By Damien Wilkinson
I would imagine many long standing City fans like myself, maintain a fair few ‘do not disturb’ memory banks, where they can carefully consign disappointing results, to either be left in the midst of time or glowingly recalled, should a subsequent result somehow ease the pain, leading to a ‘closure’ of sorts.
A bit of a football Room 101, if you will, and there are a good few matches to choose from over the years, including Accrington matches, a 6-4 home defeat by Swansea, quarter-final defeats to Bristol City and Luton, and a number of disappointments against local rivals, as just a few examples.
One such result, for me, concerns City’s visit to Villa Park in 1988, memories of which have been rekindled by the impending trip to Villa Park in the second leg of the League Cup semi final.
The 1987/88 season had coincided with my first year at University, where I had ended up at the University of Birmingham. As City’s fantastic season in Division 2 (that’s the Championship in old money) progressed, I was able to attend a good smattering of home matches, whilst also taking in the few extra Midlands based matches, that my location and student grant (remember those?) afforded.
Whilst it is a bit distressing to recall that this is now actually 25 years ago, in many regards it is an age away. Thatcher, Kinnock, David Steele, Ronald Reagan amongst others in politics, Arthur Scargill still going strong, and the birth of Poll tax, launched in Scotland that year. All of this keeping the writers of TV satire “Spitting Image” extremely busy. The charts were dominated by acts including the Pet Shop Boys, U2, Fairground Attraction, Michael Jackson, Bros, Debbie Gibson, Kylie Minogue, emerging House music, not to forget the classic “Doctorin’ the Tardis” by the Timelords, a number 1 in June!
In the football world, Liverpool would go onto win the league that year, although Man United were beginning to start to make moves towards long term domination mode. Interestingly, and clinging on to as many omens as possible, cup shocks were all the rage in 1988, with both Luton and Wimbledon, winning the League (‘Littlewoods’ then) and FA Cups respectively. It would also be remiss of me not to mention Huddersfield’s 10-1 defeat to Manchester City, as they finished the season in bottom place. Although, somewhat inevitably, Town managed a shock 1-0 win at Valley Parade as they went down!
City, who had been well placed towards the top of the league throughout the season, went through a bit of a rocky patch during March, but following a good recovery during April, culminating in a 4-1 home win against Leicester City, found themselves on the verge of achieving one of the two automatic promotion spots in Division 2, as other rivals began to slip. Indeed, City sat in second place in the league with two matches to play.
Accordingly, the chance to go a long way to ensuring promotion presented itself with a trip to Aston Villa on May Day, 2 May 1988. Despite relegation from the top flight in the previous season, Villa were aiming to bounce straight back, and were one of City’s key rivals for promotion. Furthermore, despite a bizarre 5-0 Simod Cup defeat in the first half of the season, they had comprehensively won the reverse league fixture 4-2, at Valley Parade.
Manager Graham Taylor had joined Villa from Watford at the start of the season, and had assembled a trademark direct ‘route one’ side, around players such as Warren Aspinall, Stuart Gray, Kevin Gage and Alan McInally. Allan Evans and goalkeeper Nigel Spink were survivors of Villa’s European cup triumph against Bayern Munich in 1982, Spink making only his second first team appearance, coming on as a sub for the injured Jimmy Rimmer, after 10 minutes, and rather impressively managing to keep a clean sheet.
Coincidentally, Villa’s side contained both midfielder Andy Gray and striker Garry Thompson, though obviously not the versions in the current City side of 2013! David Platt, then 22 years old, had been brought in from Crewe for a fee of £200,000, in the early part of 1988 and was playing a key part in their push for promotion.
City’s team, had a consistent feel to it given the small size of the squad of that season, and the line-up selected by boss Terry Dolan, was as follows:
Paul Tomlinson, Brian Mitchell, Karl Goddard, Stuart McCall, Gavin Oliver, Dave Evans, John Hendrie, Lee Sinnott, Ian Ormondroyd, Mick Kennedy, Ron Futcher.
In those days, and in a massive contrast to today’s squad game, teams were only permitted to make two substitutions from two selected (this actually being an increase brought into the league that season!), and Mark Leonard was to replace Karl Goddard during the game.
I remember setting off for the match and boarding a train, crammed full of Villa fans, from New Street to Aston. I’d gone with my mates from Uni, who, whilst keen football fans, were essentially offering a degree of moral support to me at a critical time. We tried to ensure we didn’t draw too much attention to ourselves as non-Villa fans, and made our way quietly off the train.
Arriving at a packed ground, quite near to kick off, I was amazed by how many City fans were squeezed into the away end, or more specifically, the lower tier of one end of the ground. I had been to Villa a few times earlier that season in the home end, and, whilst that got quite packed and noisy, I wasn’t really prepared for entry into the City end. We managed to bump into a fellow Uni mate and City fan, Dave, on the way in, and we all tried to find somewhere to stand. With the almost ubiquity of all seater stadia these days, it is sometimes easy to forget the experience of watching matches in a large crowd of standing people, and we pushed our way in, eventually managing to find somewhere with a half decent view.
The atmosphere was electric with, I think, well over 6,000 City fans in an overall crowd of 36,423, and the wonderful old historic ground was well and truly rocking. Villa’s home form that season had been less than convincing, and there was well founded belief that City could get a good result.
The match itself now remains a blur. A great atmosphere, and a reasonable start, with a good early effort from John Hendrie, but the image of David Platt rising and planting a bullet header past Paul Tomlinson, in front of the away following midway through the first half, remains the enduring memory. Whilst City made a few chances, including an effort from Ian Ormondroyd, they struggled to get back in the game and get what might have been a vital equaliser; it never materialised, and was one of those games where it never really looked like happening. After sweeping so many sides aside that season, it was a massive disappointment, and City were very much second best on the day. The final whistle was greeted with a pitch invasion by the Villa fans, highlighting the enormity of the result, and the City fans and players were left thinking of what might have been.
Trooping out of the ground, a return to Uni subsequently involved hanging around the station with the hordes of celebrating Villa fans, and a laboured journey back, given the numbers travelling back. Thoughts of a chance blown were impossible to avoid, and it was just the feeling of all the good work from earlier that season, having evaporated, that dominated thoughts. I do seem to recall a bit of harmless banter with some of the Villa fans on the train back.
Despite the Villa result, other results elsewhere conspired that City still had the chance to secure a promotion spot in the final match of the season – a home match against Ipswich, on the following Saturday.
With the away side having nothing to play for, City, missing the suspended John Hendrie, contrived to self-destruct, losing 3-2. Despite a valiant effort, conceding three goals at a packed Valley Parade was ultimately too much for City to turn around. Results elsewhere were such that a City win would have secured an automatic promotion spot. In the massive disappointment that followed, with City consigned to the lottery of the play-offs, the Villa result reared its head with even more vengeance, Villa themselves achieving the coveted second place spot, following a 0-0 draw at Swindon Town.
City, of course, then went on to lose in the play offs over a two legged tie against Middlesbrough, and the ‘Nearly Season’ was duly christened.
As a sobering footnote to the Ipswich result, I would just note that a strange quirk of fate decreed that:
(a) accommodation in my first year at Uni was spent in Halls of Residence;
(b) I was unlucky enough to have to share a room;
(c) of all the room-mates available, having an Ipswich fan as one, was totally unnecessary, completely over the top and extremely uncalled for! You can only imagine the pain of my return after that final league match…
Whilst I did make a few returns to Villa, especially with the attraction of seeing top flight football in subsequent seasons, the memory of the May Day match has obviously lingered in my Room 101, and, I feel, finally needs to be rectified in some way.
Consequentially, this just leaves me hoping that the class of 2013 will put me out of 25 years of misery, and rectify things. No pressure boys, but please sort it out, and keeping the Uni theme going, a 2:1 result would be much welcomed either way!