated – the last was Southampton in 2005. Saints have clambered their way back up, though via a subsequent relegation to League 1, reasonably swiftly. Villa will need to clear the decks in the summer of overpaid has-beens and attempt to make money in a non-Premier League world.
Whether they can do that or face another relegation before they sort themselves out is another thing. However a club with its history, in the second city of the United Kingdom, should be in the top flight of English football. Attracting the right owner (assuming Randy Lerner cashes in his ever-decreasing-in-value chips), in this post-Abramovich world that the Premier League inhabits, will likely be key to that climb back up the league.