18th July 1993, my fifth birthday and I can still remember opening a present that turned out to be an Aston Villa backpack for school.
I’m told I was obsessed from birth. To be honest I had no choice as the first pictures of me were in my fathers’ arms, wrapped in the Aston Villa scarf he took all over Europe whilst stewarding the coaches in 1982.
I excitedly threw my new bag over my shoulders parading round the colours I saw my dad wear so often. It was only when I opened the bag to find my first ever Aston Villa shirt with “Deano” and the iconic number 9 emblazoned on the back.
I loved Dean Saunders, I think it was the similar surname to my own and being so young and not really fully understanding football that made me used to think he was an uncle!
This would be the start of me really starting to watch every kick of the highlights, celebrate every goal with my dad and pretend to be Dean Saunders whilst kicking a ball around outside.
It also marked the start of me going to Villa Park. The first game of the season was Q.P.R. at home. We won 4-1, with Dalian Atkinson scoring two, Saunders one and Steve Staunton the final goal.
A few weeks later we went again to see us take on Manchester United and this time we waited for the players to arrive. I knew most of the players and my dad always went on about “Big Ron” and as he wasn’t running around the pitch I didn’t really know who he was or what he did. However, he came over to us and I had my picture taken with this friendly, smiling man who was dressed smartly unlike some of the players.
Little did I know he would become the first of the Villa managers I would remember and to this day he is one of my favourites. Let’s face it we have a lot to choose from with our record!
Between 1991 and 1994, Ron Atkinson guided Villa to second place in the first Premier League season. This along with Kevin Keegan at Newcastle remains the highest finishing position for an English manager in the Premier League.
He went on to capture the League Cup in 1994. Beating Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley. The first silverware since the European Cup and European Super successes in the early 1980s.
This achievement followed two F.A. Cups at Manchester United and a League Cup success with Sheffield Wednesday.
There were more memorable moments to come. Perhaps the only one to rival the League Cup triumph though was the infamous win over Inter Milan in the UEFA Cup.
Trailing 1-0 after the first leg in the San Siro and facing players of the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Nicola Berti and Rubén Sosa, Ray Houghton scored three minutes before half-time to level the tie.
It would go on long into the night, through two goalless periods of extra time and onto the dreaded penalties. Villa triumphed 4-3 with the unlikely hero being Phil King, a right back that had only made a handful of appearances. He smashed the ball emphatically past Gianluca Pagliuca and Villa were through to the next round.
Last night I spent an evening sat next to Big Ron at a local event. 24 years after the photo I had with him as a five-year-old I had now got the opportunity to ask him lots of questions and share memories with the man that orchestrated the team that I had fallen in love with.
The one thing that stood out above all else, other than him being an absolute gentleman was his passion for football, deep knowledge and especially his love for Aston Villa.
His memory and attention to detail were both incredible. Recalling games and dates with impeccable accuracy.
We talked in depth about the players of today and he spoke highly of Steve Bruce whilst still saying how massive the club is despite what the media and others may say from other areas of the country.
His views on modern day players were fascinating and my favourite story which puts modern day football into perspective was the trading of a player he had at Kettering Town for a lawnmower. A firm believer in working his way up and getting to know everything about how a club works, he immersed himself in football.
Staying late into the evening, I finished talking to him about my favourite moment under his leadership and to this day it may be my most memorable.
The League Cup semi-final, second leg against Tranmere. 3-1 down after the first leg, we turned it round to win 3-1 in a game that had everything.
Goals, a penalty, Bosnich in goal avoiding a red card and one of the most exciting penalty shootouts I have ever seen. If you’re a younger Villa fan and you’ve not seen that game, I strongly advise you to watch the highlights as they are available online and you won’t be disappointed!
As I left last night I got the photo I wanted with the man himself and ever gracious he wished me well and said he hoped the Villa would go on to gain promotion.
It will always be “Big Fat Ron’s Claret and Blue Army” for me.
Please feel free to get involved and share your memories of the Big Ron era, we’d love to hear them.