A thundercrack off a bootlace. A meteor heaving through the air. Eyes and mouths agog, and Walter Zenga’s outstretched hand foiled by a bolt from nowhere. The ball left Kent Neilsen’s foot with all the savage purpose of a rocket grenade. Spinning, hurtling, too quick to curl. The goalkeeper flung himself like he’d been shot with a sawn-off as it went crashing into the bottom left-hand corner, and the Holte End exploded like a supernova.
There have been better goals scored at Villa Park, but few that elicited such mayhem. It was the year English clubs were allowed back into Europe after the ban that followed the Heysel Stadium disaster. It was eight years after that great night in Rotterdam, when Aston Villa beat Bayern Munich to lift the European Cup. It was October 24, 1990: the first leg of a UEFA Cup second round tie in front of a pumped up Villa Park fizzing with excitement, hunger and pluck.
This was Jozef Venglos’ Villa team. A collection of players that finished runners up in the old First Division under Graham Taylor. With Taylor now managing England, Venglos was the first coach born outside of the British Isles to take charge of a top-flight English club. Some of his methods were ahead of their time. But to beat their opponents that night, Villa had to draw on some of Venglos’ vast European experience.
There have been better goals scored at Villa Park, but few that elicited such mayhem.
Inter Milan were frightening. Their team had more stars than Professor Brian Cox’s daydreams. World Cup winning defender Guiseppe Bergomi, young midfielder Nicola Berti and the irrepressible Walter Zenga were all regular Italian internationals. Then there was the German contingent, all key players in the World Cup winning national team that summer: Andreas Brehme, Jürgen Klinsmann and Lothar Matthäus. Matthäus was named European footballer of the year that year. He was being marked by Paul Birch.
Known for his tenacity and his shock of permed blond hair, Birch was a product of the same Villa youth system that produced Gordon Cowans, who also appeared in midfield that night alongside David Platt. Villa were missing Paul McGrath at the back - a huge loss - but next to Derek Mountfield in the centre of defence was another safe pair of feet. They belonged to Kent Neilsen.
The six-foot four-inch Dane was a Scandinavian skyscraper of solid meat, muscle and bone, topped off with a mousy mullet. He’d been brought in from Brondby to patrol Villa’s defence. To stop shots, block runs, clear crosses and mangle strikers. He wasn’t the most mobile of players, but like a porcupine on a newlyweds’ waterbed, you could rely on him to get in the way. Scoring a pile-driver from 25 yards was the last thing anyone expected.
But, on 14 minutes, a patient build-up and a lay-off from Tony Cascarino created an opening. The enormous Dane swung his right leg like the world’s least genteel croquet mallet, and walloped the ball beyond the flailing arms of the best keeper in the world.
The six-foot four-inch Dane was a Scandinavian skyscraper of solid meat, muscle and bone, topped off with a mousy mullet.
From my perch halfway up the massive Holte End terrace, I was launched forward by the surge of people. Skydivers have dropped slower. Careening down the steps, I ended up somewhere near the advertising hoardings at the front. Cushioned by a mass of cheering, rasping lunatics in front of me, almost crushed by those behind.
The crowd composed itself momentarily. Gained a foothold so it could bounce up and down all over again. A man grabbed me, a stranger. Grizzled and hairy and hollering. I was now in the clutches of a thick-pawed, frizzy-haired Villain, as excited as a fairground gypsy who’d found a sovereign ring down the back of a waltzer. In the heat of the moment, I hugged him back. And by the second surge we both went spiralling back down the terrace into a heap.
I felt something wet and disgusting on my cheek. I had been kissed by the man, but in the wild furore he’d smashed his nose into my face. He drew his head back, and with it a trail of stringy mucus and thick, black blood. He was still smiling. It was a moment that encapsulated everything that was wrong and right with football pre-Sky. But what a goal.
Nielsen peeled away, thumping the air with his fist. He shrugged off the congratulations of his teammates before dispatching a huge mouthful of flob and taking his place back in defence. No kissing, no pulling his shirt over his head. If he’d attempted any acrobatics he’d have brought down a floodlight. No, just a stoic acknowledgement of getting the job done and then back to business.
Villa’s second goal came at the other end. The neatest lobbed pass over the defence you’ve ever seen from Cowans, right into the path of Platt who rarely missed from there. Villa won it two-nil, but the celebrations couldn’t match the intensity of Nielsen’s earth-shaker.
No kissing, no pulling his shirt over his head... just a stoic acknowledgement of getting the job done and then back to business.
We lost the second leg three-nil at the San Siro. We were out of the cup; Inter went on to win it. Revenge came four years later, when Villa knocked Inter out on penalties at Villa Park. By that time Nielsen had moved on, back to Denmark and AGF Aarhus. He won the 1992 European Championships with Denmark, featuring in the final against Germany, where he flung himself into an overhead kick to clear a Karl-Heinz Riedle shot off the line.
Nielsen’s replacement was Shaun Teale, a Villa hero in his own right. We saw a few more big, iconic Scandinavian defenders in Olof Mellberg and the outstanding Martin Laursen. But none of them ever matched that moment for sheer exuberance. Perhaps it was the times? Terraces full of atmosphere, wit and fag smoke. An exciting knock-out cup comp without any tiresome league stages. Players that drove Rovers and retired to run pubs. A matchday that cost less than a weekly rent cheque. A time when a Danish man-tower could let fly with an almighty hammer and smite the best that Europe could offer.
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