The summer of 1995 signalled a new era dawning around Villa Park. The 1994-95 season had been tough and largely disappointing. Ron Atkinson’s ageing squad had been inherited by Brian Little in November 1994 after the charismatic perma-tanned one had been sacked. The remainder of the season saw the Villans fight off relegation by virtue of just three points.

Despite the gloom, however, Little had already begun clearing out the weary old legs bequeathed to him by his predecessor. Stalwarts of the club such as Garry Parker, Ray Houghton, Kevin Richardson and Earl Barrett had already been moved on before the end of that season. The summer of 1995 saw a further exodus of more fan favourites such as Shaun Teale and, controversially, the strike force of Dalian Atkinson and Dean Saunders.

An overhaul to replace the departed old heads was already underway, as Little began assembling a younger and more dynamic side in preparation for his plans the following season. Gary Charles, Alan Wright, Tommy Johnson and Ian Taylor were all brought in during that relegation battle. Little supplemented these signings by introducing talent that was already within the squad. Dwight Yorke had featured already and impressed under previous management, but would now really get his opportunity as a main striker. Likewise, Ugo Ehiogu had also been at the club for several years already by this point but was finally given a regular and prominent role as a first team player.

The shape of the team was taking place yet it was to be the three signings made in the summer of 1995 that would perhaps define the transformation. With Doug Ellis loosening his purse strings, the club would break its transfer records twice within a few days. Firstly, £2.5 million was paid to Crystal Palace for Gareth Southgate. A few days later, £3.25 million was splashed out on the mercurial Mark Draper, who become the club’s record signing. The imagination was really captured when the record was broken again at £3.5 million for the unknown Savo Milosevic, a bandana-wearing Serbian with an excellent scoring record for Partizan Belgrade.

Little’s charges were completely unrecognisable from just a year earlier: only Andy Townsend and Paul McGrath had made the cut from Atkinson’s regular regime and were deemed worthy of a place in the new look starting XI. Steve Staunton would also feature at regular points throughout the season. Decked out in a smart new kit, replacing the ghastly Asics stripes and Muller sponsor, the Villa boys were ready for business.

>Having attended matches for the last few years fairly regularly, at twelve years old this year would be my first as a season ticket holder. Despite the optimism swirling around, a tough looking opening fixture at home to Manchester Untied somewhat lowered the expectation of a winning start to the season. As I took my place in the old Trinity Road stand donned out in full Villa kit (you can get away with it at that age) in the glorious August sunshine, I was unprepared for what I was about to witness.

The hosts ripped United apart in a first half showing that was breathtaking. Goals from Taylor, Draper and a Yorke penalty put the game pretty much out of sight by half time. Some guy called David Beckham scored a late second half consolation goal as the Villans ran out 3-1 winners. Alan Hansen uttered the immortal phrase ‘You’ll never win anything with kids’ and the rest is history.

Although somewhat antiquated now, Little employed a fluid 5-3-2 formation in which Gary Charles and Alan Wright were instrumental in its success. Utilised as wingbacks, both would fly up and down the pitch in order to supply width to an attack and also assist in defence. A solid back three of Ehiogu, Southgate and McGrath ensured a sturdy rearguard. Mark Bosnich excelled as an agile shot stopper. In midfield, Taylor, Townsend and Draper provided the perfect mix of enforcement, energy and guile whilst the attack had the speed and precision of Yorke and the strength of Milosevic. It was an incredibly efficient unit and the system suited extremely well.

Early season wins against Bolton Wanderers, Tottenham Hotspur, Wimbledon and Coventry would see Villa with just one loss going into October and sitting pretty in second place in the table with only runaway leaders Newcastle United bettering us. A wobbly start to October saw back-to-back defeats to Chelsea and Arsenal but the Villans would recover and suffer just two further defeats in their next ten games, taking them into the new year in a respectable sixth position.

By this point the players were clicking nicely. Whilst Milosevic was at times cutting a frustrating figure, he had managed eight goals by the new year, making him the team’s top league scorer at that point. Five of his goals came in the two fixtures against Coventry City, including a memorable second half hat-trick in front of the Holte End during December. Yorke wasn’t far behind with seven goals and Tommy Johnson was also proving useful with five goals to his name at the turn of the year.

January and February continued to be strong months for Villa with a home defeat to Liverpool the only blemish going into March. A 0-0 draw at champions elect Manchester United in January was impressive, considering the Red Devils’ free scoring nature, and a comfortable 2-0 victory over the previous season’s champions Blackburn Rovers continued the Villa revival. An Alan Wright screamer against Middlesbrough is also worthy of a mention.

The Villans were also motoring along nicely in both cup competitions during the early part of 1996. Despite some tricky ties in the F.A Cup away to Ipswich Town and Sheffield United, the club had booked a quarter-final slot by mid-February. The League Cup draw had been kinder, with home ties against lower league opposition such as Stockport and Wolverhampton Wanderers, as well as struggling Premier League outfit Queens Park Rangers. The semi-finals beckoned, although a two-legged tie against Arsenal would be tricky to navigate.

The first leg was played at Highbury on a cold February evening. Things seemed bleak when Dennis Bergkamp showed his class to put the Gunners 2-0 up after thirty-two minutes. Yet, five minutes later, Yorke would pull Villa back into the game after a scramble in the box to go in at half time trailing 2-1. The scintillating Trinidadian completed the comeback and his brace on seventy-two minutes and secured a priceless 2-2 draw. Returning to Villa Park a week later, a disciplined performance earned a hard fought 0-0 draw and ensured a victory on away goals. Just two years after tasting glory in the competition, the Villans were again on their way to Wembley with a chance to add to their impressive League Cup history.

By the end of February, as well as the pleasing cup runs, the boys in claret and blue sat comfortably in fourth position with forty-nine points, ffour points ahead of Tottenham Hotspur in fifth and just three points behind Liverpool in third. Even more impressive perhaps was the fact that Aston Villa boasted the best defensive record in the league with just twenty-one goals conceded in twenty-seven games at this point.

Also by this stage, each member of the recognised main starting XI had scored at least once in the league. For me, that perfectly illustrates just how well the players were working as a team during this season, with each player really contributing not only by performing his own duties to a high standard but also by taking chances in front of goal when presented.

March would be an incredibly busy month for Villa, with five league games and three cup games. Things began badly with a 3-0 drubbing at Anfield in the league against Liverpool. Wins against Sheffield Wednesday and Queens Park Rangers at home restored pride. A few days later, the Villans travelled to the City Ground to face Nottingham Forest in the F.A. Cup quarter-final. Forgotten man Franz Carr secured a 1-0 win against his old club before never been seen again in a Villa shirt. It had been a long time since Villa had done so well in the competition and the place in the semi-final represented the club’s best showing since reaching the same stage in 1959-60.

The games continued to come thick and fast, and a quick reprisal with Wednesday at Hillsborough ten days after the initial encounter saw them return the favour with the Owls beating Villa 2-0. A subdued 0-0 draw with Middlesbrough completed a gruelling couple of weeks. But the main event was still to come.

Sunday March 24th was the day of The Coca Cola League Cup final. The Villans travelled to Wembley in confident mood. Having beaten Leeds United 3-0 at Villa Park at the beginning of February, spirits were high and the Villans were favourites to record a fifth victory in the competition. It transpired that Villa still had the edge over their Yorkshire rivals and recorded yet another convincing 3-0 win. Milosevic’s goals had dried up somewhat during the last couple of months, but he entered the game having scored a couple in previous weeks. In the twenty-first minute, he produced his most famous and glorious moment in a Villa shirt, unleashing an unstoppable twenty-five yard screamer into the top corner. I will never forget jumping up and down on a little wooden Wembley seat as the Villa end erupted.

The Villans continued to dominate and Ian Taylor fulfilled every lifelong Villa fan’s dream by scoring for his boyhood club at Wembley to add a second before Yorke wrapped things up in the last minute with another emphatic finish. It was an absolutely magnificent occasion and Villa thoroughly deserved to decorate the season with that silverware.

The remainder of the season fell somewhat flat. Much like the Villa boys replicated their league result against Leeds in the cup, so did Liverpool against us in the F.A. Cup semi-final held at Old Trafford. A 3-0 defeat ended the dream of a cup double.

Despite a good start to April with back-to-back wins over Chelsea and Southampton, the Villans would fail to win any of their last four matches. Nevertheless, fourth place was secured with sixty-three points, a total bettered only once since.

The season was undoubtedly a success, with finishing position that would now bring Champions League football, a League Cup victory and a F.A Cup semi final. More importantly than that, the football was great to watch and that is why this particular season remains one of my favourites in our recent history.

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