Summer 1987. Like in 2016, we’d been relegated as the worst team in the top flight. Promoted 12 months later on goal difference, Villa were back and looking to re-establish themselves amongst the very best.
A lot like today.
During summer 1988, strikers Warren Aspinall and Neale Cooper were sold, clearing the way for Alan McInally to step up as first choice target man. Manager Graham Taylor brought back Gordon Cowans from Italian side Bari, and full back Chris Price arrived from Blackburn.
West Ham had been in the top flight since 1981. Largely finishing below mid table, they’d had a fabulous season in 1985-86, when they finished 3rd, just 4 points behind Champions Liverpool. Frank McAvennie and Tony Cottee both scored over 20 goals. They’d quickly returned to mediocrity, however, with McAvennie leaving for Celtic in October 1987. When Cottee joined Everton in Summer 1988, the Hammers looked set for a season of struggle.
We began our season with a 2-2 draw against Millwall at Villa Park, then a brilliant 3-2 victory over Champions to-be Arsenal at Highbury. A 1-1 draw against Liverpool in front of 41,000 followed. Villa looked good as we prepared to play West Ham at Upton Park.
Prior to the Villa game,The Hammers themselves had an dodgy start. They began with a 4-0 humbling at Southampton, a young Matt Le Tissier on the scoresheet. They’d then lost 3-1 at home against Charlton before an unexpected 1-0 win against notorious spoilers Wimbledon at Plough Lane.
Villa started well, and two goals from Alan Mcinally put us two up by half time. West Ham came roaring back in the second half, and got lucky when a chip from Alan Devonshire hit the post and rebounded in off Villa debutant Derek Mountfield. Three minutes later a mix up in the Villa defence allowed David Kelly to equalise. With defensive errors rife, Both teams had further chances but the final score was 2-2.
After the Hammers’ game, Villa were inconsistent but fairly comfortable. Season highlights included wins over Everton and Spurs, also a draw at Old Trafford where we must have took 10,000 fans. We also beat high-fliers Norwich 3-1 at Villa Park. On the flip side, consecutive defeats against Southampton, Derby and Coventry showed there was much work to be done. A 2-1 win over QPR on Boxing Day saw us a comfortable 10th in the table. The defence seemed dodgy but we’d found a new star in Alan McInally, who was the division’s top scorer with 19 goals. David Platt and Tony Daley were also coping well with top flight football.
In true Villa style, it all went south from there.
A 3-0 home defeat against Arsenal on New Year’s Eve began a run of two wins in 14 games. Mcinally’s goals had dried up and our defence was still leaking goals. Low points included a 4-0 defeat at Forest in the pouring rain, and a miserable 2-1 home defeat against fellow strugglers Charlton.
On 25th March it was the return fixture with West Ham at Villa Park. The two sides had met in the League Cup Quarter Finals in January, the Hammers winning 2-1 before being beaten in the semis by eventual winners Luton. Their season had been a poor one so far, and they were bottom of the pile with just 4 wins from 25 matches.
The match was a low quality affair, with neither side looking good. Just before half time, a young Paul Ince picked up the ball in his own half and ran at the Villa defence. With no one putting a challenge in, Ince let fly from 30 yards, the ball screaming past Villa goalie Lee Butler into the top corner. We huffed and puffed during the second half but never looked up to scoring. At full time West Ham celebrated like they’d won the league whilst us Villans were well aware our team was in big, big trouble.
The defeat seemed to give Villa a jolt. We played well at QPR on Easter Saturday but lost to an Andy Sinton strike. On 1st April we were at home to perpetual strugglers Luton. Goals from Tony Daley and Ian Olney gave us a 2-1 win, our first since January. Seven days later we overcame Newcastle 2-1 at St James’ Park and things began to look up.
The following weekend Villa didn’t play. It was the FA Cup Semi-Finals and in those days Villa Park was in constant use as a neutral venue. The 13 year- old me spent the morning playing football on a nearby field. It was a hot day so I’d returned around 3pm for a drink and a snack. Eager to stay in touch with the days’ action I switched onto Grandstand, which for you youngsters was like an early version of Soccer Saturday. Tucking into a bowl of Frosties, I looked up as the presenter mentioned some problems at the Hillsborough semi. As the now familiar images appeared in front of me, I couldn’t make out the situation. As a footy-mad 80s kid I’d seen Heysel, Bradford and various riots on screen so was well used to issues at football matches. This didn’t look like anything I’d seen before. Pretty soon Liverpool fans appeared flashing untouched tickets, they were certain at least 50 people were dead. What the hell had happened?
As the enormity of the disaster unfolded, thoughts of Villa and our relegation battle faded to nothing. For a day or two it was unclear the season would even finish. As the week progressed it was decided games would continue for clubs not directly affected. The season would be elongated to allow Liverpool, Forest and Sheffield Wednesday to fulfil their fixtures.
So just a week following the disaster, Villa returned against Norwich at Carrow Road. Our friends from Norfolk were having a great season and were still in the title race. Unsurprisingly, Norwich found themselves 2-0 up by half time. Villa fought back in the second half, with goals from Ian Olney and Alan McInally gaining us an unexpected point. We were now six points above the drop zone, another win and we were probably safe. It all felt strangely unemotional after Hillsborough but it was nice to see us doing better.
This being Villa, we immediately set about making life harder. Against Middlesbrough at home, we fell behind and looked set for another disappointment. I was fed up and persuaded Dad to leave early. As we left the ground a roar went up, a last gasp Stuart Gray header had saved us. Dad was furious he’d missed the goal, but being a delightful teenager I laughed and told him to cheer up.
Fortunately, Dad had calmed down by the following Wednesday, then probably wished he hadn’t bothered as we lost 2-1 at home against Southampton. Two down after 10 minutes, we‘s even conceded a header against Rod Wallace, who is about 3 feet tall. Another defeat at Derby a few days later (where dad’s white vest and white trouser combination attracted some friendly banter-sorry dad) and we were back amongst the real strugglers.
While Villa were wobbling, West Ham were constructing their own great escape. 10 points adrift by mid April, the Hammers won 4 in a row to haul themselves close to safety. Going into the final weekend (for Villa) we were 4 points above West Ham, but they had two crucial games in hand. Both these games were to be played after the ‘final’ weekend, giving the Hammers the advantage of knowing exactly what they’d need to survive.
Our final game was at home against Coventry. We knew a win would be enough to guarantee safety. Villa started brightly, and when David Platt shot high into the net the Holte End erupted. We looked nervous in the second half, and with 20 mins to go David Speedie flicked a header past Nigel Spink for the equaliser. We couldn’t find a winner so at full time everyone was glued to their radios to discover our fate. The news was good. Middlesbrough had lost and were down, and West Ham were beaten 3-1 at Everton. This meant they had to win both their games in hand to send us back to the second tier.
The Hammers’ first game was at Forest. Brian Clough’s boys were 3rd in the table and expected to win. No one seemed to have told West Ham, who took the lead through a Leroy Rosenior header after just 22 seconds. Ten minutes later it was 2-0, Rosenior again heading home. Lee Chapman pulled one back for Forest before half time but they couldn’t grab another. West Ham were now just two points behind Villa with one game to go.
Against Liverpool at Anfield.
In an astonishing display of professionalism, Liverpool had remained in the title race after Hillsborough. Following an emotional return on 3rd May, they’d played 6 games in 17 Days before the Hammers fixture, winning all but one. The previous Saturday had seen them win the FA Cup and luckily for Villa had West Ham between them and the now legendary title decider against Arsenal.
Despite all this, West Ham dominated the opening exchanges. Liverpool looked sluggish and we at Villa were worried the emotional and physical toll of the last two months was showing. Our worries calmed slightly in the 20th minute when John Barnes crossed for John Aldridge to fire the reds ahead. Undeterred, West Ham continued to press and a few minutes later Rosenior rose to power home a Mark Ward cross. 1-1 at the break, we were concerned by West Ham’s excellent form, surely they couldn’t win?
The second half was even until the hour mark, future Villan Ray Houghton skipped through the Hammers defence and put Liverpool ahead. West Ham battled bravely but we relaxed on 80 minutes as Houghton scored again after Beardsley had robbed Julian Dicks on the right. Sensing blood, Liverpool scored twice more. West Ham were down and Villa were saved.
It had been a phenomenal effort from the Hammers, if they’d played any other team I think we’d have been doomed.
Following relegation, West Ham spent 2 seasons in the second tier before promotion in 1991. Villa would challenge Liverpool for the title in an incredible 1989-90. It seems like the right team stayed up.
Like this season, the teams in the drop zone were actually no worse than us, but we’d somehow found the will to haul ourselves clear. Sunday will be hell for us Villa fans, but whatever happens it’ll be what we deserve.
Because the final table doesn’t lie.