Twenty six years ago Aston Villa secured glory at Wembley – and stopped Manchester United from making unprecedented history in the process.
If there has ever been a more difficult route to Wembley than that of Aston Villa in the 1993/94 edition of the League Cup, then we are yet to see it. In round two they were paired with hated local rivals Birmingham City, but came through the tie 2-0 winners on aggregate. This was back when the competition had a very odd format, where the early rounds were all two-legged while rounds three through five were one-off games, before reverting back to two legs for the semi-final.
They subsequently secured a 4-1 win over Sunderland, before beating Arsenal and Spurs away to reach the last four. It was at this stage they were on the receiving end of a tonking from Tranmere Rovers, conceding three goals in the first leg at Prenton Park. The visitors looked down and out until Dalian Atkinson pulled one back late on, giving them a fighting chance for the return fixture.
Atkinson’s was a career of some incredible highs, such as his brilliant hat-trick for Sheffield Wednesday against Middlesbrough in the 1987/88 season, being the first black player to line out for La Liga side Real Sociedad and, most famously of all, being the first winner of the Goal of the Season award in the Premier League era.
He was a player with undoubted ability, possessing all the attributes necessary to be a star, but his story is also one of unfulfilled potential. In three seasons of Premier League football, he scored just 22 goals in 73 appearances. His decline in the mid-nineties, coinciding with increasing injury woes, came during a period when he should have been reaching his peak.
But the highpoint of his time in the game came in 1994 during that famous cup run. Despite his goal in the opening leg, overcoming the two goal deficit was still a tall order for Aston Villa. Even though Rovers were ‘only’ a Division One side, they possessed a 32-year-old Pat Nevin and ex-Liverpool striker John Aldridge, who would go on to feature in the World Cup finals for Ireland that summer.
Villa got off to an ideal start. Dean Saunders scored with a trademark run to the front post to meet an Andy Townsend cross after 18 minutes, reducing the deficit to a single goal with tonnes of time left on the clock. Five minutes later Shaun Teale – dubbed “John Wayne” by manager Ron Atkinson – fired in a diving header to make it 3-3 on aggregate, sending the home crowd to dreamland.
The cheers turned to groans just moments later, however, as Aldridge raced clear of the Villa defence into acres of space with just Mark Bosnich in goal to beat. As the Irish international bore down on goal, the Australian dove at the striker’s feet, taking him down in the process. The referee pointed to the spot, but remarkably didn’t show the goalkeeper a card of any colour, despite fouling the last man during a goalscoring opportunity.
‘Aldo’ converted from the spot and in the space of 11 minutes this match had been flipped on its head and back again. Tranmere clung on to the one-goal lead for as long as possible, but Villa were knocking on the door as the clock ticked towards 90. In the 88th minute Mark Hughes (not that one) dallied with the ball at his feet, before losing it to Atkinson, who was fouled in Tranmere’s attempts to win it back.
Villa attempted a quick free, but it was brought back by the referee. When it is taken again Tranmere were slow to react to the restart. The ball was pushed out wide, before Tony Daley crossed it in for Atkinson, who had a free header at goal. 3-1. Pandemonium ensued among the crowd witnessing a stunning comeback and one of the great days in the club’s modern history, yet remarkably there was even more drama to follow.
There was still extra-time to contend with, but before that could even arrive, Liam O’Brien hit a vicious free-kick just two minutes after Atkinson’s goal that had Bosnich scrambling. The goalie was well beaten, but the ball cannoned out off the inside of the post. Another half-inch to the right and that surely would have been the winner for the Wirral outfit. The Irishman held his hands on his head for the longest time pondering what could have been.
A late chance for Atkinson aside, extra-time was an even affair and the game went to penalties. Naturally Dean Saunders stepped up first, dispatching his effort into the goal with little fuss. The next four spot kicks were successful, before Bosnich made a terrific save from Tranmere defender Ged Brannan’s shot. Atkinson scored next to make it 4-2 and they could smell the final now.
Ugo Ehiogu just had to score the final kick and they were through. Instead the Englishman’s shot smacked off the crossbar and Rovers were given a lifeline. Aldridge took the final kick to make it 4-4 and it went to sudden death. Kevin Richardson, knowing any mistake now would be lethal, skied the sixth penalty over the bar. Luckily for him Bosnich made his second save of the shootout to keep the Villains in the tie.
Daley struck a perfect penalty right into the side netting to return the advantage back to the home team. The pressure was firmly back on Tranmere, a club who have never played in the top flight, but were potentially two kicks away from Wembley. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but left-back Ian Nolan walked to the spot with the look of a man about to receive a death sentence. Both of Bosnich’s saves had come to his right-hand side, so the Northern Irishman went the opposite way – but the ‘keeper was equal to it.
Relief and joy spilled onto the pitch as the Villa fans invaded the field, eager to celebrate the moment with their heroes. But an even bigger challenge awaited them in the final: Manchester United. The Red Devils had pipped Villa to the title the season beforehand and were on their way to retaining it, the first team in a decade to do so.
The twin factors of glory and revenge were not the only motivating factors at play, however. Big Ron was facing the team he managed for five years in the eighties, while Bosnich and Paul McGrath were also coming up against their former employer. There were also a number of former Liverpool players in the squad in the form of Steve Staunton, Ray Houghton and Saunders. If there was one game all season that this squad were absolutely desperate to win, it was this one.
As massive as the game was, Big Ron’s approach in the lead-up to the final was to have the players as relaxed as possible while keeping them focused enough to win, a difficult balancing act. “Ron created this atmosphere the whole week and honestly, I had never felt so relaxed prior to a big game, ever,” midfielder Tony Daley later said. “It was not a case of thinking this is a free-hit and don’t worry if you don’t win. But we knew there was no pressure. We went into the match believing we would win.”
One of the somewhat overlooked yet major aspects of cup final day is the trip to the stadium. On a normal matchday players would play cards, joke amongst themselves or have a sneaky cigarette down the back of the bus. But the day of a final is a different matter altogether; this is when things start to ‘get real’, the tension starts building, the pressure mounts. Some teams lose their nerve, and the game, before a ball is even kicked.
This was Big Ron’s bread and butter, though. The Liverpool born coach, who had won three cup finals in his managerial career up to that point, had a masterplan to keep his players laid-back on the journey: he recruited friend and comedian Stan Boardman to join them for breakfast as well as the 25 minute journey to the ground.
“He was sat at the front of the coach and all of a sudden picked up the mic and started cracking jokes,” said Daley. “Everyone was laughing, absolutely creasing! Of course it was unusual and I guess people might have wondered ‘is that the best way to prepare for a big football match?’ It turned out the answer was: yes.”
Villa didn’t have to rely solely on so-called gimmicks to have a shot at winning the trophy, though. At the time they had a terrific squad of players – but United’s was even better. Ferguson was determined to win it as well, fielding the strongest XI possible, although the unbeatable Peter Schmeichel, missing through suspension, was replaced by Les Sealey. It was the 36-year-old’s only start of the entire campaign.
United’s form heading into the game was poor, winning just one of the previous five league games, which shortened the 15-point lead they had once enjoyed over Blackburn Rovers down to just three. Villa’s run of form was even worse, losing three of their previous five fixtures.
Needless to say, Ron would need to get his tactics spot on in order to get the better of his successor, Alex Ferguson, but he had prior experience to fall back on. Three years earlier he had masterminded Sheffield Wednesday’s League Cup triumph over the same opposition. Unsurprisingly he employed similar tactics here.
Ferguson sent his team out in a typical 4-4-2 formation. Looking back at the names on the team sheet, it’s hardly surprising they were prohibitive favourites: Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister at the back – one of the great centre-back partnerships of the Premier League era – Paul Parker and Denis Irwin either side of them, Andrei Kanchelskis and Ryan Giggs on the wings, Roy Keane and Paul Ince in midfield, and the frightening forward line of Mark Hughes and Eric Cantona.
Big Ron made some surprising changes to deal with the threat posed by the league champions. Houghton was dropped in place of 19-year-old Graham Fenton. The pre-match graphic displayed him as the attacking midfielder in a 4-4-1-1, but in reality, he was deployed as a third midfielder to deal with Keane and Ince.
On top of that, Atkinson, who played a starring role in the previous round, was moved out to the wing. He and Tony Daley were essentially defensive wingers, dulling the potency of Kanchelskis and Giggs. The Welshman was subbed off for Lee Sharpe after 68 minutes, such was his ineffectiveness. Saunders was used a lone striker.
The decider turned out to be far more straightforward than the semi-final. United had a string of chances early on, but failed to take advantage of them. Their profligacy in front of goal soon came back to haunt them, as Villa took the lead after 25 minutes.
“Villa are coming into it a little bit for me,” Kevin Keegan said prophetically on commentary just as Saunders beautifully flicked the ball on from a Townsend pass into the path of Atkinson, whose pace left Bruce for dust. With just the onrushing Sealey to beat, the forward opens the scoring by lightly tapping the ball past the goalkeeper.
The games pattern played right into Villa’s hands with their defensive tactics, as United couldn’t break them down. Paul McGrath was rock solid as ever that day, although the Irishman later remembered his defensive partner Shaun Teale as “one of the best players on the park” in the final.
Saunders doubled the lead in the 76th minute with a training ground routine from a free-kick, poking Richardson’s low drive past the helpless Sealey. Glory was within their grasp, but United, as ever, were not dead quite yet. Mark Hughes scored six minutes later to give them hope of staging a comeback, but Bosnich was on fire that day. He made a stunning one-handed stop from another Hughes effort, confirming to everyone whose day it was going to be.
Atkinson should have had his second towards the end of the game, but his shot was saved by the hand of Kanchelskis. The Russian international was duly sent off by the referee, before Saunders secured victory by dispatching the resultant penalty. The highlight of the incident came in the commentary booth, however, as Keegan pleaded “just a yellow one, please”, while the late Brian Moore lamented “a ridiculous piece of legislation” for what was, let’s be fair, a stonewall red card.
Villa were not complaining though, as they could afford to enjoy the final few minutes of the final. “Game’s over. Nice feeling,” is how Atkinson described it. It was the fourth League Cup win in their history, making them the joint-most successful team in the competition at the time alongside Liverpool, but there was a secondary importance to the win. The result meant that United, who went on to win the Premier League and FA Cup double, were denied an unprecedented domestic treble. They never came that close to doing so ever again.
The next season Villa performed poorly, narrowly avoiding relegation on the final day. Atkinson was shipped off to Turkey that summer as manager Brian Little rang in the changes, guiding the club to fourth place in the table and another League Cup triumph in 1995/96. Aldridge later became Tranmere manager, finally getting them to the final in 2000, where they lost to Leicester City.
Sadly, three of the players involved with the teams that day left us far too early, passing away in their forties. Sealey, who also played in the 1991 final between United and Wednesday, died of a heart-attack at the age of 43 in 2001. Ugo Ehiogu (44), who wasn’t in the matchday squad, suffered the same fate while working as a coach at Tottenham Hotspur in 2017. Perhaps most tragically of all, Dalian Atkinson (48) died after being tasered by police in 2016. A police officer has since been charged with murder in relation to that case.