My Favourite Villan: Nick Clitheroe on Paul Birch
There are two types of football heroes.
First are the players who are so good you set off to every match with a spring in your step at the very thought of watching them. But they don't come around very often so it's just as well there's another type too.
These are the players who endear themselves with their heart but also possess that little something extra.
It's hard to define; different fans see it in different players but you know it when you see it. Paul Birch was that player for me.
He had a scurrying run, worked like a Trojan and scored spectacular goals. But that wasn't all.
He just seemed to love playing football, with the same enthusiasm you or I would show if we ever ran out at Villa Park.
Two incidents stand out in my memory. Seeing Birchy sitting among the Villa fans at the Baseball Ground for Tony Cascarino's debut in 1990 is one. He wasn't in Graham Taylor's title-chasing team that day but he came along anyway.
The other was his good-humoured reaction at Millwall's terrifying old Den when the home fans greeted his every touch by chanting "Pauline" at a player who stood out for his long blonde curly hair.
But there is one game which ensures his place in the affection of every Villa fan.
The Inter Milan side which arrived at Villa Park in October 1990 included three of the stars of the German national team which had just won the World Cup, plus some of Italy's finest.
It's hard to put into words just how incredible the atmosphere was that evening. The 2-0 win will be treasured for Kent Neilsen's stunning goal and the telepathic understanding that allowed Gordon Cowans to set up David Platt for the second.
But there was another reason Villa won that night. Lothar Matthaus had been the star of Germany's World Cup win. He was a marauding goalscorer from midfield with boundless athleticism and at the peak of his game.
Joszef Venglos gave Paul Birch the job of competing against him. The German had left international midfielders whimpering in his wake just a few months earlier but was reduced to the merely ordinary that night. If you look in the football dictionary under "in his pocket" Birch's marking of Matthaus will be top of the list.
Of course Villa went on to lose the tie on aggregate but that shouldn't dilute the glory of the first leg or Birch's performance.
It's not always a great idea to meet your sporting heroes but I played alongside Paul in a charity game a few years later. Delightfully he was as nice and down-to-earth as I imagined.
It just makes it all the more distressing that we lost Paul to cancer at just 46.
He's my favourite Villan and I trust Paul Birch will always be remembered when fans recall the night a lad who came through Villa's youth system tamed the man who lifted the World Cup.
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