In the first round of the 1997/98 UEFA Cup campaign, Villa were paired with Girondins De Bordeaux.
First Round, First Leg
Bordeaux 0-0 Aston Villa
16th September 1997, Stade Chaban-Delmas, 13,000
Maybe the players had overindulged the night before? After all, who wouldn’t want to exploit the wonders of the French wine capital?
One man that certainly didn’t was Villa manager Brian Little – who could be forgiven for thinking his players had breached confines of the team hotel in search of the vineyards before matchday.
A flurry of missed chances saw Villa return to the midlands with no goal to show for their efforts. Summer signing Stan Collymore had again failed to make an impact after his £7 million move from Liverpool coincided with a dip in form.
Nonetheless, the hosts had been restricted to few, clear-cut opportunities themselves – meaning that Villa could take the tie back home knowing that another French block-out would secure second round passage.
Easier said than done though. Jean-Pierre Papin – one of France’s finest footballers at the time, was an ever-present in the Bordeaux front line. A former European footballer of the year, at 34 years of age, the striker was showing few signs of slowing down.
Stinging the palms of Mark Bosnich late on, Papin’s ageing maturity resembled the glass of red Collymore perhaps enjoyed on the eve of the game.
First Round, Second Leg
Aston Villa 1-0 Bordeaux (AET)
30th September 1997, Villa Park, 33,072
The reverse fixture mirrored the showing across the channel in the sense that after 90 minutes, neither defence had been breached. However, this time Villa were clearly in the ascendancy. In fact, it was miraculous the hosts took so long to find the breakthrough!
Eventually, the hard work paid off and Villa scored a fine goal.
Collymore danced past a pair of French players in the middle of the park as he produced an excellent pass into the path of Gary Charles, who was rampaging down the wing.
Savo Milosevic was on hand in the penalty area to fire home the opening goal after Charles had blasted the ball across. In what was the 200th minute of the tie, Villa finally took the lead – and crucially, were able to see it out.
Second Round, First Leg
Athletic Club Bilbao 0-0 Aston Villa
21st October 1977, San Mames, 39,713
In a recurring theme, Villa attained a goalless draw on their travels. No mean feat owing to the ferocity of one of Spain’s best teams at the time.
The venue for the game was the San Mames stadium (which has since been replaced by a new stadium – at the same location and going by the same name).
Nicknamed ‘The Cathedral’, Gareth Southgate likened its features to that of The Dell (former home of Southampton).
“(The stadium) is like a larger scale of The Dell, very tight with the stands rising straight up from the pitch,” said the Villa defender.
As for the game itself, Villa had two great chances to steal victory from the Spaniards. First, Dwight Yorke smashed a shot high over the bar from a good angle, before Simon Grayson saw his second-half header cleared off the line.
As the game petered to a conclusion, the Villa players were left happier than their Bilbao counterparts. The Villans would be favourites to win the second meeting between the two sides next month.
Second Round, Second Leg
Aston Villa 2-1 Athletic Club Bilbao
4th November 1977, Villa Park, 35,915
By the 50th minute, Villa had beaten the Bilbao goalkeeper four times. Unfortunately, on the first two of those occasions, Savo Milosevic had committed fouls in the build-up.
When the referee allowed Villa’s third strike at goal, Milosevic could be aggrieved to have not been on the end of one that counted. Ian Taylor the man who pounced following the goalkeeper dropping the ball after claiming a cross lofted into the air.
Five minutes on from halftime, Villa doubled their lead.
After giving the ball away in a dangerous area, claret and blue shirts raced to punish another Bilbao mistake. Dwight Yorke unleashed a shot from just inside the penalty area to put Villa in command.
In what tuned out to be no more than a late scare, Villa’s concentration levels were tested as the visitors pulled a goal back with 20 minutes remaining.
Third Round, First Leg
Steaua Bucuresti 2-1 Aston Villa
25th November 1997, Steaua Stadium, 19,500
For the first time in 20 years, Villa were through to the third round. Whist nowadays some would see the challenge of Bucuresti as a free pass to the quarter-finals, as a team that had won the European Cup more recently than Villa, they provided a stern test.
The odds were beginning to stack against Villa. Beyond the harsh Romanian winter coupled with the dogged playing terrain, the visitors were missing two key players. Goalkeeper Mark Bosnich was on international duty with Australia, whilst Gareth Southgate was missing through injury.
In the 30th minute, the home side took the lead. An unfortunate sequence of events for the deputy keeper – Michael Oakes – a shot rebounded off the post before it collided with his outstretched arm and bobbled into the net.
Shortly after, he was unable to prevent Cristian Ciocoiu’s overhead kick from nestling into the corner. The prospect of maneuvering past the Romanians was becoming ever bleaker – especially after the home side rattled the crossbar straight after half-time.
Hope was reignited as the game ticked into the final 30 however. Yorke headed home a Milosevic cross to deplete the deficit to just a goal.
Third Round, Second Leg
Aston Villa 2-0 Steaua Bucuresti
9th December 1997, Villa Park, 35,102
In a match where Villa only needed a goal with no reply to succeed (thanks to the away goal scored in Romania) it took 71 minutes to find the breakthrough.
Ever the man for the European occasion, Savo Milosevic controlled a diagonal ball over the visiting defence before driving the shot in from his right boot. Villa lead the game, and now held the important aggregate advantage.
It would be customary to assume that Steaua – desperate for a goal of their own now – would throw everything they had at Villa with the game reaching its conclusion. Surprisingly, it was Villa who pressured the opposition’s defence. Ian Taylor reaped the rewards when he scored at the death to settle the matter.
Villa progressing to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup!
Quarter-Final, First Leg
Athletico Madrid 1-0 Aston Villa
3rd March 1998, Estadio Calderon, 47,000
Between reaching the quarter-final of the UEFA Cup, and playing in that very tie, a lot had changed at B6. A man that had played such a pivotal role in the fortunes of the club’s European exploits – Savo Milosevic – had been transfer-listed after spitting in the direction of supporters during a 5-0 defeat to Blackburn. As well as this, manager Brian Little had resigned after a poor run of league form saw the club floating perilously above the relegation zone.
John Gregory was enlisted by the board to take control and after a media meltdown (resulting in headlines such as ‘John Who?’) he oversaw an upturn in results.
On this particular night, Villa fell short of the quality of their opponents. Madrid’s only goal came through a penalty 4 minutes before half-time. Christian Vieri converting after Ian Taylor had committed a foul in the box.
The game involved little else worthy of note. The hosts content enough to pass the ball around the ever-tiring Villa players.
Heading into the second leg, few believed Villa had what it would take to bypass Madrid.
Quarter Final, Second Leg
Aston Villa 2-1 Athletico Madrid
17th March 1998, Villa Park, 38,500
Villa needed their best performance of the season so far if they were to beat Athletico Madrid by the two goals needed.
The atmosphere on the night was ‘incredible’ according to Collymore. However, the hopes and dreams of the Villa faithful seemed in vain when Madrid found an away goal before the half-hour mark.
Now with three goals needed to overcome the Spaniards away goal, the game began to look a lost cause until the 71st minute.
Ian Taylor picked up the ball after good work down the left flank by Lee Hendrie. Slamming a shot into the bottom corner, he put Villa back in contention.
A Villa side now inspired, just two minutes later it was Collymore who struck fear into the hearts of Madrilenian’s. After determining work once more from Hendrie, the boyhood Villa fans combined to put their club a goal away from the UEFA Cup semi-finals.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Villa failed to score the third goal and lost out to the away goals rule. Heartbreak, but the team had done themselves and the fans proud. It was the furthest a Villa side had reached in European competition, since the European Cup defence of 1982/83.