August 1987 – Villa had been relegated the previous May after a disastrous season under Graham Turner and Billy McNeil. New manager Graham Taylor had a big task on his hands to turn us around. His first impression was telling.
He described the club as a shambles.
So we were still in transition as we began the 1987-88 season. The fixture list had been unhelpful enough to make our first home game a banana skin of horrific proportions.
I remember it well. The post relegation gloom had not yet lifted around Villa Park. The attendance was just 30,870, and I hate to say about half of these were of the blue-nose persuasion. We had lost the season’s opener at Ipswich and there was a sense that the Blues game had come too soon for Graham Taylor’s new side. Nevertheless, the first half was even-steven, with few chances for either team. Things deteriorated on and off the pitch in the second half, with Villa looking disjointed and Blues quickly gaining the upper hand. Meanwhile about 50 or so Blues fans had infiltrated the home section of the Witton Lane Stand (now Doug Ellis) and as they began to taunt the Holte End the atmosphere took a decidedly nasty turn.
Sound exciting? It wasn’t.
In the 50th Minute, we descended to Hell’s seventh level when Ian Handysides shot in after being left alone a few metres from goal. The Blues fans in the Witton Lane spilled onto the pitch, rubbing further salt into the gaping hole in my claret and blue heart. Some Villa fans made an effort to climb the perimeter fencing separating the Blues fans from the Holte, but in truth the response to going behind was apathetic on and off the pitch. The game was over soon after, when Rees scored a second and the thousands of Blues fans in the lower north sang that bloody stupid song about roads or something.
Any Villa fans in the North Stand executive boxes (right above the away fans) must have wished they were anywhere else.
Fast forward to December 12th, it was time for the return fixture in Small Heath. Dad’s boss was a Blues fan and had offered us free tickets with them in the main stand (Garrison Road). Not wanting to seem ungrateful, Dad accepted, which meant that in my second ever away game, I’d be sitting in the home end at St Andrews.
This would not be an average Saturday.
Since the August fixture, things had picked up for Villa as Graham Taylor made his mark on our club. We sat 3rd in the table after 5 wins in our last 6 games, whereas our neighbours were now 10th, seven points behind. 28,000 were present, but like at Villa Park the ground was nowhere near full. Villa started well, looking determined to make amends for Blues’ win in the early season debacle. Despite this, It was the usual 80s long ball battle until Kevin Gage looped an inviting cross into the Blues box. The defence hesitated and Garry Thompson appeared from nowhere to head the ball home. We leapt to our feet in delight. Immediately remembering where I was, I looked round and to my astonishment many other Villa fans had seats in the stand and were celebrating wildly. What was going on? Were we all crazy?
And where had Garry Thompson found that turn of pace?
Going behind seemed to galvanise our blue friends, but when the equaliser came it had a touch of the surreal about it. Kennedy miscontrolled on the right but somehow fired a shot just inside Spinks left hand post. Instead of nestling in the Villa goal, the ball went through the (clearly substandard) St Andrews net and kept going. Half the stadium could see the ball had gone in and were delirious, while the other side (mine) thought it had gone wide, before belatedly realising it was a goal.
My Dad joked later that Blues couldn’t even score without something going wrong.
Level at half-time, I couldn’t believe we were getting away with being in the Blues end in a derby fixture. What’s more, we weren’t the only ones. It was almost like a role reversal of the game at Villa Park in August.
With the year being 1987, crowd trouble was inevitable. From my seat I had a perfect view of the Blues fans charge at the Villa end, I think shortly after half time. A group of about 100 broke from the crowd in the kop and ran headlong at the Villa fans in the Tilton Road End. The Police managed to stop them from getting to the away section whilst other coppers on horseback briefly encroached onto the pitch, presumably to prevent the Blues fans from spilling out and attacking Villa from the front. This meant the situation calmed quickly and our attention returned to the game. The coppers made a lot of mistakes when dealing with fans in those days, but in this case their quick reaction prevented carnage in the Tilton corner.
The second half began with Villa on top but, as in most derby games, it was more cut and thrust than clear cut. Blues looked vulnerable from crosses, and once again this provided the breakthrough. Like in the first half, Kevin Gage put in a decent cross and Garry Thompson rose high above the Blues defence to power the ball home. Bedlam in the Villa end, the Villa fans in the main stand once again roared unashamedly.
This time the Blues fans were aware of us Villans in their midst, but their shouts of ‘sit down you Villa b*****s!’ only made our goal celebrations sweeter.
The rest of the game is a blur. All I remember is desperately wanting it to end as, with only one goal in it, there was always the chance Blues might get lucky. A few minutes from time Rees (I think) went down in the box under a challenge from Steve Sims and the Blues fans screamed for a penalty. The ref was unmoved.
This was murder.
I was staring at the Villa end as the final whistle blew. I daren’t go crazy myself but the away end was a sea of celebration, which almost made up for it. Suppressing our delight as much as possible (not much) we commiserated with Dad’s boss before heading out. Just before turning towards the steps into the stand, I punched the air towards the Spion Kop, hoping some of those who’d dared invade the Villa pitch in August were watching.
Revenge tasted very sweet indeed.
His two goals that day meant Garry ‘Bruno’ Thompson was now a Villa legend. A known Villa fan and a popular guy even before this, I can still remember the Holte singing his nickname before every game. Garry had missed the early part of 1987-88 through injury, but then scored a decent 11 goals in 24 games. This included a purple patch of 7 goals in 6 games in late November/early December. There’s a fabulous picture of Villa fan Thompson being carried off the pitch at Swindon by other jubilant Villa fans after our astonishing promotion in May.
Without him we wouldn’t have done it.
We didn’t know it then, but Garry would only make 5 more appearances in a Villa shirt. The form of Alan McInally and David Platt gave him few opportunities at the start of 1988-89. Graham Taylor accepted a bid of £450,000 (a decent sum back then) from Watford in October 1988 and the Villa fan who’d slayed Blues at St Andrews was gone.
After Watford, Gary played for several clubs, making 487 league appearances before retiring aged 38 in 1997.
But for Villa fans, he’ll always be one of our own.
By Robert Smith
Watch and listen to our most recent The Villa Filler podcast episode with the one and only Garry Thompson here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgyhjSybNI0&t=101s
You can also listen to it on various podcast sites, including…