When Ron Atkinson remembers "the most dramatic football match" of his managerial career, it is not the night in 1984 that his Manchester United side overturned a two-goal first-leg deficit against Diego Maradona's Barcelona in the European Cup Winners' Cup quarter-final, but rather a victory over Tranmere Rovers.
It was the League Cup semi-final of 1994 and then as now, Aston Villa found themselves 3-1 behind after 90 minutes against lower-league opposition. The comeback that followed – in front of the ITV cameras on a Sunday afternoon – remains the only time any team have reached the final of the competition after a first-leg loss by two goals or more. And though Villa went on to beat United at Wembley, denying them a domestic Treble, getting through that incident-packed semi-final provided the bigger test of nerve.
"It had everything," Atkinson says of a contest that saw his namesake Dalian strike in injury-time of the first-leg at Prenton Park. "They were winning 3-0 and with the last kick we scored. When we came in after the game you would have thought we'd won and they'd lost; they were quite deflated."
Pat Nevin was part of that enterprising Tranmere team, then fifth in the second tier, and he concurs: "We'd just beaten Villa 3-1 but there was something in the back of our minds thinking that one goal [following a debatable free-kick] was damned unfortunate." If that was unfortunate, Lady Luck abandoned them altogether in Birmingham. "It's like a bad dream, all the things that went wrong," Nevin adds.
Although Villa made a flying start with goals from Dean Saunders and Shaun Teale, the big talking point arrived after 26 minutes when goalkeeper Mark Bosnich conceded a penalty for bringing down John Aldridge. The Australian escaped a red card and though beaten by Aldridge's spot-kick, he went on to save three penalties in the shootout. "In today's game he would have gone straight away but for whatever reason, [the referee Allan Gunn] didn't even book him," recalls Teale.
Unlike Paul Lambert's Villa, that 1994 team was packed with experience – "the likes of Andy Townsend, Steve Staunton, Ray Houghton, Paul McGrath – the Irish contingent," Teale remembers – and they also had a noisy Villa Park behind them. "That was the most electric atmosphere, helped by the fact that the club decided to play 'We Will Rock You' right through the game."
Yet Tranmere held out until the 88th minute when Villa levelled the aggregate scores at 5-5. "We battered away and before the end of normal time Dalian Atkinson got another goal which put us all square," says Ron Atkinson. "Even then with the last kick of the match [Tranmere's] Liam O'Brien had a shot that hit one post and rolled across the line."
Even the penalty shootout had twists and turns. Entering sudden death at 4-4, Villa captain Kevin Richardson stepped forward when the assigned taker hesitated – and he missed, giving O'Brien the chance to send Tranmere through. "There was a delay of 10 seconds or so and I thought 'I've got to take the responsibility'. I missed. Then it was all down to Bozzie [Bosnich] to keep us in the competition; thankfully, he saved it," said Richardson.
Villa were on their way. Tony Daley made it 5-4, Bosnich denied Ian Nolan and Wembley beckoned. "It was awesome, the place was rocking, the best atmosphere I ever experienced in a game at Villa Park," says Daley, who hopes for something similar tonight. "If that can't raise them nothing will and for that reason I think Villa have a good chance." Atkinson feels the same: "I just have a feeling they will go through."