Aston Villa v Inter Milan: How Phil King became an unlikely cult hero

“I don’t do much on Facebook, but I said we’ve got to track this fella down and see if he got it (the tattoo). It was curiosity at first, but then I thought it’d just be nice to say hello,” says Phil King.

He’s urging me to think twice about getting a tattoo of his face on my own butt. We’re having this conversation because he found an article I wrote in 2017 about this very subject. Some people cut their hair when their life is in a rut, I get a new tattoo.

I ended up not getting it, but King wanted to find out for himself. So now, in the middle of lockdown, we’re talking on the phone.

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My mother once gave me a piece of advice, saying “be careful what you say on the internet, it might come back to bite you on the bum one day.” Sage, though often ignored, I had no idea that one day this would be the thing I said on the internet that would come back to me. 

There are some moments in professional sports that become iconic without you realising it. Era-defining moments filled with joy, whether it leads to greater success or not. For me, that moment was when Phil King, a £250,000 full-back, rifled a penalty past one of the best goalkeepers in the world to send Aston Villa through to the second round of the UEFA Cup in 1994.

Every organisation in the history of sports has a cult hero and, for me, and probably many others my age, Phil King is that cult hero. It didn’t matter that he didn’t make 350 appearances for the club or that he didn’t score 20 goals a season. His involvement in one of the more memorable European nights at Villa Park has etched him firmly in memory.

I knew nothing of King at the time. He enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top flight, spending just a season each with Exeter City and Torquay United, before making a name for himself at Swindon Town. Ossie Ardiles sold him to Ron Atkinson’s Sheffield Wednesday in 1989 and there, he embarked on a fast upward trajectory

King already had a handful of under-21 caps to his name and in 1991 was selected for a B international against Switzerland, but after establishing himself as a regular at Hillsborough under Atkinson, things started to unravel when Trevor Francis took charge.

Problems over a new contract didn’t help, neither did Francis bringing in new faces for his defensive line and a snapped cruciate ligament spelled the beginning of the end of his time at Hillsborough.

 Salvation came in the form of Ron Atkinson again. King didn’t need much convincing and agreed to a £250,000 move to the midlands. He was met at the door to Villa Park by chairman Doug Ellis, who informed him they’d tried to sign him a year prior for £650,000.

Brought in as an understudy to the dependable Steve Staunton at left-back, King was prepared to wait and graft for his opportunity. He knew the majority of the dressing room already and had no problems fitting in. However, he’d get his chance to shine sooner than he thought.

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The opening game of the 94/95 season saw Villa travel to Merseyside to take on Everton. At 2-0 down, things looked to get worse for Villa as Staunton tweaked his hamstring and was forced to come off. King played his part in a fightback that saw Villa come away with a 2-2 draw. From then on, he kept his spot in the team.

Villa struggled, though. An unbeaten five-game opening to the season gave way to a nine-game winless streak that lasted from mid-September until the end of November. In between that winless streak, was a two-legged UEFA Cup tie with Inter Milan.

The Italian giants were packed with talent. Gianluca Pagliuca, Dennis Bergkamp and Giuseppe Bergomi were all household names, considered among the best players in the world. This was either going to be an opportunity to give everyone at the club something to cheer about, or it’d prove an unwanted distraction.

 

The day of the first leg, the heavens opened. The area around the San Siro as you exit from the underground is desolate at the best of times – a giant concourse of nothing leading to the stadium’s strange UFO-like structure. On this day it was particularly eerie as just 22,000 fans sat in attendance.

King, who’d dreamed of playing in ties and stadiums like this, was shocked at the lack of glamour in one of football’s most storied cathedrals.

“There was just a hole in the ground if you needed to go have a dump,” he laughs. “It was a real eye opener.”

Atkinson, who always looked to get under his opponents’ skin, told his big striker John Fashanu to go and put his red boots on (which at the time were rare in British football) and “go to the middle of the pitch and start doing all your kung fu.”

Fashanu obliged and before kick off, stood in the centre circle doing roundhouse kicks and shadow boxing. The Villa players tried their best to keep straight faces, while the Inter players looked on in bemusement.

Fashanu’s display of physical prowess didn’t have the desired effect, though. Villa went down to a Bergkamp penalty, but the return leg at Villa Park two weeks later was a different story. 

“The ground was rocking,” King remembers, “what an atmosphere.” King recalls Atkinson having another trick up his sleeve before kick off, inviting a five-foot-nothing opera singer named Pablo into the dressing room to belt out a rendition of Neesun Dorma.

“Leave the door open,” Atkinson exclaimed, allowing Inter’s players to stick their heads through the door.

The game was played at a frantic pace, with both teams having chances to score. Ray Houghton, who months earlier had fired the ball past Pagliuca in New Jersey in the 1994 World Cup, did so again just before half time, restoring parity.

 “With the players we had, we thought we could get something, but we were desperate not to give one away,” King recalls.

 The second half, and extra-time came and went with no break in the stalemate. This meant the tie would be resolved from the spot. Atkinson hadn’t factored in penalties before the game, and was now relying on his key players to show their bottle. King offered to take Villa’s fifth and final penalty: “I thought it might be all over by then.”

The first six penalties went in, until Davide Fontalan skied his effort over the bar. However, Villa failed to take advantage as Guy Whittingham hit his straight at Pagliuca. Ruben Sosa then crashed his against the bar. This was King’s chance.

“I was nervous as anything,” King remembers. Not only was this the final kick of a European fixture under the Villa Park lights, but there was a million quid riding on it. Years later, Ron Atkinson would remark on how cool King seemed, claiming to have seen him whistling as he made the walk from the halfway line.

“I was always going to hit it down the middle, but I gave him [Pagliuca] the eyes and looked to his left,” King explains.

With a short run up, King dispatched his penalty and turned, with his arms outstretched, bodies coming towards him in all directions. That image remains iconic for Villa fans of a certain age, but King insists his Christ pose celebration wasn’t pre-meditated: “I was so knackered I didn’t know what to do.”

With the pitch now flooded with fans and King’s legs seizing up with cramp, he exited into the dressing room on physio Jim Barron’s back.

The mood after the game was subdued. Villa would host Newcastle three days later and the extra-time had wiped them out. In the following weeks, with Villa winless in the league for nine games, Atkinson was sacked. An incident which marked the beginning of the end of King.

Brian Little was named as the club’s new manager shortly after and wasted no time in bringing in Alan Wright from Blackburn. King was out of the squad. When he was in, he didn’t play and saw more time in the reserves than he would’ve liked. A period in which he hinted a short spell of depression.

Villa survived by the skin of their teeth that season and Little set about shipping out older players like Kevin Richardson and Shaun Teale to bring in younger blood like Gareth Southgate and Mark Draper. King excelled in pre-season, but was still no closer to starting games. He was sent on loan to West Brom to get some game time, but following just a handful of games, a collision with Norwich’s Keith Scott brought about a reoccurrence of his old cruciate injury. He wouldn’t play again for 18 months,

King was now 29 and not featuring in Villa’s plans, he had the opportunity to return to Swindon under Steve McMahon.

But his second coming at Swindon came under threat from an unlikely source. In a pre-season game, Swindon took on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. King was approached by Chelsea scout Gwyn Williams, who asked if he’d be interested in a five-month deal with the Blues to cover for youngster Scott Minto.  

King admits the move was tempting, but with three kids to care for, Swindon doubled the money on offer and gave him a two-and-a-half-year deal, so he stayed at the County Ground. Sadly, though, his reprise for the Robins didn’t get his career back on track.

“You think to yourself, you’re going to go back and be the superhero you were before,” King says, but his injury problems persisted and he was paid off with six months left on his deal.

A chance to join Chester and Terry Smith’s American Dream came and went, but he was offered a final reprieve with Kidderminster Harriers, who were plotting their assault on the football league.

Under his footballing hero Jan Molby, King felt rejuvinated. Harriers gained promotion from the Conference that season with three games to spare, but a tough decision was coming.

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King had taken on a pub in Swindon and his family were settled. With Harriers turning professional following their promotion, he would need to stick or twist, but any decision now would need to be long-term. So he called time on his career to run the spit and sawdust pub The Dolphin, which he still runs to this day.

“I’m financially better off now than I was when I was playing, but the injuries were heartbreaking and took their toll on me mentally,” he says.

“The injuries prepared me for retirement, the pub trade is suited to my personality. If I’d earned the money players get now – an average left-back in the Premier League is probably on between £30,000-£50,000 per week – I wouldn’t have met the people I know now, my life would’ve been on a different path, but you’ve got to be proud of what you’ve done.”

King has stayed in football, working as a match-day host for Swindon and the occasional bit of radio work when Sheffield Wednesday are in the south-west.

When he has time, he does as much charity work as he can for everything from guide dogs to down syndrome as well as putting on regular coffee mornings for the elderly in his local community.

He realises what he did that night in Birmingham was important to some people but sometimes struggles to be held in such high esteem: “sometimes I get embarrassed about it, but being etched into fans’ memories is very nice – you don’t always realise just how much it affects people.”

Our hour-and-a-half chat has come to an end and King has been jovial throughout. It’s the measure of the man. Before we sign off he offers to come with me if I do decide to go through with the tattoo “but think about it first,” he reiterates.

I guess I’d better find the number of a good artist…

Aston Villa v Inter Milan: How Phil King became an unlikely cult hero
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