Opinion: Villa Park will remain in our hearts
Whisper the words ‘Villa Park’ to almost any match-going Red and the eyes will mist over, as visions of glory slash their way through the brain.
It has long been regarded as Manchester United’s proverbial 'second home' and, whatever your age, there’s a good chance you’ll have enjoyed a special away trip there if you’ve followed United for any length of time.
Personally, it was my very first away. My dad took me as a callow 12-year-old in 1998 to watch us draw 1-1 with Villa, who were top of the league at the time.
I’ll never forget seeing a United away end up close for the first time: the writhing, chaotic celebrations when Paul Scholes scored the opener with his left foot; the non-stop singing; the black coats that everyone seemed to wear. The intensity.
That could have happened at almost any away game, however. United’s travelling support is widely recognised as the best in the land (I heard the Times’ Chief Football Writer, Henry Winter, suggest as much only last week) and is a visceral thrill whenever you see it in full flow, up close, for the first time.
But Villa Park has something else. Something unique.
That’s why the majority of Reds were pleased to see the Villains secure promotion back to the top flight on Sunday, after they beat Derby County 2-1 at Wembley in the Championship’s play-off final.
We’ve had some great trips to Derby in recent years, but they’ve been in cup competitions, where allocations are larger. And, with respect, Pride Park cannot match Villa Park. Not many places can.
You only need to take one look at the stairway that leads up to the famous facade at the front of the Holte End to know you’ve arrived at one of this land’s most evocative footballing venues.
The stadium was designed by the legendary Archibald Leith in the late 19th century, and has been the Villa’s home since 1897. The Midlanders are one of only five teams from this country to have won the European Cup (alongside United, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Chelsea), and they were one of the twelve founder members of the Football League in 1888.
You feel that when you approach the stadium. But that’s only the half of it. Because something happens when United play at this beautiful old place.
Maybe it’s because the pitch is nearly always in superb condition, suiting the free-flowing football we’ve usually tried to play down the years. Maybe it’s down to the ground’s location – Birmingham is halfway between Manchester and London. Just far away enough to feel like a proper trip, but close enough that you can get there relatively quickly. The train links are good. It’s got plenty of great pubs. Its residents argue it’s the curry capital of the UK. It just feels exciting and lively when thousands of Reds head to Villa Park.
But mostly it’s the memories. We’ve not lost at Villa Park since 1999, and have never lost an FA Cup semi-final there, which is quite something when you consider the place has held more of those games than any other ground.
Some of our greatest matches and moments have occurred there. It’s quite a list...
Norman Whiteside’s thumping volley to fell Arsenal in the 1983 semi. A bloodied Kevin Moran thrusting a defiant fist out to the United fans as he was being stretchered off.
David Beckham sliding home the winner in our muddy 1996 clash with Chelsea (one of the few occasions the pitch didn’t live up to its reputation).
Ryan Giggs scoring arguably the greatest goal in our history against Arsenal in 1999. Hell, maybe even English football's finest-ever goal?
Solskjaer and Van Nistelrooy pouncing to reduce a 2-0 Villa lead to dust within five minutes, in a third-round FA Cup match in 2002. The pitch invasion that followed.
One of the great United away days in 2004, as Arsenal’s ‘invincibles’ are knocked out of the FA Cup by a trademark Paul Scholes blast.
Rooney and Ronaldo running wild as Watford are trounced in the 2007 cup semi-final.
And that’s before you even think about the league matches there. It was a 3-1 defeat in 1995 at Villa Park that brought forth Alan Hansen’s famous “you can’t win anything with kids” comment.
United have not lost a league match there since.
You may remember Paul Scholes’ apocalyptic cross-bar shattering volley there in 2006, and Javier Hernandez’s stooping header to complete yet another comeback in 2012, on the way to our 20th title. Or maybe Lee Sharpe sliding in to seal a brilliant 2-1 victory in 1993, in that classic black ‘Sharp Viewcam’ away kit.
After Giggs’s famous slalom in ‘99, Alex Ferguson beamed:
“Can you forget moments like this? Our supporters will be talking about that for years. The players will be talking about that for years. That’s what football’s about: trying to reach peaks and climaxes to a season like we’re doing at the moment.”
The celebrated Treble season saw Ferguson’s men reach more peaks than a Himalayan Sherpa, but Giggs’s classic should not have been too much of a shock.
Reaching peaks, and producing the sublime, is simply what Manchester United do at Villa Park. That’s why it will remain forevers in our hearts. For 1983, 1996, 1999, 2002, 2004, and 2007 and plenty more.
Congratulations to Aston Villa for their success. They are back where they belong, in the Premier League – as is their most special and beloved of stadiums.
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