Aston Villa Fan Tales: No.6 – Villan Valentine’s Day at Highbury

This latest Villa Fan Tale provides something of a tonic to the crushing defeat by Arsenal at Wembley in the FA Cup final.  It recalls an often forgotten night at Highbury in the League Cup semi-final back in February 1996, when Villa performed a great comeback against the Gunners to set up Wembley glory.

MOMS remembers the night well, as I sneaked into the North Bank for the game and had to disguise jumping for joy at Villa’s comeback goals for fake rage at David Seaman for letting them in!

In the latest Villa tale, MOMS contributor Adam Keeble, recalls his Valentine’s Day evening at Highbury in 1996…

No.6: Adam Keeble

Introduction interview…

Why Villa?

Good question. I was raised by Spurs and QPR fans and geographically closest to Watford (my first ever game was a Watford vs Liverpool game) but I could also be found at Barnet and Wealdstone in the mid-80’s. The truth is I was inspired by the name, the colours, and mainly the players in a 6-2 win over Everton that was on the telly in November 1989 and announced the next day at school that I was a Villa fan. I had my first of many season tickets three years later and followed the team home and away.

First Villa Park match?

Villa v Leeds August 1992 – the first season in the Premier League. It was the second game of the season and Ray Houghton made his debut. Speed scored for them, Dalian Atkinson equalised.

First Villa hero?

David Platt. He took his form from the 1989-90 season to Italia ’90 and helped make it one of the best summers of my life.

Ultimate Villa legend?

Paul McGrath – of course. Any discussion of man-of-the-match during the years he played usually came with the condition: “…except for McGrath…”

I always had a soft spot for Graham Fenton – the first player to make it into the first team who was younger than me.

Favourite Villa memory?

I was lucky enough to be at Wembley for both of the League Cup final wins in the ’90’s. My favorite memory comes from the Manchester United game when Dalian scored and then ran right towards me with his tongue out as everyone around me went bonkers. My dad had money on Villa to win 3-1 that day, which was a touch too!

A Villan Valentine’s Day at Highbury

Highbury was close to full up, and most the nearly 38,000 of us inside – both Arsenal and Aston Villa fans – were in trouble.

It was Valentine’s Day, 1996, and rather than opt for a romantic dinner or a quiet night on the couch with our significant other, we were in London, “refreshed”, and in fine song ahead of the first leg of the League Cup semi-final.

If you’re reading this, Jeni, I’m sorry but I don’t regret it.

I was 21 and had come straight from the office. By the time I got to the pub my friends from Birmingham were comfortable and loud. Not unruly, but excited for the game you understand.

Sometimes I would be sent to the bar with my London accent until we were sure we were in at least a neutral pub. This place was somewhere we knew and had been to for many years before games. Of course, the majority of those were at 3 o’clock on a Saturday. Some of these Brum-based fans had been here since just after lunchtime and we started walking to the ground at 7:15. As we left, an Arsenal fan told us to make sure we came back in after the game. I don’t think they meant it.

In the corner of the stadium among the Villa faithful, the noise grew. In the 2nd round both Villa and Arsenal had dispatched lower league opposition over two legs (7-1 over Peterborough, 8-0 over Hartlepool) before repeating the feat in the third round over Stockport and Barnsley respectively. In the fourth round Arsenal beat Sheffield Wednesday while Villa knocked out Queens Park Rangers both at home. Both Villa and the Gunners were drawn at home in the quarter-finals and beat Wolves and Newcastle to reach this point.

To add to the motivation of reaching Wembley again for the second time in three years (after beating Manchester United two years earlier in the same competition), the other semi-final was between Leeds United and our big local rivals Birmingham City. Leeds had taken a 2-1 lead in the first leg at St Andrews a few days earlier. Opinion was split over whether we wanted to play City in the final. I’m sure the authorities, including those at the Football Association, would be hoping to avoid what would likely be a volatile day if it happened.

Just as the game was about to start, my mobile rang. But before I could pick it up, as was the way in 1996, my phone died. Again, I’m sorry Jeni.

Villa came on to the field wearing their Blue shirts, which never proved very popular with fans.

The line-up was Bosnich, Charles, Southgate, Staunton, Ehiogu, Wright, Draper, Townsend, Johnson, Yorke, Milosevic. Paul McGrath, Ian Taylor and Michael Oakes were on the bench.

David Seaman in the Arsenal goal was always good-natured about the taunting linked to his past as a Birmingham City player but he would start the game at the other end of the field to the Villa fans. Early on he parried some early shots rather than catch them which gave us something to sing about.
Dennis Bergkamp was in a buoyant mood though and when he linked up with Paul Merson and Ian Wright to hit one of the goals of the competition, if not all competitions that season, the Villa fans were temporarily silenced.

Five minutes later an uncharacteristic (at least of this Arsenal team – not the ones of George Graham) long ball was lumped up to Bergkamp again. Mark Bosnich was distracted getting a bog roll thrown at his goal by a celebrating Arsenal fan out of his way and Bergkamp nutmegged him to make it 2-0. A Valentine’s Day massacre was on the cards.

Before half-time though an uncharacteristic Arsenal defensive lapse, partly caused by Paul Merson trying to guide a header out of a crowded penalty area, led eventually to Dwight Yorke stabbing in at the far post and gave Villa some hope. At 2-1 with away goals counting double, a 1-0 win at Villa Park would take us to Wembley.

Half-time and the fans were anxious. Mobile phones that had a battery life of more than eight hours were rare so there were none of the scenes you see now. I chatted with some of the West Midlands police that had come down for the night and while not necessarily Villa fans themselves, they were as excited about a potential trip back to Wembley as we were.

The second half continued as the first had with one team, then the other in the ascendency. But when Savo’s cross took a deflection and fell to Yorke who headed past Seaman, the scenes in among the Villa fans were insane. To come back from two goals down (having only conceded one goal in the cup run until tonight – to lowly Peterborough) AT Arsenal WITHOUT Paul McGrath or Taylor and now actually BE AHEAD in a weird way led to pandemonium and made the fact Jeni wouldn’t talk to me until lunchtime the following day all worthwhile.

There was more to come from Villa. As captain Andy Townsend came across to take a corner in front of us, he silently and slowly pumped his fist. He believed we had Arsenal on the rack. And when a shot from the Ginger Ninja Tommy Johnson crashed off the crossbar and Yorke’s follow-up was luckily saved by Seaman the Villa fans had forgotten all about romantic evenings – they were loving every second of a great Villa comeback.

The game back at Villa Park is a story in itself, as is the final, but as well as appearing on the back page of Today newspaper the following day (if you knew where to look) it was one of those nights that made being an Aston Villa fan a rewarding experience. The team doesn’t owe me anything, but that night that gave me the memory of a lifetime.

On the bus going home, I was reading my programme when someone asked me how Arsenal got on. “It was 2-2” I said.

“Bloody Villa” he replied.

I nodded. Bloody Villa were on their way to bloody Wembley again, I thought (but didn’t say).


If you have any Villa tales, please answer the above intro five questions and then spin your tale and send it to MOMS at:

Other Villa Fan Tales here

Follow Adam on Twitter – @keebo00

Follow MOMS on Twitter – @oldmansaid