Millwall: Remembering Aston Villa's Paul Birch And His Shirley Temple Blonde Locks
I fear a day in the not too distant future when the ‘terrace legend’ finally disappears. What tales will the current generation of football fan be able to regale to their young? Will the wide-eyed children and grandchildren of 2040 be as captivated by even the most generously embellished, misty-eyed reconstructions of how, ‘back in the old days we used to sing funny words to the sound of a Beach Boys song…’?
These footballing equivalents of the fisherman’s tale are quickly fading like Uncle Albert’s ‘during the war’ anecdotes. We need to preserve them as preciously as the laced up footballs and tainted old medals in the museum of football. The draw for the FA Cup fourth round (another example of how a once exquisite footballing experience has been thoroughly ruined – was it karma that there were so many crap pairings?) provided me with the perfect memory trigger to recall one such legendary tale: Millwall v Aston Villa.
Back in January 1986 Millwall were struggling at the wrong end of the Second Division, but under the guidance of manager George Graham, we were always a dangerous prospect for one of the big teams in the cup. The fourth round draw had sent Millwall to Villa Park and they had returned with an unexpected 1-1 draw to force a replay at The Den four days later. Yes, that’s right, four days. It would have been three but a frozen pitch caused a postponement so it was hastily rearranged for 24 hours later without the aid of the Internet, mobile phone technology or any other form of digital communication. Brilliant.
Villa had, less than four years previously, been European Cup winners - that’s Champions League in new money - and in a day when the only way to enter the competition was by actually winning your league. Fancy. But now they were struggling and, Millwall fans felt they were ripe for a giant killing. Like the p**s-up that is too well planned and falls flat on its face, many hotly anticipated night matches fail to deliver. Luckily this was to be more like the hurriedly arranged last minute accidental sojourn to the local that often end in a riotous night that could be dined out on forever.
There’s something about football under floodlights in the cold winter air which carries a palpable menace that seems to favour the unfashionable back street club looking for 15 minutes of fame in the greatest cup competition in the world. Villa took to the field in the tight confines of Millwall’s Cold Blow Lane Den. The atmosphere was not, as the uneducated masses would have you believe, one of hatred and venom, a lazy effort to bully their team to victory. It was a confident, almost celebratory buzz, akin I imagine to that of the spectators flocking to the Colosseum to witness a certain bloodbath for their gratification.
An early Millwall penalty miss dampened spirits only temporarily as, slowly but surely, the full extent of the home fans’ vocal weaponry was drawn. Aston Villa were no mugs, they had a team of useful players, internationals and established names. Dorigo, Gray, Hodge, Walters, Elliot and Evans. They also had an eye-catching young winger who clearly possessed a nimble foot and turn of pace.
Unfortunately for him on that fateful evening, he also possessed a curly blonde perm.
Paul Birch looked the most likely player to enable Villa to capitalise on Millwall’s penalty spot profligacy. His more experienced teammates certainly weren’t living up to their billing. And so it began. If you’ve ever been party to one of the most common examples of classroom unruliness then you’ll be able to picture quite quickly how things took shape.
Did you ever ‘do the hum’ in class? Do you remember how a barely audible murmur could, over a relatively short period, build into a deafening crescendo, enough to reduce a stand-in Maths teacher to flee the class in tears? Maybe that was just my class, we were a particularly naughty bunch. The Birch-bating at The Den that night began and escalated in a very similar way.
As he was making another of his worrying forays into the Millwall half, a wolf whistle went up from a fan. Within five minutes the majority of the 10,000 crowd (remember back in ‘the old days’ that was the same as 40,000 now) was wolf-whistling, cat-calling and camply woo-hoo-ing at Birch’s every touch. After ten minutes of this his form was visibly being affected and, buoyed on, the home fans’ fun and games continued.
To his eternal credit, Birch soldiered on. He could have hidden, but still went for every ball, hoping to deliver his own retort by way of creating a goal for his team. In amongst all this, a John Fashanu goal had given Millwall a slender lead. Villa manager Graham Turner decided to take action and switched Birch to the opposite wing. Who knows, maybe this was a genuine tactical change, but to the Millwall fans it was Turner’s attempt to protect his player by moving him to play on what he must have thought was the ‘safer’ side of the grandstand which housed the quieter, older, season-ticket holding seated Millwall fans.
Of course, it only served to turn the volume up to eleven. Turner might have been better advised to sub him, but his one and only allowed substitution had already been made. The game ended in a 1-0 victory for Millwall, but as the years passed and the night etched itself into the annals of football fan folklore, there remained a small piece of legendary status reserved among the Millwall fans present that night for the central character of this pantomime: Paul Birch.
They not only held a closely guarded respect for a man who could take such stick and get on with it in true Millwall style, but probably would have welcomed him to the club as one of their own. His return to The Den as an opposition player a few seasons later was highly anticipated, but as with the aforementioned planned p**s up, it fell flat and never materialised into anything more than a few whistles in the warm-up which were, again to Birch’s eternal credit, sportingly acknowledged by the man whose hair style had by now moved with times too.
Far from being just another old tale that was the preserve of the fans that perpetuated it, that night is still remembered by Villa supporters too when recalling memories of a player who went on to become a Villa Park legend. Nick Clitheroe of www.avfc.co.uk is just one Villa fan with fond memories of the player.
“Two incidents stand out in my memory. Seeing Birchy sitting among the Villa fans at the Baseball Ground for Tony Cascarino's debut in 1990 is one. He wasn't in Graham Taylor's title-chasing team that day but he came along anyway. The other was his good-humoured reaction at Millwall's terrifying old Den when the home fans greeted his every touch by chanting "Pauline" at a player who stood out for his long blonde curly hair…”
He goes on to recall probably Birch’s finest moment when he marked Lothar Matthäus out of the game as Villa beat Inter Milan 2-0 in 1990. I know that to the uninitiated this really amounts to nothing more than a bunch of football fans shouting mindless abuse at a footballer and revelling in the apparent success of it putting him off earning his living.
For me, it went much further than this. Virtually unique was the part that Birch played in it: the fact that he took it and that his attitude resonated among the fans who had such a fearsome reputation.
In the modern era, a similar scenario would probably play out like this: Fans sing a silly song or jeer a player, he gives them the finger, the abuse becomes more personal and aggressive and then after the game the player tweet to his thousands of followers what a bunch of c***s team x’s fans are while they gleefully post the video footage from their phones onto YouTube.
Tragically Paul Birch is no longer with us - he succumbed to bone cancer in 2009 at the ridiculously young age of 46. When news of his death broke, many Millwall supporters who fondly remember that January night in 1986 added their respects to those from Villa fans and those of the other clubs he represented. It takes a hell of a lot for a non-Millwall player to be accepted into the Lions fans’ hall of fame, they are very very few in number, but I’m sure Paul Birch is. He may have had hair like Shirley Temple, but he had the heart of a Lion.