December 13, 1998. Cher’s Believe was knocked off top spot in the UK singles chart after seven weeks, but Aston Villa returned to the top of the Premiership after only the briefest of hiatuses. It was a different time.
Villa had spent much of the season up to that point leading the way but had taken only two points from four games and then fell 2-0 behind to Arsenal at Villa Park.
Manchester United had leapfrogged John Gregory’s side at the summit with a 2-2 draw at Tottenham the previous day, and it looked as though perhaps the Villans’ fine run was over.
A Julian Joachim goal revived their hopes, though, and then Dion Dublin scored twice to complete a remarkable second-half comeback.
This was a milestone victory, against the champions no less, and helped ensure Villa fans would spend Christmas Day dreaming of a first league title in 17 years. It was a magical time to be a Villan.
‘Maybe Aston Villa are something more than pre-Christmas pretenders,’ The Guardian’s David Lacey wrote. ‘Certainly they are championship material if powers of recovery are anything to go by.’
John Gregory, meanwhile, said Villa, along with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, were one of four teams capable of winning the title that season. There was genuine belief we could last the distance.
Such optimism proved futile in the end, of course – a run of 10 matches without a win saw the club plummet down to sixth – but for a while it seemed as though Villa might just become one of England’s elite clubs.
Looking back, Villa’s flirtation with success in the 90s is particularly agonising given these were the formative years of the new Premier League.
Sir Alex Ferguson has spoken at length about the importance of those years as TV revenue rocketed, and once wrote he had always assumed Villa would come through as United’s and Arsenal’s main challengers.
But Villa slipped at just the moment when the gates to England’s elite were wide open, and since super-inflation on this scale will never happen again, it is a near miss that feels particularly painful.
I have watched Dublin’s winner against Arsenal back a thousand times. My VHS of the 1998-99 season is well worn. But my memory of those days had faded until recently, when Villa’s descent into Football League obscurity brought it back to mind.
Nostalgia becomes far more appealing when times are tough.
Ian Taylor, a lifelong Villa fan and key member of the Villa squad between 1994 and 2003, recalls the period fondly – but shares none of my wistful sense of a missed opportunity.
“It was such an exciting time – I couldn’t remember the last time a Villa team had gone top of the league, and we were playing really well,” he says.
“We knew we were well capable of beating any team that came to town. But we never thought about actually winning the league.
“It’s one of those old clichés, but you just took each game as it came and thought, ‘we’ll win this one and then look at the next game.’”
Nevertheless, the 3-2 victory against Arsenal was clearly a watershed moment, not just for fans such as myself but within the dressing room.
Taylor remembers the game itself in great detail but also a harrowing incident at half-time when a stunt went wrong and Nigel Rogoff, parachuting into the stadium in a Santa Claus outfit, hit the Villa Park roof and fell to the ground.
Taylor believes the accident may have had an impact on the match result.
“I remember most things in that match,” he says. “I remember it was Christmas time and quite cold, and Santa was due to parachute in at half time, which went wrong unfortunately.
“We were 2-0 down at half-time – and shell-shocked – and went into the changing rooms when it came through that there had been an accident.
“We had to stay in the changing room [for longer than the usual 15 minutes], but it gave us more time to focus on the second half and probably gave Arsenal too much time to think about being 2-0 up.
“We came out all guns blazing in the second half and blew them away. It was fantastic, and it just said to us that we could mix it with the big boys. We had mountains of confidence after that.”
But it wasn’t to last, and a dreadful second half of the season saw Villa fall like a stone to sixth.
“I think we might have had one or two injuries that didn’t help the cause, but I think we lost a couple of games and confidence went,” Taylor says. “It took the wheels off a little bit. We started lacking confidence as a team and it just fell apart after that.
“Realistically, it was where we should be. We probably weren’t a club that would go and win the league, but we’d always be in Europe, challenging for honours and for a trophy, and that’s where most fans – myself included – would expect Aston Villa to be.
“Those days we were always top six or flirting around the top, and that’s where we expected to be throughout my career.”
Whatever the reasons for Villa’s collapse and whatever your opinion of the era – a near miss just as the super-clubs were established, or the expected norm for a club of Villa’s size – the day Villa came back from two goals down against the champions, and in front of the Holte End, will never be forgotten.
By Alex Keble