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Thursday, 17 March 2011

Teams That Made Us Fall In Love With Football #9: Aston Villa 1998

Some peoples' memories are so good they can still tell you about a time when Stan Collymore was most famous for being a footballer. Just about. A warm welcome to Magic Spongers for Jamie Cutteridge, everyone.

Looking back, many remember the 1998-1999 season in England for some northern team that won a few trophies, but the purists, the romantics, remember it for a team that sold their best player, led the league and ultimately collapsed under the weight of the combined egos of both manager and chairman. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present you Aston Villa.

Let me give you some context: being a Villa fan was never easy, a couple of mid-90s League Cups aside, and in my entire lifespan I have only ever ended the season disappointed. Surrounded by Manchester United fans, despite living close to Birmingham, my most notable respite was brief and lasted for the first half of the 98-99 season. For a 10-year old, though, these were heady days and ones that remain stuck in my mind with goals, heroes and memories seeing Villa top of the Premier League at the start of 1999.

The season did not begin with such optimism as lumbered with an overpriced, misfiring, tabloid-hopping, badge-kissing, Holte End-loving Stan Collymore, the issues up front took a further blow when star man Dwight Yorke left Villa Park to join eventual champions Manchester United, pursued by John Gregory and his shotgun, leaving just Stan the Man and a young Julian Joachim as forward options.

Ex-Leicester man Joachim led the line early on as the Villa’s now out of fashion 3-5-2 profited from an industrious midfield, spearheaded by Ian Taylor, and snuck up the table as the early-season favourite faltered. Flair was added to the squad as everyone’s favourite borderline alcoholic Paul Merson signed and made his debut in a home game against Wimbledon notable for three reasons. Firstly, both Merson and Alan Thompson missed penalties (Merson knocked in a rebound from his own), secondly, Villa’s fourth win in a row coupled with a Liverpool draw saw them go top and thirdly, I lost a Villa drinks bottle in the Trinity Road stand. YOU DON’T GET THOSE GOLDEN ANECDOTES ANYWHERE ELSE DO YOU?

Villa’s form continued and saw them remain unbeaten while competing in the Uefa Cup. A foetus-like Darius Vassell made his debut in a home tie against Stromsgodset, coming off the bench to score twice in the final four minutes and scrape a 3-2 win for Villa. In the meantime, Dion Dublin was signed from nearby Coventry City and, linking up with Collymore on his debut, scored twice in (another) 3-2 win, this time against Spurs. The following week, Villa travelled to the Dell and Dion hit a hat-trick as Villa won 4-1. It was the first time Dublin had been good value for money since the 1980s.

Our heroes (because we’re all now caught up in this story) then went on a run of four league games without a win, losing their unbeaten record to Liverpool, drawing with both Forest and Manchester United and then suffering defeat at Stamford Bridge. Villa needed a win and bounced back in perhaps the most notable performance and result of my entire football-supporting life.

Sometimes life has the ability to throw football into sharp perspective and the second weekend of December 1998 is such an example. Without going into gratuitous detail, our family was hit by crisis and tragedy and I could dissect every tiny detail of that weekend for hours. In the midst of this, Villa had a title challenge to maintain and after our rivals from Old Trafford had drawn the day before, Sunday December 13th presented Villa with an opportunity to extend their lead as they hosted fellow contenders and defending champions Arsenal. Halftime not only saw Villa two down, but also one of the strangest injuries ever seen at a football ground as a parachutist dressed as Santa crashed onto the roof of Villa Park, suffering an injury that would result in him losing his leg.

The half-time break was elongated, clearly giving John Gregory enough time to sort his team out as Villa came back to the pitch a different side. Joachim pulled Villa back into it before two goals from new hero Dion Dublin gave us an improbable win. For a 10-year-old experiencing a less than joyous weekend, football offered a break, a glimpse of hope in a dark situation. Football’s place in my life was confirmed as the game once again managed to extend beyond its meagre context to penetrate areas unrelated.

Top on Christmas day, Villa’s turkey arrived a day late as youngster Adam Rachel was shoved centre-stage, deputising for the injured Bosnich and the sent off Michael Oakes, and preceded to make a less than auspicious debut as Villa went down 2-1 away at Blackburn. Despite taking seven points from the next three games, the game proved a turning point as Villa lost top spot before going 10 games without a win between January and April, ultimately staggering over the finish line, losing their last three games and finishing sixth.

The season was a failure. After a bright start, Villa fans knew that this ageing team would never again have a chance at a seat at football’s top table. A cup final appearance the next season couldn’t mask a similarly disappointing league finish, while manager John Gregory continued to build some of the dullest football teams ever seen in B6. But this doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter that Villa played a less than inspiring 3-5-2 with two defensively-minded wing-backs in Gary Charles and Alan ‘so damn small’ Wright. It doesn’t matter that the team was full of ageing names such as Steve Watson, Steve Stone and the aforementioned Merson. It doesn’t matter that the second half of the season was such an abject failure. 1998-1999 was the season that football first transplanted itself in my life.

That a team shorn of their best player went on a run that made them title contenders, that won games left, right and centre, scored goals and occasionally entertained made me proud in the playground. For four months, my team were something to talk about, to boast about, something sadly not seen since. My team made me love football, and football paid me back.

The Arsenal game proved my footballing watershed and Villa have not pulled off such a comeback against a top team since. Part of me still believes that they did it for me, as if the universe worked its magic through Dion Dublin, because for five weeks in winter 1998, it certainly seemed to.

You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @JamieCutteridge

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