Who’s the greatest?
THE recent past has brought back vivid memories of the greatest football highlights of my 50 years working in the Midlands.
Recently I was due to host a dinner with all the members of the Nottingham Forest teams that won back-to-back European Cup finals in 1979 and 1980. The occasion was being staged in front of more than 300 people at the Nottingham University campus.
And then I also found myself in the same hospitality room as several of Aston Villa’s 1982 European Cup winners as Villa took on Leicester City.
They were goalkeeper Nigel Spink, defenders Kenny Swain and Allan Evans, midfielders Des Bremner and Gordon Cowans, striker Gary Shaw and the substitute Colin Gibson.
Gatherings of this kind are probably going to get rarer because the riches of the Premier League has brought an influx of overseas players.
However, it’s great that the Coventry City team that won the 1987 FA Cup final still meet most years.
Sadly the managers of those four great triumphs are no longer with us – Brian Clough and Peter Taylor at Forest, Tony Barton at Villa (plus Ron Saunders who played a major part in setting it up) and Coventry’s John Sillett, who passed recently.
Picking outstanding players during my watch needs a whole newspaper let alone one or two columns! But try to pick some I will, and I’d welcome readers to add to them as we go from club to club.
Remember this is from December 1971 to the present.
Let’s start with Villa and Forest first and go back to those European Cup finals.
Both had some outstanding players. Forest had Peter Shilton in goal. He and Gordon Banks go down in history as our greatest keepers. Both played for Leicester and Stoke.
At one point I was asked to ring Ron Saunders at Villa by Shilton’s long-term agent to say he wanted to join him. Saunders told me that he would ring but never did!
Clough made Birmingham City’s Trevor Francis the first £1million footballer and the striker repaid him by scoring the only goal in the 1979 European final.
The winner was laid on by left winger John Robertson who scored the only goal a year later when Forest again won the final beating Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg.
There were plenty others in the two teams.
Martin O’Neill was a great Forest clubman who was there pre-Clough. Kenny Burns was a powerful strongman signed from Birmingham alongside the colossus Larry Lloyd at the back.
Ian Bowyer and Archie Gemmill were stars in midfield while Tony Woodcock and Garry Birtles were great finishers. Woodcock left for Germany after the 1979 triumph.
Other top players in my time were defenders Viv Anderson and speedy Des Walker, together with the excellent hard man Stuart Pearce who was not nicknamed ‘Psycho’ for nothing!
Roy Keane started his memorable English league career with Forest before his glory days at Manchester United.
Maverick striker Stan Collymore was only with Forest for two seasons but what an impact – 19 goals in his first season and 22 in his other. The goals ensured Forest promotion to the Premier League and then a third place finish.
There will be others but remember my premise is during my beat here.
Villa have had so many, including left-back Charlie Aitken, who made 660 first-team appearances (all but three as starters) from 1959 to 1976, including the 1975 League Cup final win over Norwich. It is a club record that will stand for ever.
Andy Gray was an incredible striker who in 1977 won both the PFA Player and Young Player of the Year awards. Saunders made it fairly clear he did not like Gray as a person and forbade him to go to London to pick up the awards. I went to Gray’s then-home in Sutton Coldfield to organise the outside broadcast coverage of the event.
Gray was larger than life, a terrific and brave centre-forward who was never afraid to put his head in where it hurt to score. He made a great career in TV starting with me at Central when he was at Everton.
Paul McGrath was a great defender. His reading of the game made up for his lack of pace caused no doubt by serious knee problems that prevented him from training. The 1993 PFA Player of the Year, McGrath won two League Cup winners medals for Villa in 1994 and ‘96.
Add Brian Little, Ian Taylor, Gabby Agbonlahor as well as many others!
But pride of place will be the 1982 European Cup final winners, full of good players – scorer Peter Withe, captain Dennis Mortimer, the pace and crossing of goalscoring winger Tony Morley, the exciting Gary Shaw, the craft of Gordon Cowans, the solid central defence of Ken McNaught and Allan Evans, the industry of Des Bremner and the heroics of the substitute novice goalie Nigel Spink.
Yes, the whole team will always be Villa legends.
And then of course there is Villa fan and star player Jack Grealish – the first £100 million man.