1998-99, Aston Villa’s forgotten title challenge
With Aston Villa seemingly doomed to relegation after several seasons of struggle, it’s hard to imagine them as potential Premier League title challengers, let alone past winners of the European Cup. And yet in the first decade of the Premier League, they finished in the top 10 in nine seasons, and in five of those, they finished in the top 6, the best finish being as runners-up in the first Premier League season, 1992-93.
However, their last actual title challenge was 1998-99, and it has become somewhat overlooked in the annals of recent football history, mainly because of the incredible circumstances of what was a classic season for English football. Everyone remembers it as the year where Manchester United completed the first Treble, narrowly edging Arsenal in the Premier League by 1 goal, winning the FA Cup after beating the Gunners in the famous semi-final replay, and That Night in Barcelona. But it was perhaps the greatest season of Premier League action beyond that.
People talk about how wonderful the 2011-12 season was – and there’s no doubt it was a great year. But dubbing it the greatest Premier League season is undoubtedly recency bias. Even you exclude pre-1992 seasons, 1998-99 was far more competitive and had a higher overall standard relative to the time. Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea finished just 3 points behind United and Arsenal, while Leeds, who had lost George Graham to Tottenham during the season, were 11 points off the pace by the end. And then a bit of a chasm.
This is perhaps why we forget Villa’s role in this season. If you look at the final table, there’s no clue as to why one might include them as title challengers, and they become easily swept away in the grand narrative. But the fact is they were top of the table at Christmas, and still 2nd when February arrived.
Some context: Villa were coming off the back of finishing 7th in 1997-98. However, they might have finished higher but for a dreadful first half of the season which saw them lie 15th in February. Brian Little resigned and was surprisingly replaced by former Villa player and coach John Gregory, then the manager of Division Two side Wycombe Wanderers. Under Gregory, the team won 10 of their last 14 to surge up the table into a UEFA Cup spot, with star striker Dwight Yorke proving to be particularly influential.
The new season dawned in August with intense interest in Yorke from United, who were looking to strengthen their front line after losing the title to Arsenal the previous season. Eventually he would be sold for £12.6 million, seemingly ending any hopes Villa had of building on their promising form. For now, they would have to lean heavily on Julian Joachim and youngster Darius Vassell.
Even so, things started pretty well. Villa were unbeaten in their first 12 games, breaking the club record; this included wins over Newcastle, local rivals Coventry and Tottenham. Their first defeat came on 21st November, a 4-2 loss at home to Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool in which Robbie Fowler scored a hat-trick and Stan Collymore was sent off against his former club. However, United and Arsenal lost the same weekend, so they retained their lead
By this point, Villa had strengthened significantly. The money from Yorke’s sale was put towards the purchase of Paul Merson from Middlesbrough and Dion Dublin from Coventry, and this new attack had begun to produce plenty of goals, even if defensively they were a little shaky.
The loss to Liverpool was the start of a four-game winless streak, which saw a 2-2 draw with struggling Nottingham Forest, a 1-1 draw with Manchester United, and a dramatic 2-1 loss to Chelsea, with Tore Andre Flo scoring the winner in stoppage time in what seemed to be a key result in the title fight. United drew with Spurs to briefly go top, but Villa overtook them again by coming from 2 goals down to beat Arsenal 3-2 at Villa Park on 13th December, with Dublin grabbing a late winner in one of the most sensational games of the season.
A draw between United and Chelsea on 16th December, and a win at Charlton on 21st gave them Villa top spot on Christmas Day, though they would drop to 2nd behind Chelsea on Boxing Day after Tim Sherwood (of all people) scored an 88th-minute winner for relegation-battling Blackburn; goalkeeper Michael Oakes had earlier been controversially sent off for handling outside the area, with the officials’ decision described as by Gregory “a monumental error”. Sherwood would score another 88th-minute winner against Villa later in the season, this time for Tottenham at White Hart Lane in March.
Nonetheless, they were back top again soon after a further win over Sheffield Wednesday and another draw between Chelsea and United, leaving them two points clear at the end of 1998. But a 0-0 draw against Middlesbrough on 9th January saw them lose their grip on the lead for the last time this season.
The 3-0 win over Everton on 18th January saw them seemingly maintain positive momentum: it was their 22nd league game of the season, with a record of 12 wins, 7 draws and 3 defeats so far. In his first full season as manager, Gregory was looking like a minor miracle worker, and probably a contender for the England job which was soon to become available.
The week after, they crashed out of the FA Cup at home to Kevin Keegan’s Fulham (en route to winning the Division Two title), sparking one of the most spectacular collapses in recent English football history. They promptly failed to win their next 10 league games, losing 7 of their next 8. In this period, they dropped from 2nd to 6th and any hope of sticking with United, Arsenal and Chelsea vanished. Their record over the last 16 games of the season was 3 wins, 3 draws and 10 defeats. Ouch.
Nowadays, that sort of run would spell the end of a manager, but Gregory retained his job, lasting until January 2002. But never again would he look capable of masterminding a Premier League title challenge; instead, history probably judges him the same way we’ll be judging Brendan Rodgers in ten years’ time.
Similarly, this was probably the peak for Dublin, an Indian summer for Merson, and the best it got for several other players in the squad. Though they would again finish 6th in 1999-2000, this would be 33 points behind Manchester United. It soon became clear that 1998-99 had been their big chance.
But if there are lessons to be learned from this, it’s that a) history is written by the winners, and Aston Villa, not being winners (in 1998-99 and in general), have been erased from the narrative because they didn’t win, and b) it’s still possible for a team to totally unravel in January and February, even if they have spent the last six months looking like a team capable of winning the Premier League.
So for those of you still banking on Leicester falling apart for your team to win the Premier League or even make the top four, there’s still plenty of time.
Aston Villa Overall XI, 1998-99 (based on most appearances)
Goalkeeper: Michael Oakes
Sold to Wolves in October 1999 for £500,000 after David James was brought in to replace Manchester United-bound Mark Bosnich. Only played half a season in the Premier League with them in 2003-04. Retired after a season with Cardiff in 2008.
Right-Back: Steve Watson
Premier League stalwart Watson would later join Everton in 2000, for whom he would make 125 league appearances. Retired in 2009 after stints with West Brom and Sheffield Wednesday.
Centre-Back: Gareth Southgate
Club captain and a 57-time England international. Left Villa in 2001 after earlier submitting a transfer request in expectation of signing for a bigger club; he ended up at Middlesbrough, where he would finish his playing career and start his managerial career. Now England U21s manager.
Centre-Back: Ugo Ehiogu
Also left for Middlesbrough in 2000 after 237 league appearances over 9 years for Villa. Later stints for Leeds, Rangers and Sheffield United before retiring in 2009. Now Tottenham U21s manager.
Centre-Back: Gareth Barry
Started his career as a defender but eventually moved into midfield to become one of England’s best defensive midfielders. Left Villa for Manchester City in 2009 after 441 competitive appearances. Now at Everton. 53 caps for England over 12 years. The only member of this team still playing professionally.
Left-Back: Alan Wright
One of the shortest players in Premier League history at 5-foot-4. Made 260 league appearances for Villa until 2003, when he also left for Middlesbrough. Later career disrupted by injury but still found his way around several Championship clubs before finishing his career at Fleetwood Town in 2011.
Centre Midfielder: Ian Taylor
Made 235 league appearances for Villa and became a cult hero for the club before leaving for Derby in 2003. Finished his career in 2007 in League One with Northampton.
Centre Midfielder: Lee Hendrie
A one-time England international in 1998, he spent over a decade at Villa before leaving in 2007 after 308 competitive appearances. He then headed to a succession of Championship and lower league clubs and briefly to Indonesia before retiring from pro football in 2013, although he continued play part-time. Famously declared bankruptcy in 2012.
Attacking Midfielder: Paul Merson
After joining Villa at 30, Merson made over 100 appearances before leaving for Portsmouth in 2002 where he helped lead the club back to the Premier League. He later joined Walsall where he became player-manager until being sacked in 2006. Now a well-known face on Sky Sports.
Striker: Julian Joachim
Lasted at Villa until 2001 when he was part-traded to Coventry City for Mustapha El Hadji after the Sky Blues’ relegation. After a largely unsuccessful stint there, he joined Leeds, followed by stints in the lower leagues with Walsall, Boston and Darlington. Still playing in the semi-pro leagues until fairly recently.
Striker: Dion Dublin
Was reportedly on the verge of being sold in late 1999 but suffered a serious neck injury which could have easily ended his career. He fought back and eventually left in the summer of 2004 after nearly six years at Villa Park, joining Leicester, Celtic and Norwich, where he won the Player of the Year Award in 2008 after his last season. Often appeared as a centre-back in later years. Now a TV presenter and inventor of a musical instrument, the Dube.