Aston Villa 2, Oxford United 2
Magnificent Oxford United are just one victory away from an historic first trip to Wembley, writes JOHN LEY.
A single goal win is all United need to secure their place in the 1986 Milk Cup final after a scintillating semi-final leg tie at Villa Park last night.
By securing a draw, United are halfway to completing the task.
They now meet Villa in the second leg next Wednesday knowing that home advantage could be enough to take them to their first ever major final.
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They deserve it, too after forcing the draw and very nearly leaving Birmingham with a victory.
And once again it was that man John Aldridge who kept alive United’s cup final dreams with both goals, the second an equalising penalty in a game which buzzed with everything including its fair share of controversy.
Aldridge gave United an early lead, Villa replied with a cracker from the exciting Paul Birch and then in a crazy second half both sides scored again.
Yet it was Oxford who recorded the moral victory to send nearly 5,000 travelling fans home delirious and certain that on April 20 Maurice Evans will lead their side onto the famous turf.
And if the second leg is anything like last night’s affair, the cramped Manor ground is in for its greatest, most memorable night yet.
Both United and Villa forgot about the pressures of Wembley and used both wingers on a perfect surface.
For 90 pulsating minutes they attacked each other, with United deserving a victory which would have been achieved if they had taken their chances.
Aldridge scored after just eight minutes when Trevor Hebberd sent a high pass from his own half to the right flank. Ray Houghton, who enjoyed an outstanding performance, outstripped his inexperienced marker, Dean Glover and crossed for Aldridge who slammed home first time from ten yards.
That set the standard and United did not disappoint.
Just 14 minutes later Aldridge was denied a second by the woodwork following a great move.
Jeremy Charles fed Les Phillips. He sent the ball to Aldridge who jinked past a defender and chipped to the far corner, only to see his effort hit the stanchion.
Houghton, revelling in a free role on the flank, saw Villa goalkeeper Nigel Spink save his shot before the home side equalised, in the 34th minute.
A long throw-in from Darren Bradley caused trouble for United with both Gary Briggs and Phillips trying to clear. The ball fell to Paul Birch who controlled neatly from the edge of the area and fired perfectly into the top right corner.
United had good reason to feel aggrieved after forcing so many goalworthy chances.
But ten minutes after the break they were most annoyed when Villa went ahead.
Mark Walters’s left wing corner was back headed by Villa skipper Alan Evans and headed home by Simon Stainrod. Phillips tried to clear but the ball had already crossed the line.
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United’s players launched into a vociferous complaint with referee Joe Worrall, insisting that Paul Kerr’s challenge on Alan Judge was illegal but the protest was ignored.
Within 60 seconds, United were back on level terms amid further controversy.
From the restart United attacked, with Aldridge fending off a physical challenge by Evans but quite clearly felled by a second crude attempt by the Villa skipper.
Aldridge sent the penalty to the right. Spink guessed correctly, but couldn’t stop the deadly striker from scoring his 23rd goal of the season.
That inspired United to search for a winner – and with a bit more luck it would have come.
Peter Rhoades-Brown caused problems down the left flank towards the end.
But it was Charles who missed a great chance in the 85th minute when Malcolm Shotton’s long pass was headed back by Aldridge but weakly finished by Charles’s head.
Oxford United: Judge, Trewick, Slatter, Phillips, Briggs, Shotton, Houghton, Aldridge, Charles, Hebberd, Rhoades-Brown. Sub: Langan.
Aston Villa: Spink, Norton, Glover, Evans, Elliott, Bradley, Birch, Kerr, Stainrod, Hodge, Walters. Sub: Shaw.
Referee: J Worrall (Warrington)
Jack Charlton is short-listing two of United’s heroes for their international debuts.
The new Republic of Ireland boss saw John Aldridge score two goals and drooled at the skills of midfielder Ray Houghton.
Neither player was born in Ireland, but both qualify through their ancestry – and that will do for Charlton who is scouting the talent available in time for Ireland’s next international against Wales on March 26.
“I don’t know what qualifications Aldridge has, but I’ve been told he can play for us,” said Charlton.
“He’s a great finisher and gets into good positions.
“He took his first goal extremely well because it was a difficult ball to control but he kept it down. That’s the mark of a goalscorer.”
Of Houghton, Charlton said: “He was the best player on the park. When he had the ball he always looked a threat.”
Aldridge, with 23 goals from his first season in Division 1, responded by pledging his support to Charlton if given the chance, at the age of 27, to earn an international cap.
“My form has come at the right time, and if it was offered I would say yes to wear the green shirt of Ireland.”
Aldridge owes his qualification for Ireland – he was born in Liverpool – to his great grandmother.
She was called Mary Calne, and lived with the Aldridge family in Liverpool until she died, when John was six years old.
“She was nan to me, and a great lady,” recalls the striker.
“If I did play for Ireland it would be lovely because she was such a nice lady.”