Winds of Change: Villa and Liverpool in 1989-90

So, Liverpool are finally League Champions. It’s only been 30 years of hurt for them and indifference for the rest of us. It’s Villa fans who will remember their last triumph more than most.

Because we ran them closer than anyone else.

A title shot was the last thing we expected in August 1989. A few months earlier, Villa had avoided relegation by just one point and were not expecting to fare much better this time. Manager Graham Taylor’s future was thought to depend on a decent start.

We’d been handed some tough opening fixtures. After a creditable 1-1 draw at Forest on the opening weekend, our first home game of the season couldn’t have been tougher. Liverpool.

A summer evening under the iconic AV lights, we’d fallen behind to a 24th minute goal from John Barnes. Instead of caving in, we weathered the Liverpool storm and began to gradually assert ourselves in the second half. A corner from Gordon Cowans was flicked on by Kent Nielsen and David Platt turned the ball into the net in front of the Holte End. We held on well and gained another good point.

Villa Park’s iconic floodlights (Via Pintrest)

Then things went south.

A disappointing home draw with Charlton followed. Then defeat at Southampton left us struggling again. The next game was QPR at home. Just 14,000 turned up to watch Blues legend Trevor Francis score a hat trick in a 3-1 defeat.

I can still remember walking out past ripped up match programmes and very angry Holte Enders.

In contrast, Liverpool began with a predictably impressive 5 wins and 3 draws, including a 9-0 flattening of Crystal Palace at Anfield.

They’d surprisingly sold striker John Aldridge to Real Sociedad after the Palace game, with many fans thinking this could leave them light up front.

We at Villa sat just outside the drop zone with our next game against Derby at Villa Park. Should we lose, there was talk that Graham Taylor’s position would be in doubt.

David Platt gave us an early lead, and then we gave a decent recreation of the Alamo as Derby threw the kitchen sink at us. Future Villa man Dean Saunders cut through time and again.

But they didn’t score.

The highlights were shown on TV the following day, and it was embarrassing viewing for us Villans. Surely this was just a stay of execution for Taylor, Villa hadn’t been anywhere near good enough.

Then something unexpected happened.

We won again; 1-0 away at Luton. Then a 2-0 triumph at Manchester City took us into the top half. A last minute Platt goal gave us a 2-1 comeback win against Palace amidst bedlam in the Holte.

Where had this come from?

Our good run led nicely into a live TV (unusual then) game v Everton. Villa had moved up to 6th, with our opponents a place higher. Villa fans were in a buoyant mood following our recent run, but nobody expected what followed.

After a tentative start, we took the lead after 7 minutes when Gordon Cowans broke through. A few minutes later it was two, when Ian Olney tapped in after Platt’s shot was saved by Neville Southall. Just before the break Platt headed in from a Cowans free kick to give us a 3-0 lead.

The Holte had barely time to draw breath after the break before we scored again. Platt left Martin Keown for dead before driving the ball home, then just 3 minutes later Olney pounced after a scramble in the box to make it 5-0. After 64 minutes it was 6-0, Nielsen heading in from a free kick.

Villa Park was bouncing and the whole country could see our boys taking apart a team who’d been amongst the title favourites at the season’s start. As Villa relaxed, Everton grabbed a couple of late goals to add a modicum of respectability to the score.

But in truth, they’d been thrashed.

The following day, the plaudits were everywhere. S-PLATT! screamed one quality publication, the more measured ‘6 Goal Villa Aiming for the Top’ from another. Seen as a key reason for our renaissance, David Platt was selected for England’s upcoming friendly against Italy (he would eventually win 62 caps). The whole club’s profile was lifted considerably.

This being Villa, reality struck just 6 days later.

We lost 2-0 at Norwich.

If detractors were expecting a return to mediocrity, they were quickly proved wrong. Villa beat Coventry 4-1, then won 2-0 away against a dangerous Wimbledon team. A 2-1 home victory in a fantastic game against Brian Clough’s Forest left us 3rd in the table, feeling like we could take on the very best.

Handy that, as the next fixture was Liverpool at Anfield.

Since their customary solid start, Liverpool had faltered in late Autumn. A shock 4-1 defeat at Southampton, followed by another three defeats in the next 6 matches. Worryingly, they’d looked impressive again in a 4-1 thrashing of Man City a week before the Villa game, leaving us under no illusions that they were still the team to beat.

A jump into personal history here. On the Tuesday before the Liverpool game, my Nan passed away. Football seemed irrelevant amidst a family bereavement, so there was none of the usual tensions leading up to the big game. Indeed, Dad only decided we’d go the day before. I quickly returned to playing Match Day 2, as I felt sharing my delight might be considered insensitive.

We drove up and left the car in Stanley Park. I was astonished how close Goodison Park and Anfield were. We paid our respects at the recently constructed Hillsborough memorial and headed to our seats in the away end.

Anfield wasn’t outwardly impressive, but was modern and stank of success. The Kop End was still a terrace and was quite loud, although us Villa fans were making a racket at the other end.

Then we took the lead.

A goal kick from Spink was flicked on to Olney who controlled well before shooting home. We went berserk, the emotional release for us both after a difficult week was enormous. We remained on top till half time, but knew that Liverpool would come back strong in the second half.

They did just that.

A maelstrom of attacks hit the Villa back line, but we defended superbly with Paul McGrath imperious. Sadly, in the 64th minute Liverpool’s pressure told, with Peter Beardsley side footing a shot from outside the area just inside Spink’s left hand post.

Paul McGrath (Via BT Sport)

Now we’d see what Villa were made of.

Liverpool looked to grab the winner, but we were again resolute. Additionally, we began to look dangerous on the break and the reds couldn’t pin us back without leaving themselves exposed. We nearly grabbed a winner towards the end when Olney slipped past Ablett only to shoot straight at Grobbelaar. At the final whistle we were drained, we’d mixed it with the best and not been found wanting.

From strugglers in September, Villa now looked genuine contenders for the title.

As if things weren’t weird enough, we watched transfixed as the Berlin Wall fell, the maps on our school classroom walls instantly out of date.

Fittingly, the Villa defence gave their own recreation of the wall’s failure in a 2-0 defeat at bottom side Millwall. Would this be it for Graham Taylor’s shock troops? Like after the Norwich defeat. We got our answer quickly….

The best Christmas ever.

On Boxing Day, Manchester United were despatched 3-0 at Villa Park, we then moved up to second after beating Champions Arsenal 2-1. On New Years Day, we travelled to Chelsea (who would finish 5th) and won 3-0.

Truly the stuff of dreams.

4 more victories followed, as Villa brushed aside anything in our path. After victory at Spurs in a midweek game, we finally overtook Liverpool at the top of the pile. It was our seventh consecutive win. Defender Kevin Gage was quoted in the tabloid press, boasting that we could win every game till the season’s end.

We winced. It was the kiss of death.

Reality bit hard as famous spoilers Wimbledon were up next at Villa Park, and trounced us 3-0. A defeat at Coventry followed. Liverpool were undefeated since December and returned to the top.

We rallied, taking 7 points from our next 3 games. Then an opportunity came our way after a Paul Stewart goal defeated Liverpool at Spurs.

We didn’t take it.

A horribly disappointing 1-0 defeat at strugglers Crystal Palace followed. Worse, Villa fan Gary Thompson scored the winner, with new signing Tony Cascarino looking hopelessly out of sorts. We got soaked on the open terrace, and it took about 12 hours to get home.

This remains my least favourite away day ever.

A home defeat to Man City all but ended our title challenge, although wins away at Arsenal and at home against Chelsea gave us some hope.

Before the final nail.

We travelled to Old Trafford en masse, played well and outsung the home support with ease. It wasn’t our day. We lost 2-0 to two excellent Mark Robins goals (who did nothing else all game). Liverpool won their next three games to take the title.

In truth, our Scouse friends had been brutally consistent since a defeat at Sheffield Wednesday in December. They won 11 out of their last 15 games, with Spurs the only defeat. As if to highlight their superiority, Liverpool won 6-1 at Coventry in their final match. The eventual 9 point gap was hard on Villa, as we’d been much closer before drawing our last 2 games with the season effectively over. Liverpool celebrated nonchalantly, another day at the office.

They had no idea it’d be 30 years before they’d celebrate another.

In the aftermath, English clubs were readmitted to European club competitions, although Liverpool served a additional one year ban for the Heysel tragedy. T-Shirts at Villa Park declared Europe a ‘Scouse free zone’.

Liverpool were themselves runners-up the following season, miles behind a great Arsenal team. Villa would challenge for the title again three years later under Ron Atkinson. Between 1995-2000, Villa and Liverpool were very similar, both clubs bobbed around the top 6 without seriously challenging the leaders.

20 years later, they are Champions and we look like returning to the second tier. But for anyone losing hope, remember the story of 1989-90. In the course of one season, we went from no hopers to true contenders.

After that, anything can happen.

by Rob Smith


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