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League Cup Legends: Dean Saunders

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League Cup Legends: Dean Saunders

Who was the last man to bag a brace for Aston Villa in a Wembley Final?

Villa fans old enough to remember will never forget March 27, 1994 - when Ron Atkinson’s Villa side upset the odds to triumph 3-1 over Manchester United in the League Cup Final.

The iconic victory at the old Wembley Stadium was the first of two golden League Cup success stories in three seasons for the club.

And in part II of our League Cup Legends Q&A series running this week, which relives the Finals of ’94 and ‘96, we chatted to another key figure at the centre of the action to give us the inside story.

The answer to the opening question…Dean Saunders.

First of all Dean, before Wembley, we have to take you back to the semi-final and that dramatic win over Tranmere at Villa Park?

We lost the first leg 3-1, I actually walked off the pitch relieved because Dalian (Atkinson) scored in the last kick of the game and you think 2-0 at Villa Park, that’s enough. Obviously Ron (Atkinson) was raging after the game and he’s come in and gone mad. He said we’re just lucky Dalian’s got us a goal there and it gives us a chance. We scored early on in the second leg, I got a tap-in and then Tealey (Shaun Teale) scored with a header. And then (John) Aldridge scored (it finished 3-1) and went to penalties. When I look back at my career and I look back at most teams who get to the final, there’s extra-time somewhere along the way or you’re losing at a lower league team and you end up overcoming it in a replay, it had everything that run. And then we played Man Utd in the Final!

Looking at the Final, the odds were stacked against you facing a brilliant Man Utd team who went on to win the Premier League and FA Cup that season. It’s fair to say you were underdogs going into it?

I know it’s a big statement but it’s probably one of the best teams they’ve ever had. Cantona and Hughes up front, Giggs, Kanchelskis, Ince, Keane, Pallister, Bruce, Irwin, Parker, Les Sealey in goal. What a team! Ron had to convince us that we could beat them. We went into the meeting in the hotel in London and he had their team on the board and everyone was sitting there looking at it – he shouldn’t have put it up, really… We’re looking at it thinking, how are we going to beat them?! And by the time we came out of the meeting we thought they were average, the way Ron spoke. He did his job. Genius. Graham Fenton played his first game, I played up front on my own, I didn’t particularly enjoy the game, I wasn’t involved. I scored two in a cup final, but I didn’t enjoy the game, I couldn’t get a kick of the ball! I was up front on my own and Dalian and Tony Daley were either side.

That was the set-up on the day, Ron opting to go with a 4-5-1 and a counter-attack approach…

Yeah, but it wasn’t about me, it was about how we were going to overcome it. And credit has to go to Ron Atkinson. We hadn’t practiced it, we hadn’t played that system before and we won 3-1. He left a lot of good players on the bench – Dwight Yorke, Garry Parker, Ray Houghton, Ugo Ehiogu - they didn’t start the game. We had some good players. It makes you realise how good our squad was…those players would get in most top-six sides at the time. And they’re on the bench.

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The Villa team of that time could more than match anyone. There were some great names, great players but also great characters…

It was a good team, Ron liked signing good players with pedigree. I loved it, it was the most comfortable I felt in my career. I knew what my job and my role was, I was brought in to score goals and put away the chances we created. The team created chances before I got there, I was there to finish them off and win games. I had a great partnership with Dalian, it’s sad what happened to Dalian. We’ve lost Ugo as well, we’ve lost Cyrille Regis out of that squad and Doug Ellis. We’ve also lost Jlloyd Samuel and Paul Birch, who was before me and Jlloyd was after me.

What are you abiding memories of pre-match on the day itself? Waking up at the hotel, the atmosphere at breakfast, travelling to Wembley?

Stan Boardman was on the bus telling jokes on the way to Wembley. Ron got him on, I remember. He was stood at the front of the bus on the mic, I remember Ron’s team-talk, which was genius. And I remember the first goal, I can’t remember much about the first half. And I remember all the Villa fans packed out and thinking ‘we can’t let all these fans down today. They’ve all come all the way, I know we’re playing Man Utd but what a day out for everyone if we win…’ And you remember things, I remember a fan waving to me through the fence at the end of the game, and there was a massive divot of grass from Wembley so I threw the divot over the fence and about five years later the man wrote to me and showed me a picture of his garden and he had planted that divot in his garden and staked it all off. He got a little plaque he had engraved and put Wembley 1994!

It was your flick which provided the assist for Dalian Atkinson to go clean through and open the scoring...

I remember the ball coming in to me and I just flicked it around the corner for Dalian and he’s tried to side-foot it into the corner and he’s hit it into the ground, it’s bounced through Les Sealey’s legs or gone under him and I was thinking ‘wow, what a start, we’re in front’.

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And it remained that way until 14 minutes from time when you flicked home Kevin Richardson’s free-kick and you’re 2-0 up?

That free-kick, we practiced all season and it never worked! So me and Andy Townsend go over to Kevin Richardson and I pretend I want to take it and Andy pretends he wants to take it, it’s on the left and then we both run along the 18-yard line, as if we’re just getting back in the box, and at the last second we both dive in. It went right on my foot! I got my toe on it and it went in. So that just shows you as well, that’s down to Ron. We practiced that all season and when it mattered, in the cup final, it worked.

Then Mark Hughes pulls one back and…

I’ve got to be honest, I was on the pitch thinking ‘that’s it, they’re going to get two’. I was thinking ‘oh no, we’ve got five minutes to go and they’ll get another one’.

And then…

And then we broke away and Kanchelskis got on the line and Dalian smacked it and he’s handled it, sent him off and, again, when I think back on my career there are moments when you have to have ice in your veins, and experience might have got me to this point. When I think back now, you’ve got to have clear thinking. It can be like a daze, these games. I remember thinking ‘there’s five minutes to go, their goalkeeper, what’s going through his mind?’ And it has to be - I’ve got to dive the right way. He’s looking for a clue which way to dive, a clue off my body language, if I look or my run-up. I’m thinking that he’s got to be thinking ‘this is their last chance’. He can’t stand still. So I knew he was going to dive. So I just hit it down the middle, I was thinking ‘don’t hit it too hard because it takes less time to get to him and it might catch his trailing legs as he’s diving’. You’ve got to give him a chance to get out of the way. You just take a bit off it. I pinged it about chest height so it was higher than his legs. I remember having those clear pictures in my head, I did it and I thought we’d won! Of all the penalties I’ve ever taken, that’s the clearest I’ve ever had my mind.

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It must have sparked great celebrations on the night? Was it a mixture of relief, celebration or just pure joy?

We won the game and I was just relieved because we nearly won the league (the season before) but we blew it. Dalian got injured for a long time, but we blew it. We lost the goal at Old Trafford in the last minute. I felt we should have won the league that year. It was one of those ones that slips through your fingers. To win the cup, I was just relieved we’d done it.

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Read more...

- League Cup Legends: Andy Townsend

AVFC Official
By @AVFCOfficial 26th February 2020