By Graham Lister
As Manchester United head south towards Birmingham for Saturday’s evening kick-off, manager Sir Alex Ferguson may regard it as a good omen for the Premier Leagueleaders that their destination is Villa Park. For that stadium has been one of his most productive venues during his 26 years in charge of United – a milestone he passed earlier in the week.
Indeed, since his appointment at Old Trafford in November 1986, Sir Alex has prepared United teams for 37 matches at Villa Park – and avoided defeat on 32 occasions. His record there of 21 wins, 11 draws and just five losses spans 20 Premier League games, 10 FA Cup ties, five matches in the old League Division One and two League Cup ties.
It was in the League Cup that United last lost at Villa Park – way back in October 1999 when Sir Alex rested most of his stars and an inexperienced XI were beaten 3-0 by John Gregory’s Aston Villa. Remarkably, the Red Devils have not lost a League encounter on Villa’s pitch since 19 August 1995 – the opening day of a campaign which they climaxed by clinching the Premier League/FA Cup double, despite Alan Hansen’s assertion, after that initial 3-1 defeat by Villa, that you ‘don’t win anything with kids’.
Ahead of his 38th contest at Villa Park, Sir Alex is now looking to make it 19 consecutive matches in all competitions without defeat on the ground. In Premier League away games against Villa he’s collected 42 of the 60 points on offer, and in terms of wins (12 out of 20), Villa Park is second only to Everton’s Goodison Park (14 out of 21) in the list of Manchester United’s happiest hunting grounds.
Throw in eight wins and two draws from 10 FA Cup ties – against Villa (three), Arsenal (three), Crystal Palace (two), Chelsea and Watford – and the 70-year-old has plenty of memorable moments to reflect upon.
Arguably the stand-out occasion was the last ever FA Cup semi-final replay on 14 April 1999. Three days earlier United and Arsenal – locked in competition for the Premier League title - had drawn 0-0 in a bruising, high-octane encounter that went to extra-time, and the re-match promised much. It didn’t disappoint.
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David Beckham fired United into a 17th minute lead from 20 yards, but on 69 minutes the Gunners equalised when a Dennis Bergkamp shot beat Peter Schmeichel via Jaap Stam. Arsenal were now in the ascendancy. Nicolas Anelka had the ball in the net after rounding Schmeichel, but the effort was disallowed. Then Roy Keane was sent off for a second bookable offence, before Phil Neville’s stoppage-time trip on Ray Parlour cost United a penalty.
Schmeichel guessed correctly to thwart Bergkamp from the spot, and United took full advantage in extra-time when Ryan Giggs intercepted a loose Patrick Vieira pass and ran thrillingly at the retreating Arsenal defence before unleashing a superb shot into the roof of David Seaman’s net. The 2-1 win proved the springboard for United’s unprecedented 1999 League/FA Cup/Champions League treble.
Arsenal were going for a treble of their own in the 2003-04 season when they met United again in a Villa Park FA Cup semi-final. The Gunners were invincible in the Premier League that season, but a Paul Scholes drive from 15 yards just after the half-hour mark took United to the final – where they beat Millwall.
United also overcame Chelsea in an FA Cup semi-final on Villa’s ground in March 1996, when Beckham and Andy Cole were on target in a 2-1 win. A year earlier Sir Alex’s side had triumphed at the same stage and venue against Crystal Palace. This time, though, a replay was needed. Defenders took on the responsibility for scoring with Denis Irwin and Gary Pallister getting the goals in a 2-2 draw before Steve Bruce and Pallister again clinched a 2-0 victory in the replay.
Another memorable FA Cup tie – in the third round in January 2002 – also gave Sir Alex much satisfaction. United found themselves 2-0 down in the space of three second-half minutes when Ian Taylor’s strike on 52 minutes was quickly followed by a Phil Neville own goal. However, United refused to buckle and hit back with a three-goal, five-minute spell of their own. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer halved Villa’s lead on 77 minutes, before substitute Ruud van Nistelrooy equalised in the 80th minute then grabbed the winning goal two minutes later.
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On the final day of the 1999-00 season, United visited Villa Park looking to score four goals to embellish a championship-winning campaign. In the event they had to settle for one - from Teddy Sheringham in a 1-0 victory; it was their 11th straight win on their way to retaining their title.
Beckham scored the only goal in another 1-0 win at the ground in March 2003 - one of 15 victories (three draws) in their last 18 matches of the season as United came from behind to overhaul defending champions Arsenal and reclaim their title.
Given their outstanding record at Villa Park over a quarter-of-a-century, it is perhaps surprising that United struggled to win there initially under Sir Alex. In fact it was not until the Scot’s fifth visit that he tasted victory, courtesy of a Bruce goal in a 1-0 success over Villa on 21 August 1991.
In his first match at the venue as United boss in December 1986, he had witnessed a six-goal thriller, with Peter Davenport scoring twice and Norman Whiteside once in a 3-3 draw.
Sir Alex’s most emphatic away win over Villa came on 20 October 2007, when the Red Devils triumphed 4-1. Gabriel Agbonlahor had put the hosts ahead after 13 minutes, but any hopes Villa had of ending their United hoodoo were swept away when Wayne Rooney netted in the 36th and 44th minutes, and Rio Ferdinand added a third on the stroke of half-time. A Giggs goal in the second-half ensured that United remained handily placed in second spot behind Arsenal; they went on to lift their 10th Premier League title that season.
Rooney had also scored twice at Villa Park six months earlier when Watford were beaten 4-1 in an FA Cup semi-final, Kieran Richardson and Cristiano Ronaldo also finding the net.
Rooney, with six goals, has been United’s most prolific scorer at Villa Park in the Ferguson reign; Beckham, Scholes and Ronaldo have each scored five, while Giggs and Van Nistelrooy have managed four apiece.
Two less predictable goalscorers were responsible for a famous United escape that kept their current unbeaten run against Villa going in November 2010. It took until the 72nd minute before Ashley Young – now a Red Devil, then a Villan – broke the deadlock, but only another four for Marc Albrighton to make it 2-0 to Gerard Houllier’s side. Then came the United fight back. Substitute Federico Macheda pulled a goal back in spectacular fashion with 81 minutes gone. And Nemanja Vidic completed the resurrection with the equaliser four minutes later.
United had effected an even narrower escape in August 2001, when they needed a 90th minute own goal from Villa’s Alpay Ozalan to cancel out Darius Vassell’s fourth minute opener and salvage a point.
It was the sort of turnaround that has left Villa fans wondering if and when they will ever restore home advantage against United. And the sort of resilience that has made Villa Park such a favourite for Sir Alex and his team.