Brian little was building a new Aston Villa as he led the team into the UEFA Cup competition of 1996/97. In the previous summer, he had signed Mark Draper, Savo Milosevic, as well as Gareth Southgate. His new team had finished fourth in the Premier League – enough to secure UEFA Cup qualification, however, boasted a League Cup too, further ensuring a gateway to Europe.
Villa had last played in UEFA competition in 1994, crashing out in the UEFA Cup second round to Trabzonspor. Despite this, the collective feeling around B6 was one of hope and optimism as the opening night rolled around. The club record transfer fee had been broken for the second successive summer, this time, instead of splashing out on the list of new online casinos, Villa acquired Sasa Curcic for a ground-breaking £4 million.
Sasa Curcic had been acquired for a ground-breaking £4 million.
Southgate, another new boy in the team, was yet to experience a continental night at Villa Park. Not that European competition was new to him, having only just returned from Euro 96’…
Anyway, Villa were drawn with Helsingborgs IF in the first round. A team that had finished second place in the Swedish top division the previous season.
First Round, First Leg
Aston Villa 1-1 Helsingborgs IF
10th September 1996, Villa Park, 25,818
Within 15 minutes, Villa had the breakthrough. Tommy Johnson fired home from outside the penalty area to set up what looked like a looming Villa win. Before scoring, Johnson had already seen an effort strike the woodwork.
From what looked to be an easy encounter on paper, the Swedish outfit made life difficult for Villa. Deploying a stubborn defensive regime, the away side were happy to hold a rigid formation and attempt to catch Villa on the break.
Struggling to break down the visiting defence, Villa looked set to see out a 1-0 win.
Upon the presumption that the home side were only to beat their opponents by that solitary goal, fans that had piled through the turnstiles in anticipation of a Villa whitewash were feeling disgruntled.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing though, and as the swedes launched an unfamiliar attack on Villa’s defence, things began to unravel. Peter Wibran scored an 80’ minute equalizer that suddenly put his team into the ascendancy; a crucial away goal to take into the second leg!
Villa Park left flustered. From a position of such early dominance, the hosts were left with nothing more than a draw, and an away goal to overcome!
First Round, Second Leg
Helsingborgs IF 0-0 Aston Villa
24th September 1996, Olympia, 10,103
A fortnight on from the home tie, Villa travelled to the Swedish coast to face Helsingborgs once more.
Those that thought the Swedes had played a defensive game in the opening leg were left astounded 14 days later. Knowing that two blanks on the scoreboard would send them through, Helsingborg sat deep inside their final third for the full 90 minutes.
On a rare occasion that Villa managed to breach their opponent’s defensive lines, Dwight Yorke was convicted of a foul in the penalty area when in fact, Ola Nilsson (who had tracked Yorke’s run) had handled the ball.
Denied victory in the first leg, denied a penalty in the second.
Luck was not on Villa’s side.
A narrative exemplified in the closing minute. Alan Wright struck from 25 yards – beating the goalkeeper, only to be beaten by the post.
Villa hadn’t lost a game against Helsingborgs IF but had managed to lose the tie. Conceding at home killed the hopes of European glory – devastating fans who thought this was the team to bring home coveted silverware.
Nonetheless, the following season Villa would return to Europe – in what turned out to be a far more successful UEFA Cup campaign than the last…