As Villa face down an increasingly difficult relegation fight, we may be forced to draw any much needed inspiration from past escapes. With the arrival of Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace to Villa Park for another crucial clash tomorrow, it seems apt to delve into the archives and return to the challenging 1994/95 campaign. It was a season where Villa escaped relegation on the final day at the expense of this weekend’s visitors.
Two seasons on from our near miss in the inaugural Premier League title race against Manchester United, Villa – still under the management of Ron Atkinson – had begun to creak with an aging squad. The experienced heads that had drawn us so close to title success were now beginning to show signs of being past their prime. The subsequent struggles of the 1994-95 campaign were evidence of this somewhat waning force.
In an era before the structured use of transfer windows the squad was in need of an overhaul, but Big Ron remained trusting until the end. Despite decent results in the opening fixtures and another famous victory over Italian giants Inter Milan in the UEFA Cup, the season began to unravel by mid-September.
Last minute disappointment against Trabzonspor ended any European dreams and an awful run of 1 point from the next nine games, spelled the end for Atkinson’s popular time at the helm in mid-November.
The hiring of club legend, Brian Little from newly promoted fellow strugglers, Leicester City was a popular choice, but with Villa at the bottom of the league his task was a challenging one.
Despite initially improving things with a run of draws, Little had to wait until after Christmas for his first victory, a 3-0 triumph over Chelsea. It was during this first few months that Little would also see our League Cup defence ended by a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of tomorrow’s visitors and relegation rivals Crystal Palace.
He did begin the squad overhaul in earnest though, bringing in club legend and future ambassador, Ian Taylor from Sheffield Wednesday (a signing that has been immortalised with Taylor’s own words on a plaque outside the ground on Witton Lane). Following Taylor’s signing, he’d go on to sign other future popular figures; Gary Charles and Tommy Johnson coming in from Derby County and Alan Wright arriving later on from Blackburn.
He also oversaw the departures of key figures from the previous seasons, Guy Whittingham, Earl Barrett, Garry Parker, Kevin Richardson and Ray Houghton, with the latter joining Crystal Palace for their season run-in.
The squad was taking shape and results initially improved too, Villa climbing the table throughout January and February with 5 wins from 7 games, including such highs as our Premier League record victory (7-1 against Wimbledon) and sporadic lows like the disappointment of surrendering a 4-1 lead at home to Little’s former club Leicester.
Villa were 11th heading into March and seemed destined for a comfortable finish despite the early season worries but such is the way with Villa and toying with our emotions, that another bad run duly arrived at the worst time. By the time we faced Palace again in early April for a dour 0-0 draw, we were 13th but only three points above the relegation zone with Palace very much embroiled in the the relegation dogfight.
For Villa the goals had alarmingly dried up (why does that sound familiar?) with only 1 goal scored in 8 games (and even that an own goal against hapless Ipswich). Following a last minute defeat at Leeds, Villa found themselves agonisingly teetering just one point clear of relegation ahead of a battling Crystal Palace.
Ultimately, the season would come down to two significant results, one of which was of Villa’s own doing and the other of which we could only watch on and hope. On the afternoon of the 6th May, Villa needed a win at home to Liverpool, Palace needed the same at home to London rivals West Ham and Norwich – in complete free fall – needed to get their win at Leeds United.
Norwich would succumb to a defeat that would effectively relegate them, but with Palace mustering a crucial win at home to the Hammers, Villa simply had to win and in the form of Dwight Yorke, they found their hero.
Two first half headers from the man from Trinidad & Tobago was enough for a hugely important 2-0 victory over 5th placed Liverpool. It may have been a surprise result given Villa’s form going in, but it was a performance demonstrating the kind of character needed to stay up – and character the current squad could do with channelling.
Nevertheless, Villa’s fate still wasn’t entirely in their own hands. Villa were two points clear of Palace but they had a potentially pivotal game in hand. As with Norwich before them they needed to go to Elland Road for the victory, so Villa fans could only sit and hope for high flying Leeds to do them another favour.
Thankfully, for those of a Villa persuasion an early Tony Yeboah strike set Leeds on their way to a comfortable 3-1 victory. Villa went into the final day with their two point cushion intact and a much better goal difference.
The latter fact meant that they knew that a point at already relegated Norwich would likely be enough to retain their Premier League status. For Palace a win at Newcastle along with a Villa defeat, was the only outcome that could save them.
Villa set any nerves at ease early on in East Anglia, with Steve Staunton drilling home inside 10 minutes. Meanwhile, Newcastle were in rampant and unsympathetic mood, racing into a 3-0 lead inside half an hour and all but confirming Palace’s relegation.
With the added buffer of goal difference, even Norwich equalising through Jeremy Goss in the second half and Palace mounting a concerted effort to come back at Newcastle from 3-0 to 3-2, didn’t unduly concern the Villa faithful.
As the final whistles blew, Villa could celebrate retaining their Premier League status with Palace having to face a disappointing return to what was then the First Division. For Villa, the dangerous brush with relegation would mark a change in their fortunes and they would go on to regularly feature in the top 6 in the second half of the 90s. A status that we can currently sadly only dream of.
Palace’s visit to Villa Park tomorrow finds Villa in a very different frame of mind to that relegation battle 25 years ago. The belief and hope seem long gone for Villa now, but whilst it’s not officially over the players could do worse than looking for inspiration from previous successful battles. At the very least they should be seeking to match the efforts of their predecessors if they want to make it any kind of a fight at all in our remaining fixtures.
By Jamie Yapp