Villa's Greatest Heroes: David Platt

In a week that saw the new national team manager name five Aston Villa players in his first squad, it seems somehow appropriate to reminisce about the last player from the club to put on an England shirt and really make the world sit up and take notice.

'England have done it...in the last minute of extra time,' isn't quite up there with 'They think it's all over...it is now,' in the world of legendary commentary, but it isn't far off - largely thanks to a certain 1996 song that included it in the introduction.

Still, the words didn't matter at the time. Every England fan was off their seat - and every Villa fan was two feet in the air - when David Platt watched Paul Gascoigne's free-kick drop over his shoulder before volleying it perfectly past Michel Preudhomme to send his country into the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

It was the substitute's first goal for England. He only had to wait 25 minutes of playing time for his second, the opener against Cameroon, after being elevated to the starting XI in the absence of Bryan Robson. A strike in the third-place play-off made it three for the tournament, and England's surprise inclusion was almost the name on everyone's lips.


Almost, because everyone in England was more focussed on the emergence of a young lad called Gascoigne (and those tears). The Geordie was no doubt more naturally talented than the lad from Lancashire. That one would go on to captain his country while the other wasted as much talent as an English player has possessed since the war should underline to anyone the fact that hard graft is every bit as important to a footballer's career as natural ability.

Platt, of course, had to work harder than most to make it to the top, after leaving Manchester United for Crewe Alexandra and the Fourth Division at the age of 19. It's a popular myth that Platt was 'rejected' by United. The truth is that Ron Atkinson had already tipped him to make it big, but with Mark Hughes, Norman Whiteside, Alan Brazil and Frank Stapleton - all internationals - ahead of him in the pecking order as a striker, Platt, Atkinson and Dario Gradi all saw a brighter future for the teenager away from Old Trafford.

The move to Crewe had originally been a loan, an opportunity for the youngster to get some first-team experience, before Gradi persuaded Atkinson to make it permanent. "I don't make too many mistakes, but that was one," said Big Ron in the aftermath of Italia '90. "But I always had the feeling that he was going to make it."

It wasn't just an attempt to look smart in hindsight. Platt remembers Atkinson's last words to him in the Old Trafford manager's office as, "When you get a cap for England, remember what I told you." What was it? "Just keep working hard. I always liked you because you worked hard."

Platt did. His spell at Crewe began with a bang - just as his careers with Villa and England would - and a flurry of early goals had big-name clubs of the calibre of West Ham eyeing Gradi's capture. The Crewe man, as wise a developer of talent as any in the game, knew more money would be up for grabs further down the line, and deflected John Lyall's attention.

So it was that Platt spent three weeks shy of three years at Gresty Road. "I was top man," he remembered after his move to Villa, worrying that he wouldn't be able to make the change from big fish in a small pond. He was top man because of his goals, fifty-six of them in 134 league games. As 1987 turned into 1988, the vultures began circling again.

Chelsea, Wolves, Hibernian, Leicester...Graham Taylor didn't bid first, but he bid most. The leaders of the Second Division offered Crewe £200,000 for their talisman at the start of February. Gradi accepted, and Platt was on his way to the big time.

Not immediately, of course, for there was the small matter of securing promotion in a faltering campaign. Platt played his part, scoring on his debut, and in his second match, and again in his third. More as an attacker than a midfielder, he helped fire a promotion secured in bizarre scenes on the final day, when a draw saw Villa promoted on goals scored ahead of Bradford and Middlesbrough, who both lost.

Knowing that Villa finished second in the top-flight two years later (the season, incidentally, in which Liverpool's years of domination ended with their last title to date), hindsight would suggest a steady progression. In reality, the two seasons involved a major turnover of personnel.

In came McGrath, Mountfield and more. Gordon Cowans returned from Bari. The two best players of one season, McInally and Keown, were sold to fund the next campaign. Somehow, under Taylor's guidance, it resulted in Villa's best season in eight years, and best league finish in nine.

For Platt, the rewards were even greater. He was named PFA Player of the Year in the spring of 1990, in only his second season of top-flight football. The names of the winners in the few years either side of Platt underline the prestige of the award; Mark Hughes, John Barnes, Gary Lineker, Gary Pallister, Eric Cantona and, of course, Paul McGrath.

With the attention came international recognition. A first cap as a substitute against Italy, a first start against Brazil and, with just three caps under his belt, a place on the plane to the World Cup.

There were no hints at the start as to how well England, and their unpretentious number 17, would do. A Gary Lineker goal secured a draw with Ireland. A stalemate with Holland came next, along with Platt's first World Cup minutes - 26 of them - as a replacement for Bryan Robson (a preview of what was to come, if only we had known). Victory over Egypt - and a place in the second round - was secured thanks to Mark Wright's head, and while Platt left the bench again it was for just four minutes as Bobby Robson sought to kill time.

Five days later, in Bologna, no-one expected him to do anything more than that. But in the absence of Bryan Robson's midfield drive, England found it impossible to break down Enzo Scifo and his Belgian teammates. After 71 minutes, the other Robson looked to Platt.

It was to be another 50 minutes before the breakthrough, Platt's perfect goal coming just as the country braced itself for penalties. Something about 'Platt - 119'' on that scoresheet still gives me a shiver. With the finish - the first goal from a Villa player for England in a World Cup - came international interest; a string of Italian clubs enquired about Platt.


In the end he was to spend another year at Villa, in that dark season under Jo Venglos, before Bari - who had fond memories of the captures of Rideout and Cowans - finally offered five and a half million pounds. More than twenty-five times what they had paid represented good value for Villa; so did Platt's 68 goals in almost 200 games.

The Lancashire lad loved Italy, "the lifestyle as well as the football." Not for him the troubles and complaints that traditonally dog English stars abroad.

"Over there they just seem to get more out of the day," he said recently. "Meals out were great, here was none of this having to book and wait for your wife to get ready. It was spontaneous - you could just walk into a restaurant in jeans or a suit and tie - whatever you wanted. They just seem to get more out of life than we do."

But few of them got more out of 90 minutes than Platt. Better than a one in three average from midfield in a notoriously watertight league wasn't only enough to secure Bari's survival, but to see Juventus add another million to Platt's value and take him back to the Stadio delle Alpi on June 1, 1992.

He had last seen the place on July 4, 1990. His last kick of a ball there had been England's third penalty, and the third to hit the back of the net. It was followed by Stuart Pearce's memorable miss and Chris Waddle firing into the top tier, as Robson's England reign ended in tears.

Graham Taylor's began in hope, and for no-one more than Platt. The combination of his performances in the World Cup and the appointment of his club manager to the international hotseat were a clear indication that he would be part of England's future. His goals fired the side to the European Championships, but in the absence of Barnes and Gascoigne and the dwindling of Lineker - whose armband ended up on Platt's left arm - the trip to Sweden ended as cold as a Scandinavian winter.

Worse was to follow. England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Platt was at the centre of the storm; as he drove into the Dutch area in a game that would effectively decide which team caught the plane to America, Ronald Koeman brought him crashing to the ground. It should have been a penalty and a red card. The referee awarded a free-kick and a yellow. Minutes later, Koeman scored at the other end. "I couldn't watch the World Cup because we should have been part of it and we weren't," said Platt later.

Out with the old, and in with the new. Terry Venables became Platt's third international manager, and the second to name him as captain. Euro '96 saw football come home. Platt had beaten it, signing for Arsenal in 1995 for the best part of five million pounds, after more success at Juventus and Sampdoria.

Still, for all the performances, there were no medals, either in domestic or international football. Euro '96 saw the 32-year-old Platt's last chance at the latter. Like his first, it ended in heartbreak, in a semi-final, against Germany. Again, his last kick was to score his penalty in a shoot-out.

In all, David Platt scored 27 goals for England. Only nine men have managed more, and the total is even more impressive when Platt's position in midfield is considered.

He managed to finish his career with honours as well, playing a key part in Arsenal's league and cup double in 1998. Few goals that season were more vital to the Gunners' cause than Platt's 83rd minute effort against Manchester United.

"Just keep working hard," Ron Atkinson had told him in the Old Trafford manager's office fifteen years earlier. He always did.