Paul Birch: The Aston Villa footballer who crushed the Italians

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.

Ivan Ponting

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
news
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
New Articles
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Sport
sport
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all