Express & Star

Carabao Cup final: The day Aston Villa laughed in the face of huge odds

Villa might be huge underdogs heading into Sunday’s Carabao Cup final but supporters can take heart in their club’s history of upsetting the odds at Wembley.

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Indeed, the build-up to the showdown with Manchester City has several similarities to that of the 1994 League Cup final, in which Villa claimed a shock 3-1 win over a Manchester United team who entered the match as red-hot favourites.

Just like now, neutrals gave Ron Atkinson’s Villa little chance of turning over Alex Ferguson’s United, the reigning Premier League champions who were targeting what was then an unprecedented domestic treble.

Just as now, Villa were in dreadful form, having lost their previous league matches.

But thanks to a masterclass in the art of man-management and tactics by Atkinson – which included a surprise contribution from a famous comedian – things didn’t turn out as most predicted.

Just as now, Villa also had a boyhood supporter in their line-up. While Jack Grealish will skipper the club on Sunday, 26 years ago it was winger Tony Daley who was preparing to live the dream at Wembley.

“To call it fantastic would be an understatement,” says Daley, who had first become hooked during Villa’s 1980-81 league title-winning campaign, before signing schoolboy forms just a few years later.

The final would be one of his last appearances in nine-year senior career with the club. “It was an awesome feeling,” he continues. “When you think of the amount of professional players who never win a trophy.

“It is right up there as one of the greatest achievements I have ever had.”

Villa’s underdog status was well-earned thanks to a rotten run of league results, including a 2-1 home defeat to Oldham eight days prior to Wembley.

“No-one in the press gave us a prayer,” recalls Daley. “Man United were going for the treble. We were in terrible form.”

Villa’s route to Wembley that season, however, provided players with reason for optimism.

“It had been quite the journey,” recalls defender Shaun Teale. “We’d not been at home aside from the two-legged games against Blues and Tranmere and had beaten Arsenal and Tottenham away.

“There was also a fourth round tie at Sunderland where we were battered for most of the match but won 4-1, the craziest match I ever played in.

“It is a cliché to say our name was on the cup but I think, as players, we really started to believe it.”

Villa travelled down to London on the Thursday before the match, with players having a meal at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, to which wives and girlfriends were invited. The squad then moved to Bisham Abbey the following day to begin final preparations.

“Ron created this atmosphere the whole week and honestly, I had never felt so relaxed prior to a big game, ever,” says Daley. “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.”

Even Teale felt relaxed when the big day arrived, despite having had his nose broken in an accidental clash with goalkeeper Mark Bosnich in the final Saturday training session.

“He came out to punch the ball, missed and got my nose,” says Teale. “It hurt but there was no way I wasn’t going to play.”

Atkinson could never be regarded as a conventional manager. And he duly unleashed a secret weapon on the day of the match in the shape of his friend Stan Boardman. The Scouse comedian joined Villa’s players for breakfast before then playing a starring role on the 25-minute journey to the stadium.

“He was sat at the front of the coach and all of a sudden picked up the mic and started cracking jokes,” says Daley.

“Everyone was laughing, absolutely creasing! Of course it was unusual and I guess people might have looked and wondered is that the best way to prepare for a big football match? It turned out the answer was yes.”

“You could say we laughed our way to Wembley,” adds Teale.

Boardman might have proved his worth in relaxing the team but Atkinson’s biggest surprise - and masterstroke – came with the selection of 19-year-old Graham Fenton in his starting XI.

Fenton had only made his first-team debut a month previously, having returned from a brief loan spell at Albion.

“Graham was the one surprise in the line-up but Ron wanted an extra man in midfield to go up against Roy Keane, Paul Ince and Eric Cantona and it worked to perfection,” says Teale. “The other thing he did was move Dalian Atkinson out on to the right wing. With Dales (Daley) on the left we had pace down both flanks and were always a threat.”

Villa started well and on 25 minutes took the lead.

Andy Townsend’s pass was flicked first time into the box by Dean Saunders and Dalian Atkinson knocked the ball beyond the advancing Les Sealey to spark pandemonium among the claret and blue support.

“The goal was all about Dalian’s pace,” says Teale. “He was already five yards quicker than Steve Bruce in his head, let alone over the ground. The finish was weird as he kind of shinned it in but it was such a huge goal.”

United couldn’t find a way back, with Ryan Giggs being taken off midway through the second half. With 14 minutes to go, Saunders doubled the lead, converting Kevin Richardson’s free-kick after Daley had been brought down on the edge of the box.

“It was a training ground routine which we had only tried for the first time in training the previous day,” says Teale. “It wasn’t quite supposed to pan out the way it did in the match – but it worked! That was the first time you think: ‘Can we win this?’”

Victory was now in sight but the finish would not be straightforward. Mark Hughes stabbed home from close range to give United hope and then seemed set to force extra-time when he fired the ball toward the top corner, only for Bosnich to pull off a spectacular save.

“Bozzie was eccentric and played off the cuff at times, as my nose on the day would have attested,” says Teale.

Dalian Atkinson scoring the first goal in the Coca Cola Cup Final at Wembley against Manchester United

“But he was an incredible shot-stopper. If he had been better kicking with the ball at his feet he would have been one of the best keepers in the world at that point.”

The save from Hughes proved a defining moment. With the 90 minutes almost up, Villa broke and Atkinson, spotting the run of Daley to his left, rolled the ball into his path.

A fairytale finish in the offing, Daley hit his left-footed shot good and true but a slight touch by the outstretched hand of Sealey sent the ball on to the post.

It rebounded to Atkinson and though again a hand kept the ball out of the net, this time it belonged to Andrei Kanchelskis, earning the United midfielder a red card and Villa a penalty which Saunders hammered down the middle.

“Of course it would have been great to score at Wembley,” says Daley. “But do I think about it much? Not really.

“We ended up getting the penalty and winning the game. That was the most important thing.

“I think from the penalty going in and the final whistle there were less than two minutes played but honestly, that is when I felt most nervous. That feeling when the whistle went, I just can’t describe it.”

“There were so many emotions,” says Teale, who like Daley will be at Wembley this Sunday to roar Dean Smith’s team on. “Moments like that are why you play the game.

“Obviously Manchester City are going to be favourites on Sunday, whatever team they play. But I believe Villa can do it.”