Lothar Matthaus was in his majestic prime when he arrived at Villa Park with Internazionale of Milan for a UEFA Cup encounter in October 1990. But anyone hoping to witness the dynamic German midfielder, one of the most lauded and decorated footballers the game has ever known, at his devastating best, was in for a sorry letdown; and the man to blame was Paul Birch.
That night the chunky little Midlander marked Matthaus so tightly, and with such fierce resolve, that the eminent visitor was little more than an anonymous bystander as the mighty Italian side slumped to a remarkable 2-0 defeat.
The unhappy footnote, from Villa’s viewpoint, that Inter recovered to win the tie in the second leg did nothing to diminish Birch’s mammoth achievement, which highlighted his immense – if often unobtrusive – contribution to the club over eight seasons of unstinting effort.
Often operating on the right flank, but equally effective when buzzing hyperactively at the heart of midfield, Birch made his senior entrance in claret and blue in unexpected circumstances. He was called on as a substitute for striker Gary Shaw 12 minutes from the end of Villa’s European Super Cup clash at home to Barcelona in January 1983. The 20-year-old helped to close out a 3-0 victory – 3-1 on aggregate – and made his domestic top-flight debut during the following season, laying claim to a fairly regular berth in 1984-85.
Birch became renowned for his ceaseless industry and passionate commitment, but he was also deceptively deft with the ball at his feet and specialised in sudden high-velocity shots from long range.
In 1985/86 he slaved with characteristic zeal as Graham Turner’s men reached the semi-finals of the League Cup, where they lost to Oxford United, the eventual winners. But Villa were a team in decline from the gilded peaks of the early Eighties – when they had lifted the League title and the European Cup in successive campaigns – and in 1986-87 they were relegated.
Birch remained irrepressible, though, proving hugely influential as the future England manager, Graham Taylor, guided Villa back to the top tier at the first attempt, as runners-up to Millwall. However, niggling injuries and the sprightly presence of Tony Daley limited his contribution as Taylor’s combination struggled at first to adjust to the loftier standard, then rose spectacularly to finish runners-up to champions Liverpool in 1989-90.
There remained that memorable subduing of Matthaus before Taylor departed, then Birch found himself surplus to the plans of new boss Jozef Venglos and was sold to Second Division Wolverhampton Wanderers for £400,000 in February 1991.
At Molineux he proved a solid citizen in what was a disappointingly mediocre mid-table outfit, until he was loaned to Preston North End in the spring of 1996 in time to play a telling part in clinching the Third Division championship.
Having entered his mid-thirties, Birch was released by Wolves in the summer of 1996 and went on to brief but efficient spells with Doncaster Rovers and Exeter City, both members of the basement division, before leaving the full-time professional game with more than 450 senior appearances to his name.
There followed two terms with non-League Halesowen Town, where he endeared himself to team-mates and fans alike with his undying enthusiasm and down-to-earth approach, and a stint as a postman, before he accepted coaching roles, first with Forest Green Rovers, then with Birmingham City.
Birch died from cancer, aged 46.
Paul Birch, footballer: born West Bromwich, 20 November 1962; played for Aston Villa 1980-91, Wolverhampton Wanderers 1991-96, Preston North End on loan 1996, Doncaster Rovers 1996-97, Exeter City 1997-98; married (one daughter); died Sutton Coldfield, 2 February 2009.