Date: 1st June 2012 at 3:27pm
Written by:

‘Menace in the box, good in the air
Now I can’t get up from an easy chair’

Forget your dreams of the holy grail
Read the headlines in the Daily Mail
Johnny Clarke says the same in verse
Things are gonna get worse!

Apologies for that, but Johnny Clarke has been on the telly again and I caught a nasty dose of the rhymes which have laid me low with a touch of the William McGonagalls. The symptoms of which reduce those with the disposition for rhyme and metre, to the state of Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To
The Galaxy, where he is tortured by the Vogons with their poetry, said to be the worst in the universe. Worst still, just like corporal punishment, the victims can’t wait to inflict it on other people. Its probably why Johnny Clarke took all that smack.

John is now off the horse and is back writing again, after he concluded that he’d better get some dosh together so he can afford some decent care in his dotage, rather than depend on the social care equivalent of Beasley Street. Things are going to get worse nurse, things are going to get worse.

‘Menace in the box, good in the air
Now I can’t get up from an easy chair’

John Cooper-Clarke represents the whole punk ethos to me. Just like the Pistols sang, ‘ No future’, punk’s surface negativity was actually a plea to youth to seize the moment and forget the future; a sort of carpe diem without the Latin. All the negatives added together to make a positive, at a time when youth seemed to have no future.
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Carpe diem is essential for football fans too.

As the majority of football fans know, being a fan is not about winning trophies, because that is only allowed the shrinking minority, its about those few days when things go right for your team, and in a desert of ordinariness, you are left with a rare gem to add to your store of memories.

Those days when your team beats Charlton 11-1 and Hitchens scores five goals. Those days when your team beat Liverpool 5-1. Those days when your team wins at Old Trafford.

If you are lucky you might get one such occasion in a season, maybe two, and they tend to arrive totally out of the claret and blue.

Its what keeps the real fans going to the games, even during the bad times, because the one thing they dread, is the possibility of going to every dull humdrum game and then missing the special one. And then having to live a lifetime of explaining how they missed it, like they lost the winning Lottery ticket.

Here’s one such special occasion back in November 1997, when during what turned out to be a very difficult season for Villa and Brian Little, everything came right on a wonderful night and made everything better.

My match report: Villa versus Athletic Bilbao 4th Nov 1997.

Dark damp autumnal nights bring a special atmosphere to Villa Park and like so many before it, this was a magical night of electric anticipation, with the gathered hopes and expectations of an indifferent season all resting on this one crucial match.

Fortune favoured Villa but even luck has to be built on and protected and that is what they did, to the relief of the manager and joy of the fans and players. While elsewhere the rather more glamorous Liverpool made an ignominious exit.

Staunton and Taylor were back, along with Savo. Scimeca displacing Ehiogu in defence.

This was the defensive formation Brian Little had been formulating of late and all of the wing-backs enjoyed a place in the starting line-up against a strengthened Bilbao side that had enjoyed a handsome 3-0 win at the weekend.

Villa looked from the start to play it compactly and looked most dangerous when Staunton knocked it long for Yorke and Milosevic to test Bilbao’s off-side trap. Rios looking majestic in the centre-half position, all nine million quids worth.

Milosevic had the ball in the net twice in the first ten minutes only to be ruled marginally offside by the assistant referee. His failure to respond to the referee’s whistle the second time earned him a yellow card, he having already been warned the first time. Bibao passed the ball well and the end of a good move on the right saw Wright bring down their forward in the box; it looked like he just got a touch but it was a very close call for a penalty. The Ref proved totally correct and had an excellent game; being strict but consistent.

A poor pass from Taylor released a fast flowing move from Bilbao and only a foul by Nelson halted the danger. The free-kick was in a central position and looked to be a good opportunity for the visiting Basques but the kick was charged down by the excellent Scimeca, and it went for a corner.

With extra men in midfield Villa were always in a position to counterattack and a promising move was halted when Yorke was fouled from behind by Rios, who was booked. Staunton’s free-kick was very poor and just hit the wall.

Savo was showing some of his party-pieces and was playing on the top of his form, a slick exchange with Nelson was within a hair’s breadth of creating a decent chance.

Villa were playing on the break, and Staunton’s left foot was producing some probing passes into the space on the flanks. Bilbao were playing the better football and produced some intricate passing moves that really stretched Villa. Some timely interceptions were required by Scimeca, Southgate and Staunton.

Another long ball into the corner by Staunton picked out a run by Milosevic and the big Yugoslav, swung in a hard curling cross that looked to be easy meat for the Bilbao but as he retrieved it, he was distracted by Yorke’s presence and he fluffed his handling: the ball went straight to Ian Taylor who coolly drilled it home. 1 – 0.

It looked to be Villa’s night and they began to show the sort of confidence that has been so sorely lacking of late. Milosevic produced a classy cameo when he controlled, turned and then fed Charles with a beautiful curving pass from the outside of his foot, on the other wing. At the same time Yorke seemed to be having a very quiet game and somewhere between the gash on his thigh and the sheer strength of the defenders meant he lacked his usual spark.


Villa resumed as they had left off and Milosevic continued to show his ability to hold the ball up and find people with a fine range of passes. He and Yorke produced a fine triangular passing move that set the Trinidadian up but he shot past the post. Within minutes he was fed again by Taylor and with Draper’s run pulling the defender out of position Yorke beat the goalkeeper with a clinical finish in the far corner, from the edge of the area. 2 – 0

Surely Villa must be through now but Bilbao had other ideas. For the first time in the whole match they stir the fire in their bellies and attack with unending aggression. Instead of the measured passing game, they go more direct and Villa look desperate at times. Bosnich was called upon to produce some fine saves from some good headers. For ten minutes Villa are totally on the rack and just can’t steady themselves long enough to keep the ball. Villa survive the storm and look to be getting back in the game when in yet another Bilbao attack Wright mistimes a challenge and misses the ball completely, leaving the attacker total freedom to cross the ball. Its headed clear but only to fall nicely for an attacker to volley it back in; unfortunately there was a huge deflection off Southgate and Bosnich was given no chance. 2-1

At this point it looked like Brian Little’s Villa reign hung by the slenderest thread. Villa looked unhinged and the Basque dominance in the air looked certain to bring a goal.

Bilbao were asking all the questions and they actually broke through on the right, Bosnich seemed to hesitate fatally and all it seemed to need was a cross shot onto the corner to spell disaster for Villa but the attacker failed to control it properly and he stumbled and shot into the crowd.

At this point Villa had two gilt-edged chances to seal the tie; a low cross in from Charles bypassed Taylor and found Milosevic, whose shot on the turn was saved excellently by the young Bilbao keeper, one-handed on the goal-line. And; then Milosevic set up Yorke but his ruthless streak deserted him and instead of precision he tried for a haymaker that went well over the bar.

Ten minutes from the end Nelson went on an excellent run and looked to be in on goal when he was body-checked by a defender, which led to a booking for him and a stretcher for Nelson who seemed to get a painful whack on the knee. Grayson replaced Nelson and Villa’s defending got more and more frantic. Kick it anywhere seemed their motto and the clock seemed to stop.

At last the whistle went and an overjoyed Villa swapped claret and blue for red stripes and another European epic drew to a close. Brian Little said he enjoyed it, but I doubt it; it scared me half to death.

So what a remarkable performance from a team that seems to have so many problems, on and off the pitch. This was a result of 75% sheer guts and will to win and 25% real class. Yorke’s goal was a real beaut and Savo possibly had his best game in a Villa shirt.

MOM: Some chose Savo, some chose Taylor but for me the MOM was the whole team.

This was a memorable night of European glory and the contribution to the occasion by the sporting, colourful and brilliant Basque supporters, cannot be overstated.

This was part of the UEFA Cup run which ended with Collymore’s singularly golden Villa moment, when he scored his fabulous goal against Athletico Madrid. Its funny how the memory works because the Bosnich mistake which gave Athletico the away goal, which put Villa out, is almost completely forgotten. Somehow in the joy of the moment, it hardly seemed to matter.

Equally, history records that despite this excellent run in Europe, Villa were in trouble and Brian Little later resigned.

We only remember the good times and filter out the bad.

Now that Villa are about to start a new era, it would seem rather untenable for anyone to promise glory in terms of trophies, but surely the promise of nights like these, is not too much to ask.

In the long-term its gonna get worse, but in the meantime:

Keep the faith!


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