Great Football League Teams 32: Aston Villa, 1987-88
Poor Graham Taylor. Forever criticized for his bewilderment at people not being able to ‘knock it’ and taking on the impossible job, his career trajectory more than stands scrutiny but, even when winning, the praise he is damned with is feinter than feint — ‘a dull long ball merchant, out of his depth in more rarefied climes and the personification of English football’s problems’.
Take the Aston Villa for whom he assumed control back in May 1987. Relegated after a sole season of Billy McNeill’s stewardship, the second citiers had somehow slid into Division 2 but half a decade after finishing as Europe’s top club. Taylor took them back at the first attempt but even then, the evidence mounts against him.
First, he populated the team with workhorses. The cultured Tony Dorigo and Paul Elliott had departed for Chelsea and Bari respectively, to be replaced by Kevin Gage and Steve Sims, students of Wing Commander Charles Reep’s methods. With fellow journeymen Mark Lillis, Malcolm Allen, Paul Birch and Stuart Gray also installed, it was clear that Taylor wasn’t going to stand on ceremony — a fact evidenced by his jettisoning of Mark Walters to Rangers half way through the campaign.
Second, the club benefitted from extraordinary luck at the death. With nails severely chomped on throughout a final day 0-0 draw at Swindon’s County Ground, closest challengers Middlesbrough and Bradford both contrived to lose at home — the former 2-1 to Leicester and the latter 3-2 to Ipswich. Villa had sneaked up almost apologetically just as they had clinched the Division 1 title in defeat back in 1981.
Third, results throughout the season were patchy. Less than scintillating 1-0 wins over Shrewsbury and Bradford were the only victories in a nervy run of seven games at the end, bitter rivals Birmingham City came to Villa Park and won 2-0 in the first home game and all was played out in front of the decade’s typically listless attendances — 13,413 welcomed Reading, 12,621 paid to watch Barnsley.
Fourth — and to return to the journeymen theme, the club’s two top scorers were Warren Aspinall and Garry Thompson, both amassing the princely total of 11 goals. No Villa player finished among the division’s leading marksmen — a litany that admittedly included such luminaries as Ian Wright, Mark Bright, Paul Stewart, Andy Ritchie, Jimmy Quinn and Bernie Slaven, as well as Millwall duo Teddy Sheringham and Tony Cascarino — the Lions were to finish comfortably as Champions after a buccaneering late run (to read more on this, I refer you to fellow blogger Stanley’s post, the thirteenth in our Great Teams series).
But if Taylor’s troops infringe the Trade Descriptions Act when one tries to label them ‘Great’, there was at least a kernel of greatness at the heart of their efforts.
If the core of the team relied on effort primarily, a subsection of younger players pointed to a future that would see the team ascend to second place in the land just two years after this season finished. 21 year old Martin Keown played all but the final two games and was a revelation, hinting strongly at the career to come; Tony Daley, a tender 20, provided the wing magic that Walters’ departure promised to deprive them of and Alan McInally imported his forceful front play from Celtic.
Nor was the manager content to leave things static during the proceedings — Andy Gray joined from Crystal Palace — his energetic defensive midfield screenings lending him the air of a player of the future — and indeed, both he and Daley were to accompany their mentor to the portals of Team England the following decade. With Simon Stainrod loaned out to Stoke, Taylor replaced him with the biggest coup of all — a 21 year old from Crewe Alexandra called David Platt joining for the season’s denouement and quickly plundering 5 goals in 11 appearances.
The combination of seasoned old pros and raw young talent, with hero of Rotterdam Nigel Spink surveying all from behind, was actually masterfully constructed and, if Villa were rarely pretty (how could they be with that unlovely strike pairing of Aspinall and Thompson?), they looked terrifically robust in two away matches I saw them win that Spring — at Elm Park and Maine Road.
That win in Moss Side was one of the highlights, along with a Walters hat-trick in a 4-1 thumping of Palace and a double from Thompson in a sweet revenge mission at St. Andrew’s in December. Indeed, five winning matches in the January kept the Villans in contention and if bums were squeaking in Wiltshire in May, a heartening 3-2 away win at Arsenal in a game I also attended the following August confirmed the promotion season’s promise.
For a long time, it was asserted that ‘playing football’ would never be enough to ensure elevation from English football’s second tier and various clubs down the decades have taken this as gospel – the very first of our Great Teams – the Leeds United of 1989-90 – are a case in point. At the time, the long ball was a significant heresy within the game and Villa were one of the first ‘big clubs’ to deploy it.
But Brendan Rodgers, Paul Lambert, Tony Mowbray, Chris Hughton and others have put an end to all that and, even then, there was far more to Aston Villa than the hard fought victories on muddy pitches would imply.