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When Boardman gave Villa the last laugh

Martin O'Neill and Sir Alex Ferguson

League Cup final memories (UK users only)

By Chris Bevan

Maybe Aston Villa boss Martin O'Neill should take a leaf out of Ron Atkinson's book and attempt to laugh his way to victory over Manchester United in Sunday's Carling Cup final.

That's the tactic "Big Ron" employed when Villa scored a shock win over treble-chasing United to lift the trophy 16 years ago - and the joke was definitely on Sir Alex Ferguson.

You might scoff when you hear that Atkinson brought in comedian Stan Boardman - best known for gags about Germans bombing his local chippy during World War II - to relax his players ahead of kick-off but, for once, Boardman helped provide an unexpected punchline.

An early strike from Dalian Atkinson and two goals from Dean Saunders - the second coming from the spot in injury time after Andrei Kancheslskis was sent off for handling on the line - gave Villa a famous 3-1 victory and their first trophy since they lifted the European Cup 12 years earlier.

The win was a triumph for manager Atkinson, who showed remarkable foresight to ensure his players were in the right frame of mind before the game against the club where he used to be in charge.

GK Les Sealey
RB Paul Parker
CB Steve Bruce (sub B McClair)
CB Gary Pallister
LB Denis Irwin
RM Andrei Kanchelskis
CM Roy Keane
CM Paul Ince
LM Ryan Giggs (sub Lee Sharpe)
CF Eric Cantona
CF Mark Hughes

Kevin Richardson, Villa's captain that day, certainly appreciated the lengths Atkinson went to.

"Nervous energy can be a bad thing because it can drain you," he told BBC Sport. "But we had Stan cracking his jokes beforehand so the lads were just chilling rather than thinking too much about the match."

According to Richardson, it was not the first time Atkinson had tried such a tactic.

"He brought an opera singer into the dressing room once," said the former midfielder. "He would try anything different as long as it relaxed the players."

Atkinson first met Boardman on holiday in Spain in the mid-80s - "I fell over him in a bar," said the Liverpudlian comic of the encounter - and a firm friendship was formed.

It proved to a very profitable relationship for Atkinson, who used his new pal to good effect, not only enlisting his help for the 1994 cup win but also Sheffield Wednesday's League Cup success in 1991.

Ironically, that triumph also came at the expense of United.

"We had Stan with us then and it seemed to work, so I thought let's stick to a tried and tested formula," said Atkinson.

"With Villa, we had Stan at our hotel doing his routine at breakfast and then on the bus.


"He is quite a talented footballer, too, so he started doing a few tricks in the dressing room that intrigued a few of the players and maybe took their mind off things."

Boardman, a former apprentice at Liverpool who was on Tranmere's books as a teenager, naturally has some fond memories of his trips to Wembley. And he remembers the build-up to the 1994 final well.

"The journey to Wembley took us a couple of hours and I was running out of material by the end," he told BBC Sport.

"But, just as we were going through the big gates that the stadium had then, I tried to gee the players up by telling them to look at all the Villa fans who had turned out to support them.

"I said 'There's more of them here than United. They are just ordinary working people who have spent a lot of money to get down here and they want to see you win, so don't let them down.'"

The gags and words of inspiration clearly worked, but Boardman was not the only joker Atkinson had up his sleeve. A little-known Geordie teenager also played a vital role against United.

Many years ago somebody told me always celebrate when you have had a good win, so yes, we celebrated well afterwards

Ron Atkinson

Atkinson explained: "We were rank outsiders going into the game and Fergie still thinks it's the strongest team he's ever had.

"They had a very powerful midfield of Paul Ince and Roy Keane, with Eric Cantona just in front of them. We had a very good footballing midfield, but I thought we needed to match them physically.

"I'd seen United play in the week at Highbury, when Arsenal played with three up front and drew 2-2. I thought that might just be the answer.

"Graham Fenton, one of our young lads, had been doing particularly well while out on loan and had just broken into our first team, so I put him in the middle with Richardson and Andy Townsend, instead of Garry Parker or Ray Houghton.

"I put Dalian Atkinson on one wing and Tony Daley on the other, so we could attack United with pace either side of Dean Saunders.

"It worked. We had to battle to withstand their pressure, but we got off to a good start through Dalian and kept them quiet for most of the game."

Villa celebrated their victory with a party back at their hotel. Boardman was naturally one of the celebrated guests.

"Many years ago somebody told me to celebrate when you have had a good win. So yes, we celebrated well afterwards," said Atkinson.

"We stayed in London and had a nice party at our hotel with everyone involved, including Stan. It was a lot of fun."

Atkinson feels Villa's triumph should have been the catalyst for further successes, but it did not turn out that way.

"I always felt that Villa side, with one or two additions, might have gone on to eventually win the title, but it is not a regret that we didn't," he said.

"When I look back I try to be positive by remembering the good times, and that day was certainly one of those."

Sixteen years on, Atkinson will be at Wembley as a summariser for BBC WM as Villa try to repeat their 1994 win over United.

GK Mark Bosnich
RB Earl Barrett
CB Shaun Teale
CB Paul McGrath
LB Steve Staunton (sub Neil Cox)
RW Tony Daley
CM Andy Townsend
CM Graham Fenton
CM Kevin Richardson
LW Dalian Atkinson
CF Dean Saunders

To do so, and collect their first piece of silverware since the 1996 League Cup win over Leeds United, they must shackle a United side boosting an in-form Wayne Rooney and once again chasing glory on three fronts.

"It's a very similar scenario to the one we faced, everyone tipped United to come out on top," says Richardson, who is now assistant manager under Steve Staunton, another of Villa's 1994 Wembley heroes, at struggling League Two side Darlington.

"When the final whistle went, it was fantastic. We had beaten a great team and proved all the pundits and critics wrong. As captain, I was proud of the lads for putting in the graft they did."

Richardson thinks Villa can repeat the feat on Sunday.

"United are favourites again this time but Villa have got a good group of players," he said.

"They are well organised, can compete for possession, have got plenty of pace and have people who can win games. They can cope when they haven't got the ball and they are a threat when they do."

He also admits United have "one heck of a team" but says victory is not a given for Ferguson's men.

"They have got some fantastic players so Villa will have to be on their guard and play the way they are told to play," he added.

"If they can make it as difficult as possible for United then it might pay off. I just hope it's a good game. And good luck to Villa."

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see also
Aston Villa 1-2 Man Utd
28 Feb 10 |  League Cup
BBC pundits on O'Neill v Ferguson
27 Feb 10 |  League Cup
Graham Taylor's tactical analysis
26 Feb 10 |  League Cup

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