Only Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur have won the FA Cup more times that Aston Villa. The Midlanders have won the famous trophy seven times, the same amount as English football powerhouses Liverpool and Chelsea and more than the likes of Manchester City, Everton and Newcastle United.
But the last time Villa won the FA Cup was way back in the 1956-57 season. In the 60 years since then, they have won five League Cups, one top division league title and, thanks to a single Peter Withe goal in the 1982 final against Bayern Munich, the European Cup too; but an eighth FA Cup triumph continues to allude them.
In the time since they last lifted the crown jewel of English football, the Villains have reached two finals.
The most recent of which was two seasons ago when they took on Arsenal at Wembley. Villa’s run to the final that year had been anything but straight forward, having trod a difficult path of having to overcome Midlands rivals Leicester City and West Bromwich Albion before taking on Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool in the semi-final at the national stadium.
The narrow 2-1 victory over the Reds from Merseyside saw Villa fight back from 1-0 down after Brazilian attacker Phillipe Coutinho gave Liverpool an early lead. Goals from Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph – now playing for Crystal Palace and Manchester City respectively – booked the Claret and Blue Army’s place in the 134th final of the game’s oldest cup competition.
The semi-final victory over Liverpool marked the breakthrough of teenage Villa midfielder Jack Grealish. Deployed by then-manager Tim Sherwood in a deep-lying playmaker role, the Solihull born midfielder impressed with his temperament, maturity and excellent technique. Despite being surrounded on both sides of the ball by much more experienced players, Grealish conducted play with a genuine air of authority and was involved in both of his side’s goals.
Despite Villa’s impressive run to the final, Arsenal, as reigning holders, were significant favourites to lift the cup for a record 12th time. Grealish again started for the underdogs, but was unable to make an impact on the game in the way he had against Liverpool, as Arsene Wenger’s men cruised to a 4-0 win in one of the most one-sided finals in recent memory.
Theo Walcott put the north Londoners ahead after 40 minutes before goals from Alexis Sanchez and Per Mertesacker quashed any hope of a Villa revival; Olivier Giroud’s stoppage time strike was the icing on the cake for the Gunners.
Prior to the Arsenal defeat, the last time Villa reached an FA Cup final was back in 2000, which was significant for the fact that it was the last one ever to be held at the old Wembley Stadium.
With John Gregory in charge, Villa had topped the Premier League table for much of the 1998-99 season before fading away towards the business end and being leapfrogged by Treble winners Manchester United. Although they finished sixth in the end, Villa still had a strong, competitive side going into the 1999-2000 campaign, with the likes of Dion Dublin, Paul Merson, Ugo Ehiogu, captain Gareth Southgate and the emerging talent of a teenage Gareth Barry.
This time, on their road to Wembley, Villa had seen off Darlington, Southampton, Leeds United and Everton heading into their semi-final with Bolton Wanderers. In what was a more unusual occurrence than it is today, the semi against the then-First Division side was held at Wembley. After 0-0 draw, Gregory’s men kept their nerve to win a penalty shootout 4-1.
In truth, the final was a rather dull affair with few chances at either end. Most of the scoring opportunities that Chelsea created seemed to fall to George Weah, who was in a particularly wasteful mood – the former World Footballer of the Year was some way beyond his prime by this stage of his career. Blues Captain Denis Wise saw a goal ruled out for offside before his opposite number, Southgate, headed wide at the other end.
After 73 minutes, a goalkeeping error by David James presented Roberto Di Matteo – who would manage Villa 16 years later – with a chance to put Chelsea ahead and the diminutive Italian midfielder obliged, scoring what would be the only goal of the game.
Villa face an extremely difficult task of having to travel to White Hart Lane to take on Tottenham in the third round of this year’s competition. Currently sitting mid-table in the Championship following relegation from the Premier League last season, it seems unlikely that the Villains will defy the 150-1 odds and lift the FA Cup for an eighth time this season.
But Villa manager Steve Bruce has previous when it comes to overcoming the odds in the competition: he guided Hull City to an unlikely final in 2015. The Tigers came close to causing one of the great FA Cup upsets against Arsenal at Wembley by taking an early 2-0 lead thanks to goals from defenders Curtis Davies and James Chester. But the Gunners fought back to win 3-2 with Santi Cazorla and Laurent Koscielny taking the tie to extra-time before Aaron Ramsey clinched an 11th FA Cup for Arsenal.
For Villa to go one better than Bruce’s Hull side of 2015 would take some doing, especially if their league form is any indication of their chances. But if lady luck has any respect for grand narratives she’ll perhaps look kindly on the side from the second city this season. A run to the latter stages of FA Cup, in the season which marks 60 years since they last won the competition, would be very fitting indeed.