League Cup miracle, one year on: Aston Villa part one

Continuing Width of a Post’s retrospective look back on last year’s astonishing League Cup run, one year ago today Aston Villa came to Valley Parade for the first leg of the semi finals. Alex Scott re-lives an unforgettable night.

“Ohhhh my goodness! It is McHugh!!! It is three one!!!”

Bradford City 3 Aston Villa 1

I’ve watched this game a bunch of times; more than any other. Even someone who vicariously lives through sports as much as me doesn’t really watch sports events back multiple times. I have a DVD of the last Ryder Cup, bought in an attempt of forced nostalgia, but I’ve only started it once, and skipped to the denouement right away. Looking through my computer, I’ve a video of the David Tyree Super Bowl from a few years back, and a replay of the epic NBA Finals Game 6 from last year. I’ve no idea why I have these.

Needless to say, I’ve never watched them back. I suppose it’s an adrenaline thing, sports. Without that ticking clock inside you, televised sports are just watching people run about. Watching sports when delayed from real time is awful, even when you haven’t had the result spoiled. Something happens when you become disconnected with the wider world’s timeline. That’s why the vast majority of TV I watch is live sport, even sport I don’t even care about, especially sports in the middle of the night. I see you Winter Olympics, I’ll be there don’t you worry.

The Aston Villa game is an exception.

I must have watched the 10-minute video highlights package on Bantams Player a 100 times. I know every beat, every moment of the game. All the ebbs and flows. I know what Martin Tyler is going to say even before he does. In the two weeks between this game and the second leg I reckon I watched that video at least once a day.

My Dad has each of televised games from last year saved on his TiVo, and every time I’m back in Yorkshire I normally wind up watching at least one. And regardless of the meaning of the Arsenal game, or the return leg yet to come, or the final, this is the game I normally pick. The act of clicking play is the ignition in the Delorean.

Each time I watch it my mind (and body) are instantly transported back to how they were that night, fraught and manic to within an inch of the extreme, not knowing which way to turn. Sitting in the front room, with Martin and Don Goodman alongside for the ride, my heart is pounding.

This game is a time machine. Emotions were that high, the pressure was that intense. A year ago, only a year ago. In many ways I can’t believe it actually was a year ago; in more I can’t believe it was only that.

————

Don’t look to the future, because you’ll break it somehow. You’re only allowed to think and hope in the present tense. From the final whistle against Arsenal until February. Never look forward. You’ll jinx it.

This feeling is so novel. I normally only look at the long-term, it’s a wonderful excuse for the underwhelming present. Not today. No distractions needed. I’m excited and I just want to enjoy it. Or I was anyway.

I think it must have happened sometime between my office in London and St James’ Park tube station, but I can’t really remember. There wasn’t a dawning moment in particular that sticks with me; just two senses of being: one of childlike excitement, and one of abject terror.

It’s definitely dawned now in King’s Cross, as the fiver I had earmarked for an extravagant McDonald’s just wound up going on four cans of lager from M&S, panicked. Now I’m in my seat on the 1605 to Leeds 10 minutes early, my knee jigging like I’m a getaway driver waiting for an accomplice. How did I get here?

I had been excited. Even in the office not 30 minutes ago I took my colleagues’ best wishes in my stride, nonchalantly batting them back with a smile like Alastair Cook, circa January 2013. I was no longer excited. An army of Mitchell Johnsons were careering down the carriage toward me, and I only had a willow and an England helmet to protect myself.

It feels like the barrier coming down over top of me at the start of a rollercoaster. My heart is racing. The anxiety, the mania is beginning. There is nowhere to go. No control. I can only live in this moment, and I’m too preoccupied to do anything. Don’t look down. Don’t look down.

The patchy Hertfordshire phone signal means that I can’t even take up the most millennial of distractions and “read” Twitter. Not that any actual reading takes place, just instinctive pulling down on a screen, eyes scattergunning anywhere and nowhere. Instead I’m just sat, staring out of the window, looking vacant. I hope I’m blinking.

I suppose this comes with every big game. This is normal, right? It’s normal. And quit asking yourself questions, that’s what crazy people do. This is definitely different from the Arsenal game, the last time I’d pulled the 17-hour office-to-office round trip. That was fun. I was carefree on that one.

Even my reflected eyes in the window pane look nervous. I’m just rolling into Leeds city centre, that was fast. Thankfully those beers, plus those I two I bought from the man somewhere around Grantham, had the desired effect: the edge has been taken off.

After the quick connection up to Forster Square, I’ve just got the jaunt up Manningham Lane to the ground, the same trip I’ve done a thousand times. This mundane walk, those bloody Forster Square stairs I always think I’m at the top of one flight before I actually am, the same route I’ve walked a thousand times before. Another dawning moment. The excitement is beginning to coming back. Everywhere, the people. Everywhere.

In the weeks leading up, and this afternoon in the office, tonight felt like a pipedream. Even though I knew it would be real at some point, it didn’t really feel like it. Once the journey up began, that awareness dawned on me I guess. This is real, and this is massive. Everywhere. Look. This is real! And this is massive! This is alien. People talk about electricity in the air, it always sounds like one of those silly things people say, but there is something. Excitement by osmosis perhaps?

Walking across Hamm Strasse, seeing the lights from the ground streaming up from beyond the houses, calling like a homing beacon. I’m on the upwards incline of the rollercoaster. The heart is picking up, the pace of everything is firing. But I’m calm. In control. The shirts everywhere, half-and-half scarf salesmen from somewhere and everywhere, the Villa fans spilling out of the pubs, making an unholy racket in a Tesco’s car park, it was all real.

YIPPEEIIIAAA!!! YIPPEEEIIIOOO!!! This was how the other half lived, and this was fantastic. That noise. That noise.

I

You couldn’t say it had been coming. The corner was just a vent if anything. I wasn’t even sure it was a corner, not from where I was looking. A moment to breathe, that’s all it was. A release of pressure which even at this stage felt like it was about to crush. They were coming for us, and they were on top of us. Every time they attacked it looked as if the hastily assembled force field behind the makeshift back four would be breached. Christian Benteke was towering above our back line; every ball forward inextricably caught within his gravitational pull. This wasn’t the Villa I signed up for. Where was the disarray? The angst?

I still think it was handball. That was my initial reaction: screaming penalty just as the balled rolled into the corner of the net, disorientated, not really knowing what just happened. To this day I watch Zavon Hines’ shot; the imperious Howard Webb’s booming arms swipe across his body to indicate no infraction, and still don’t really understand.

After seeing the ball nestle in the corner, as I imagine most did, my eyes shot down the right touchline to the linesman waiting for the inevitable. The drop was coming. Yet nothing materialised. I still didn’t understand.

The Yippeeiiiaaas from across the Valley fell silent for the first time in forever, and even from way back here you could see the whites in the opponents’ eyes. You could see it. You could feel it. They could see in ours that we felt it. That noise. It might not have been a standing eight, but they were rocking. They were rocking because they felt it. That noise.

————

This is top of the world I think. I could just peek out over the Midland Road stand into the illuminated Yorkshire night to illustrate the great heights of where I am, but I can’t look away from this, I can’t take a moment to breathe. I’ll just have to take my own word for it. We’ve had the first release of the ride, but this is white knuckle. I can’t look away, I can’t think about breathing, I can’t look away.

Every attack they look like scoring. I haven’t prepared myself for this. Why didn’t I prepare myself better for this? Brace! Wide. Saved. Saved. Saved. There are prolonged seconds, minutes it feels where I don’t dare breathe lest it distract them down there, lest Matt lose his balance from the weight of my angst and mania. The hysteria appears to be everywhere. Saved. My friends are speaking to me, I’m not registering what they`re saying. Just smile. Wide. I can’t hear myself think anymore. Am I even thinking? Our fans are as loud as can be; their fans are turning, they’re turning!

It feels like my eyes are one more direct run from Charles N’Zogbia away from falling out of their sockets completely. The insides of my body are bouncing back and forth from skin to skin. I wish I had some alcohol to calm me down and just numb everything. I can’t take it.

Just don’t say anything, don’t think anything, stay in the present tense, stay in the present tense. Don’t look away. Brace! Saved. Don’t look down.

II

Nahki Wells was on the run for our lives. Respite had been harder to find in recent times. We’d barely reached half past nine; still far too long on the clock to think of the end. Behind him a gaggle of compatriots desperate for air; in front an ocean of green.  He was on the run, and he had to move now. The Kop were pulling him forward towards their open grasps, screaming at the rope in front of them.

Seconds were ticking off the clock. We’d just managed to dodge the best chance they were ever going to get to kill us off; this was our chance. The ball spun away for a corner and it felt like everyone in attendance knew. We’ve all watched enough football to know. Tick.

They were exhausted after 75 minutes of firing at our shape shifting target; any defensive reorganisation we could draw may lead to slip, a momentary slip. Nathan Baker a little slow; Ciaran Clark a little late. Just once. And like that… he’s gone. “The busiest footballer in the land!!!…”

The five minutes from Bent’s miss, to that header was the key period in the tie. A different outcome there, and that was that.  I remember wanting to start a conversation before the corner to attempt to reverse jinx the moment by reemphasising its potential importance, because just if… but shhhhh. Don’t look down. I instinctively grabbed my Dad’s shoulder. “Holy shit he’s unmarked!”

The rest is noise.

————

Is… Is this happening? I mean, if we could ju… Shhhh! Nobody say anything! Nobody think! Don’t say anything. Don’t think. The mania is here. This is real, this is real this is happening this is happening is this happening? The noise I can’t think I can’t breathe I can’t the noise the noise don’t look down don’t look down don’t look.

CRACK.

III

That was it. That was the chance. The chance. It had to be. Villa were dazed and confused; the defenders playing with invisible blinkers covering their eyes. James Hanson had a similar chance in the first half where he’d got a step on Ciaran Clark and it was scrambled off the line. But there was no Fabian Delph to save them this time.

It was a great ball in from Blair Turgott; he couldn’t have placed it more perfectly within that twenty yard defensive vacuum around the Villa penalty spot. They were coming apart at the seams. The noise, the moment had overwhelmed them; the referee had eight fingers up and Ciaran Clark was blinking.

Crack.

That was it. The momentum that had been built up, the hysteria snapped in an instant as everyone in attendance breathed out in unison “that was it”. We were all back in the room. Still twelve minutes left. “Away goals count right? Damn.”

As Hanson lay prostrate in the penalty box, no salvation coming, embodying how we all felt. All the momentum evaporated into the ether, and Lady Luck, our lieutenant of so many weeks in a row stepped out for a fag.

Five minutes later and the hammer dropped. There were about three minutes in there between the McArdle bullet and the crossbar where we could have dreamt. Now it was gone. I must have looked down. Reality was now at the door. One split second of indecision from our teenage centre half, and that was it. All of this would end up being an inconsequential detour. I’d have taken that this afternoon; I’d have taken it on Hamm Strasse. But not now. Not after all this. The Football Gods are cruel but even for them, this is rough.

There are still probably ten minutes left to see off; and that just dawned on everyone. Tick. Tick.

YIPPEEEIIIAAA!!! YIPPEEEIIIOOO!!! 

————

Reality bites like a stomach punch. I didn’t prepare myself well enough to deal with this. Home plate was within sight and we’re going to be left stranded on third. That had to be it. The away goal. And they were coming again. Just don’t look. Don’t look Forget down, just close your eyes.

Maybe this is OK? I mean, what more could we have hoped for, really? It’s not like we were ever going to qualify over two legs. But we’ve given them a real go here. We’ve still got a chance of a lead, not enough to protect, but enough to valiantly go down in flames in triumphant defeat. In a world like this, isn’t that the best anyone can hope for?

This is the first time I’ve looked down in 80 minutes. This is truly remarkable. Like a hypnotist has brought me back into the room and I can see all the staring faces around me, smiling. The rollercoaster carriage has floated off into the dark nothing, the adrenaline has gone, and my mind has cleared.

I wonder if this feeling is the norm in the parallel universe. The romantic in me wants to think of it like the world on the other side of Geoffrey Richmond’s coin. If he decided to swallow his hubris that summer and realised that the manager was the most important thing, this is the world we could have been living in. Night games at a packed Valley Parade, Sky cameras abound, Aston Villa in town. “…Oh it must be! And it is!!!…”

Is this feeling normal over there, or is that manic excitement from before the norm? Would they feel that? Wouldn’t they want to? Maybe this had been a dream. Or maybe everything else in between that fateful summer and this had been.

Back in the room. Go on Blair son, get at him! One more chance? Here we go again. Free spin of the wheel, house money on the table. Quick glance at the scoreboard. Tick? Don’t look down.

IV

Every time I think of that moment; I relive it with Don. I flip back through my memory tapes, and see that corner curl away to the penalty spot from my vantage point high in the Co-op; eyes drawn to Carl McHugh running away from me, with a step. But even in this video in my mind, I hear that noise. That release of breath. A disbelieving squeal. Don. 

Just like the second goal, home and away fans, players and managers alike; everyone knew. There were no calls to keep the ball in the corner, despite the proximity to a famous victory. No whistles for the referee. This is the chance. This is the moment. We’ve all seen enough football to know. It had to be put on the penalty spot for someone to become a hero…  

“Ohhh!” That noise. Don.

That noise is my memory of it really. Of course I remember the goal from both angles, mine from high above in the Co-op and ours together from the other side through the lens. But my first instinct, like a hypnotist’s bell, is that noise, followed by the rapturous cacophony from behind the goal. In my head, Don was sat next to me, leaping into the air alongside. In that moment it felt like we were all Don Goodman.

That moment would last for two weeks. That euphoria lasted for two weeks, as if I was drunk the whole time. Every moment on the tube, every moment in a queue down the shop, every moment staring at but not really watching TV, was that moment. I didn’t need to fiddle with my phone anymore. I didn’t need to occupy my mind anymore. I didn’t need any more.

The prize wasn’t financial, it wasn’t hierarchical. Because at the end of the day, whatever right? The prize was that moment. That memory. That noise.  

“And all of a sudden, we’re dreaming again, Martin. We are dreaming… again.”

————

I don’t remember what else I did that night. I wake up at the same point every time. Those moments, and the subsequent two weeks are just a haze. I don’t remember what I did, when, or with whom. It feels like I just pressed the pause button in my mind for that fortnight. Refusing to look down. Never look down. I spent most of it with Don Goodman.

My cup of tea has gone cold on the table. Every time.

______________________________________________

Read our look back on the League Cup miracle

Bradford City 1 Arsenal 1 (City win 3-2 on pens)

Wigan Athletic 0 Bradford City 0 (City win 4-2 on pens) 

Bradford City 3 Burton Albion 2

The early rounds



Categories: Retrospective

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5 replies

  1. What a great piece of writing, Alex.
    Totally catches how I felt during those crazy times.

  2. Fantastic article, as ever. Proper goose bumps job, memories for life.
    Thank you Alex

  3. Terrific writing as ever.

    I know what I did immediately after the game – I sent a text to my best mate it said “What the f*@k just happened”. I don’t remember sending it of course but he showed it to me afterwards. I’m less eloquent than Alex – but that pretty much summed it up for me!

    • You know an article is well written when it gives you tingles down your spine, such an emotional night and still brings it all back just reading about it!

      What a wonderful game, what a wonderful season!

  4. great writing, but this, as the title suggests was last year. Think we need to focus on the future. Our lovely bright future.

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