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The kids were alright after all for Manchester United in 1995/96, but their conquerors on the opening day - Aston Villa - also went on to enjoy a winning campaign, providing plenty of happy memories for Mark Draper...
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 14/12/13 7:20pm
As dream debuts go, it could hardly have been sweeter for Mark Draper.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, in the first game of the fourth Premiership season, Aston Villa were hosting Manchester United - and the £3.25m summer signing from Leicester was the game's stand-out player, dominating Roy Keane in central midfield.
"It was perfect," Draper recalled to Sky Sports this week, "one of those games where everything went really well. You couldn't have planned it any better."
Villa haven't come out on top in a league fixture at home to United since, and will try again on Super Sunday. Of course, the August 1995 encounter is best remembered for a particular post-match punditry comment but for Villa, it was the start of a memorable year in league and cup that they are yet to improve upon.
With the club having only just stayed up in 1994/95, initial expectations were low. However, Brian Little moulded together an exciting new team that hit the ground running. Draper had followed the manager from Filbert Street, and instantly became an important component in the side.
"Going to a big club like Villa was exciting for me," he said. "We'd had a few new signings, because they'd struggled the year before. You didn't know quite how things would work out, but we got off to the best possible start by beating Manchester United, and obviously to score on your debut at home was a dream come true."
The Red Devils, having been pipped at the post by Blackburn that May, were undergoing a more radical transformation than Villa. Sir Alex Ferguson had already sold Paul Ince and Mark Hughes that summer, while Andrei Kanchelskis was on the verge of joining Everton. Meanwhile, the banned Eric Cantona was forced to watch from the stands at Villa Park. In addition, Andy Cole, Steve Bruce and the injured Ryan Giggs were all sidelined. So when the away teamsheet arrived in the home dressing room that day, there was a youthful look to it, to say the least.
Both Neville brothers started, along with Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. On the bench were David Beckham, Simon Davies and John O'Kane. 'Fergie's Fledglings' were being pushed out of the nest, but their first flight would prove to be a bumpy one. In the recently-released 'Class of 92' documentary, Butt and Scholes discuss that day.
Scholes: "After just over half an hour, we're 3-0 down - and it's a disaster really... "
Butt: "The game's over, and we're thinking we've let the manager down. He's put his faith in us, we're only young, and the fans are going to hate us because we're wrecking the club. In truth, that night, watching Match of the Day, I thought exactly the same as what Alan Hansen said - that we weren't good enough."
Little described his side's performance as "adventurous and mobile", and United simply couldn't contain them. First, Dwight Yorke's deep 14th-minute left-wing cross was played back into danger by Gary Charles and Ian Taylor reached the low cross before Peter Schmeichel and prodded home. On 27 minutes, Draper sidefooted home at the near post after good work from Alan Wright, Yorke and Savo Milosevic. And on 36, a long ball from Draper found Milosevic who was brought down in the area by Schmeichel; the resulting penalty was put away by Yorke. Beckham replaced Phil Neville for the second half and reduced the arrears from long range in the 82nd minute for his first Premiership goal, but despite that and losing Milosevic to a dead leg, Villa ran out comfortable 3-1 winners.
That night, Hansen delivered his now infamous verdict on Ferguson's fresh-faced team and insisted his fellow Scot simply had to make star signings. The United boss did not - and guided the Red Devils to a domestic Double nine months later. With the benefit of hindsight, Hansen's opinion can't fail to raise a smile, but Scholes admits it held some truth.
"That comment - 'you can't win anything with kids' - it's right," he remarks in 'Class of 92'. "We won (the Double) because we were part of a team that had Roy Keane in it, that had Bruce, Pallister, and all these top experienced players who got the young lads through it."
So two items of silverware ended up in the Old Trafford trophy cabinet anyway - but the other went to Villa as they recorded a 3-0 victory over Leeds United in the League Cup final in March.
"We dropped a little bit in the league, but I think with a new squad we did really well to finish fourth," says Draper.
"Winning the Coca-Cola Cup comfortably against a very good Leeds side was the highlight, but we reached the FA Cup semi-finals too. Unfortunately we got beat by Liverpool at Old Trafford. We went into that game full of confidence - after you've just won a cup, you're expecting to get through again - but a couple of Robbie Fowler goals late on cost us what would have been a double Wembley appearance. All in all though, for my first season, it was a brilliant year."
The highlight of Villa's Wembley win over Leeds was a superb 20th-minute strike from Milosevic, who was no stranger to the odd goal drought during his time in the second city.
"Savo was a fantastic footballer," recalls Draper. "He had one of the best first touches I've ever seen. He was only 21 when he come over from Partizan Belgrade, he didn't speak the language and there weren't many foreigners in English football at the time.
"Some of the stuff he did in training was brilliant though, and he went on to be one of the top scorers in Spain with Zaragoza, and won over 100 caps for Yugoslavia and Serbia. You could see the talent was there, even though his finishing let him down a bit at Villa."
Also on the scoresheet against Leeds was fans' favourite Ian Taylor, while Paul McGrath marshalled the defence expertly.
"Tayls went on to have a good 10 years at Villa," continues Draper. "He was a local lad and a Villa fan, and fortunate enough to play for his own club and be there for a long time.
"I loved playing with Tayls. We had a really good team for the first couple of years, as everyone knew their jobs and their role in the team. That was what we built our success upon. But there was a lot of talent there as well, such as Paul who was an unbelievable character."
The March 1996 success was the club's second League Cup triumph in three seasons, but no Villa boss has managed to emulate Little since.
"I still speak to Brian now - he was a legend as a Villa player and winning a cup made him a legend as a manager too," says Draper. "He had his own quiet way about him. He wasn't one of those who screamed and shouted; he was calm, and a great bloke off the pitch as well."
Soon, England recognition came Draper's way. Having been capped at Under-21 level, he'd first got a taste of involvement under Terry Venables before being called up properly to the senior squad under Glenn Hoddle for a World Cup qualifier in September 1996. Two familiar faces from the United squad were also involved - Beckham and Gary Neville.
"I was on the bench when Beckham made his debut away to Moldova," says Draper. "He was a player who you just knew would be an international for the next 10 or so years. He's probably the best passer and crosser of a football that I've ever seen."
Sadly for Draper, the call to action never came in Chisinau.
"I don't really do regrets," he adds. "I played over 500 games in my career and had some great times but obviously I'm disappointed that, having been involved, I wasn't capped by England.
"I had some injuries later on but I never really reached the peak that I achieved in my first two years at Villa. I'd always played regularly, ever since I was 17, but then the injuries set me back. I wouldn't blame it on them - there was a loss of form too, and the Villa team broke up, so it was a mixture of stuff really."
This coming Sunday, a Villa victory would see the club draw level on points with United in the Premier League table. It's a hard game to call - Paul Lambert's men have only managed to score in three of their last nine outings, while United's current slump means they are winless in their last four league games.
"Villa picked up towards the end of last year and finished really well," says Draper. "That meant there was more expectation on them this year - and they started unbelievably with that win at Arsenal - but a dip has come along since then and they're finding it tough again. Hopefully it'll be like last season and they'll kick on.
"Paul's got a lot of young players there and the goals seem to have dried up for Christian Benteke. They need to go for it on Sunday. It's silly to write United off, but Villa need to set out to win all these home games.
"The last thing Villa want is to go into February looking over their shoulders. Look at Crystal Palace - a month ago, they were written off but they've won three of their last four and now they don't look like certainties to go down any more.
"Hopefully Villa can get going a little bit earlier. If they can get those wins under their belt before the run-in, they can relax a bit more and enjoy their football. But there's about 10 teams now who could feasibly go down."
Teaching kids the skills which will help them become winners is what occupies Draper's time in Nottingham these days. "I worked at Notts County and Stoke academies but now I've gone into business with another former Villa player, David Norton," he says.
"As DNF Coaching, we run soccer camps and training courses, and we work in lots of schools too. I'm really enjoying the grassroots stuff. We've got seven young kids teams of our own, which I coach. It's a bit different to the pro stuff!"
But perhaps not that different. Two of the key DNF objectives are 'building confidence and having fun' - and that 1995 Villa team had enthusiasm and vitality in abundance.
Watch Aston Villa v Manchester United live on Sky Sports 1 HD on Sunday, with coverage underway from 12.30pm.