Sunday, 27th March, 1994. 9:30am.
I had already been up for a couple of hours, pacing around the house in my Aston Villa shirt, waiting for my dad to come home from work. He’d been working all night on the railway and our taxi to take us to the train station was booked for 10am. Just before I started to lose my mind completely, he walked through the door, went straight upstairs, quick shower and shave and was ready 5 minutes before the cab turned up. Panic over.
I can still hear my mum’s voice now,
”Have you got the tickets?”
”Have you got your train passes?”
”Have you got your sandwiches?”
The answer to all of these questions was yes.
WE WERE ON OUR WAY TO WEMBLEY!!
The semi-final second leg victory over Tranmere Rovers four weeks before, has rightly gone down as one of the most dramatic matches of the 90s. Villa were 3-0 down in the first leg at Prenton Park, before a last minute Dalian Atkinson strike gave Big Ron’s men a vital away goal. The return leg at Villa Park started off superbly for the home side. Dean Saunders and Shaun Teale gave them a 2-0 lead inside 24 minutes and the final seemed in sight for Villa. Just 6 minutes later however, goalkeeper Mark Bosnich brought down Tranmere’s John Aldridge to concede a penalty and was lucky not to be sent off. Aldridge converted the spot-kick and the score line stayed at 2-1, until that man Atkinson popped up again with just two minutes of normal time remaining to head home and level the score to 4-4 on aggregate.
Extra-time was largely uneventful, but the real tension came in the penalty shootout that followed. I can honestly say that watching those penalties was one of the most stressful times I’ve ever had in my life. That might sound ridiculous now coming from a 35 year-old married man, with a mortgage and a first baby arriving soon, but when you’re only ten-years-old, football is life. I had never seen Aston Villa play in a cup final in my lifetime and now every kick was vital. The penalties had everything; Ugo Ehiogu missed a spot-kick that would have sent Villa through, then Liam O’Brien’s sudden death penalty to send Tranmere to their first major final was saved by Bosnich. And it was ultimately the Australian keeper who made himself the hero, saving from Ian Nolan – his third save of the shootout – to give Villa a first major domestic final appearance since winning the League Cup in 1977. My dad was also at work during this match, which meant I watched it on TV, on my own in the front room. My mum took a slight interest in the background, telling me later that she was ready to console me at any moment during the pens. Little did I know then, that I would actually be going to Wembley myself.
Up to that point I had only been to Villa Park twice that season. Living in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, it was difficult for my dad to get the time off work to take me, but we always had a great day out when we did go. As just two stubs wasn’t enough, there was absolutely no chance of us being able to apply for tickets for the final. It was something I hadn’t even dreamed about, as by that age I was realistic enough to know that I would be watching the final at home on ITV. Then two weeks before the match, an opportunity arose. My dad’s local pub (The Alverley Inn) had done an Easter raffle and two tickets for the 1994 League Cup final were one of the prizes. They had been donated by Barnsley defender Glynn Snodin, who was well known in the area as he had started his football career at Doncaster Rovers. Despite lots of raffle tickets being bought, my parents never won the prize, but the winner kindly offered to sell them the tickets, as he knew I was a big Aston Villa fan. Dad paid him face value of £90 for the pair, which back in 1994 was quite expensive – in today’s money it’s the equivalent to around £170-175. Luckily the price didn’t bother my dad as he had also never been to Wembley before. I couldn’t believe that we actually had two tickets to see Aston Villa vs Manchester United in the 1994 Coca-Cola Cup final. This was going to be a great day out for both of us.
We got the train down, as my dad had free train passes because he worked for British Rail. Before BR was privatised, all employees got the passes for their immediate family members, so it was a regular occurrence for us to travel to places by train. The carriage was empty on the way down, as both Villa and Manchester United supporters were obviously travelling to London from a different part of the country to us. As we approached the capital you could just see the edge of Arsenal’s Highbury ground – unlike these days where the Emirates Stadium is right outside your train window. We got to Wembley Park underground station with relative ease, arriving to the view of the famous Wembley twin towers right in front of us. Incredible.
Next thing to do was to find out where our seats were. As the tickets were from the football league instead of a club allocation, we had no idea whether we were sat with the Villa fans or in the Man Utd end. Dad asked the nearest policeman we could find and you could see in his face it was bad news before he said to us, ”Sorry lads, you’re in with the United fans.” I’m not going to lie it was disappointing. As the copper uttered those words, my dad zipped up my coat to hide my Villa shirt. We now had to be incognito. Whenever we went to Villa Park I was usually covered in Aston Villa clothing and memorabilia; shirt, scarf, hat, badges, the lot. So I think it was the shirt being hidden which actually bothered me the most. I loved that 1993/94 season Villa shirt, it was the first one my parents had bought for me. The thin blue stripes on top of a claret background was a thing of beauty to me. It’s still my favourite kit they’ve ever had. Just the fact that Muller were the sponsor made me hassle my mum to buy only Muller yogurts for the family, like we were being unfaithful to Villa if we bought any others. Haha! The things you think about at the age of 10.
We were honestly one of the first fans in the ground – a trait that followed me into adulthood. Kick off wasn’t until 5pm that day but we were in there by 3. Once we’d had a look inside the stadium, I could sense the excitement brewing in my dad. From a stadium payphone he rang my mum and he rang my grandad (his own dad). I found out later that my nana and grandad watched the game at home and spent the entire 90 mins trying to spot us in the crowd. It was the first football match they had watched since England had famously drew against Poland in 1973, failing to qualify for the World Cup.
As we had time to kill, we found our seats. Wow! No wonder they were the most expensive tickets going, we were on the opposite side to the dugouts, bang on the halfway line, about 7 rows from the front. With this view I found myself imagining the goals I had seen there on TV over the years. Geoff Hurst’s famous 1966 World Cup final ‘on the line’ goal happened to my right. Ricky Villa’s amazing solo goal for Spurs in the 1981 FA Cup final took place to my left. I was in awe of this stadium.
A few minutes later the team news arrived over the tannoy. Everything seemed normal with the Aston Villa side, until I heard, ”Number 25, Graham Fenton.” GRAHAM FENTON?? He was a 19 year old lad who had only played a handful of first team matches and now he was starting in a major cup final! Ron Atkinson had dropped Ray Houghton and gone for five in midfield, pushing Dalian Atkinson out to the right wing, allowing Fenton a free role behind Dean Saunders. I can remember some of the United fans around me laughing, saying it would be a walk in the park now. They had no idea that Big Ron had just played his ace in the pack.
At kick off, the sell out crowd were now in the ground and we were completely surrounded by the Manchester United fans. As everybody stayed on their feet when the match started, I had to stand on my seat to see what was going on – a viewing position that I had to continue with all game. The seats at the national stadium had no backs to them, so numerous times during the 90 minutes I fell into other people, especially when the goals went in.
Villa had lost their previous three league matches leading up to this final, so to say I was worried about getting beat by the English champions that day was an understatement. I was, however, pleasantly surprised as Villa started the stronger of the two sides, with United unable to get their free flowing football going. And on 25 minutes, Villa opened the scoring. Neat play between Andy Townsend and Saunders, led to the striker looping the ball over the United defence into the path of Dalian Atkinson, who flicked the ball with the outside of his foot, past United keeper Les Sealey – regular goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel was suspended. I was stunned, to the point where I never said a word and just looked toward the Villa fans on my left who were naturally celebrating like crazy. What was very apparent though, was the amount of Villa fans in the Manchester United end, just like me and my dad. They were scattered in and around us and were being shouted at by angry United supporters. I didn’t care, Villa were 1-0 up. Could we actually do this??
Half time came and went, but was this was Manchester United we were playing, king of the last minute goals, so Villa needed a second. However, the second half had very much the same pattern as the first, with United looking lethargic and Villa playing on the counter-attack. You could tell Alex Ferguson was panicking in the dugout, bringing on Lee Sharpe for Ryan Giggs after 68 mins was a statement he wasn’t happy for sure. Then just 8 minutes later, the unthinkable happened. Villa were given a free kick on the corner of the box, following a foul on the energetic Tony Daley. Kevin Richardson swung in the set piece, which was turned in by the outstretched leg of Dean Saunders. OH MY GOD!! I couldn’t help myself this time, I was cheering and getting several disgusted looks from the United fans around us. Not even my dad could calm me down. Selfish really when looking back, as that could have been a hairy moment for him, but I was a young boy who was seeing his team beat the champions of England in a major cup final. This was unreal. My joy soon stopped when in the corner of my eye I saw a commotion – a fellow Villa fan was hit by a United supporter. He was with his wife as well, who was screaming ‘Stop it!’ at both men, before a bunch of stewards came and escorted all of them out of the ground. That was definitely the worst moment of the day.
From that second goal, United were all over us. Villa brought on Neil Cox for Steve Staunton as fresh legs, but with just seven minutes remaining the inevitable happened. The Villa defence failed to clear a corner and Mark Hughes poked home a goal at the second attempt – cue pandemonium in the United end. As a young lad, I can only describe that moment as like being swallowed up by a sea of red. I was knocked off my seat by the elated fans and it took a minute or so for me to see the pitch again. When I did get my view back, I saw that United were making a substitution. On came striker Brian McClair, for centre-back and captain, Steve Bruce! Make no mistake, the Red Devils were going for this now. It was backs to the wall stuff for Villa and we just could not get the ball out of our half. So much so that with just two minutes left, Mark Bosnich had to make a world class save from another Hughes strike, tipping his effort round the post.
The last ten minutes seemed like an hour, every five seconds I was looking up to those old illuminated Wembley scoreboards, like it was going to make the time go faster! From that outstanding Bosnich save, Villa countered again and with United’s defence depleted, the game was wrapped up. Daley’s excellent left foot shot came back off the post straight to Dalian Atkinson, whose strike towards goal was handballed on the line by United winger, Andrei Kanchelskis. Despite his teammates protests, referee Keith Cooper pointed to the spot and Kanchelskis was given the red card. At this moment United fans around us were completely dejected. Some were even walking out before the penalty was taken. Saunders stepped up and smashed the ball past Sealey, right down the centre of the goal. Another cheer automatically came from within me, an even louder one than the second goal. At this point my dad didn’t even try and stop me. He let me have my fun now regardless of any consequences, as he knew this was a once in a lifetime moment for me.
Hundreds of United fans were now heading for the exits. On the full-time whistle one of them actually came up to my old man on his way out and shook his hand. ”Well done mate, you deserved that”, he said. That was a very kind gesture from a clearly disappointed fan, who could have quite easily hurled abuse at us. My dad has never forgotten it. I got to see captain Kevin Richardson walk up those 39 Wembley steps to lift the League Cup trophy just before we left. It was a sight I had doubted I’d see many times during that day. Unforgettable. As the United supporters had all scarpered, when we got out of the stadium we were able to walk back up Wembley Way towards the underground station with the Villa fans. My shirt was out in full force then. We were amongst them singing all the way back to Kings Cross. When we jumped on the train back up to Doncaster we were absolutely knackered. Bless my poor father, who because I fell straight to sleep, was unable to even get any kip on that journey in case we missed our stop. Over 40 hours that man had been awake by the time we actually got home.
So I must end this by thanking my dad, Merv. Twenty-five years ago today, despite being severely sleep deprived and out of pocket, he gave his 10-year-old son the best day of his young life. x
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