Villa's Greatest Heroes: Nigel Spink

Peter Bonetti. Nigel Martyn. Two great goalkeepers who in many eras other than their own - and certainly today in 2008 - would have been comfortably established as England's number one, but were unlucky enough to find their way blocked by men with the slightest of edges over them; Gordon Banks, arguably the world's best ever, and David 'Safe Hands' Seaman.

Ray Clemence, extraordinarily, actually won sixty-one caps and captained his country in a friendly against Brazil before eventually conceding defeat after a decade of fighting Peter Shilton for the shirt. That was the start of the eighties, as Shilton entered his prime; from then on no-one would seriously compete with him for his place until he retired with a record 125 caps after trips to the World Cup in 1986 and 1990 and the 1988 European Championships.

That was bad news for a number of top-class goalkeepers, including Nigel Spink, who would surely have managed more than one substitute appearance against Australia in any other era (Spink, in fact, was unlucky enough to be competing against both Shilton and Clemence in his first two seasons as Villa's number one - three players with six European Cup wins between them).

And coincidentally, the unknown Spink made his Aston Villa debut against the PFA Player of the Year Shilton's Nottingham Forest - the European champions - on Boxing Day 1979. Neither man kept a clean sheet as Forest won 2-1. Shilton would go on to retain the European Cup five months later, while Spink would not play another first-team game for over two years.

While people would have thought you mad at that point if you predicted that Spink's second game would be the match it was, the wait should not have surprised anyone. When Ron Saunders paid £40,000 for a young goalkeeper five months after his 18th birthday, he made clear to him there was a long road to the first team ahead.

There was a long road behind as well. Essex-born Spink had been on schoolboy terms with West Ham, but had been released at 15 to his hometown club, Chelmsford City, where he combined football with a career as an apprentice plasterer. A series of good performances drew the eyes of Villa's scouts, and persuaded Saunders that a speculative investment was worthwhile.

He could never have guessed how worthwhile it would be.

"There weren't any nerves because it happened so quickly," says Spink of his second game behind the Aston Villa defence. "We (the substitutes) didn't get nervous, we didn't even think about the fact we might go on."

Every Villa fan can tell you who scored the goal that won the greatest prize in club football, but few would deny that most of the action took place at the other end of the pitch. 'The real story,' wrote The Guardian newspaper the next day, 'concerned a young goalkeeper.' And what a story.

'Nigel Spink, 23, who had made only one first team appearance for Aston Villa and that two-and-a-half seasons ago, replaced Rimmer in the 10th minute because Villa's regular goalkeeper was feeling the effects of a neck injury received in training on Tuesday and could not continue.

'Far from being overawed by his sudden change of circumstances, brought from the hollow echoes of Central League football and thrust into a European Cup final to face some of the best strikers in West Germany's World Cup squad, Spink calmly took stock of the situation and then proceeded to thwart Bayern with a series of remarkable saves.'

Just reading about them, as recounted by The Guardian, raises the hairs on the back of your neck and sets the butterflies fluttering in your stomach: 'First Durnberger cut in past Swain on the left and, although his low shot almost beat the goalkeeper, Spink was quick to reach back and grab the ball. In the next instant he blocked a shot by Rummenigge and Mathy's shot from the rebound cannoned back off Evans. A little later Rummenigge produced an acrobatic kick which beat Spink but went wide.

'Augenthaler beat Withe and Bremner as he ran two thirds of the length of the pitch, Evans slipped as he moved in to make a tackle, but the German could only shoot wide of the far post. Durnberger was on target on the hour, but Spink saved; Swain headed off the line from Augenthaler; Spink managed to grab the ball as Hoeness flicked out a foot at a low cross and after Breitner had sent Horsman to the byline on the left, Hoeness arrived unmarked in the goalmouth, only to miss the ball completely.'

In the end, Peter Withe's solitary strike was enough to win it. And yet 'the end' was just the beginning of Spink's Villa career, which would go on to include relegation, promotion, title challenges and silverware at Wembley.

That remarkable performance in Rotterdam was not enough to earn Spink the number one shirt straight away. Jimmy Rimmer took back his place for the start of the next season, before departing for Swansea as the first man to win the European Cup with two different clubs, having sat on the bench for Matt Busby's Manchester United in 1968.

Spink finally got his chance as a regular between the posts, and was quickly back in Europe. Michel Platini's Juventus, who would go on to face Hamburg in the final, knocked the defending champions out of the European Cup in the quarter final, but Villa were to have more luck in the European Super Cup.

A goal from Marcos Alonso Peña was enough to give Cup Winners' Cup champions Barcelona the lead in the first leg at Camp Nou, and a Villa side struggling to adapt to a world without Saunders - with the greatest respect to Tony Barton, few would disagree that momentum mattered as much as management in the Rotterdam triumph - were largely written off ahead of the return clash.

At Villa Park, though, Spink was again immense, holding Barcelona at bay until Gary Shaw levelled things on aggregate with a strike ten minutes from the end of normal time. Gordon Cowans gave the home side the lead after 100 minutes, before Ken McNaught sealed the win.

'That victory,' states the official UEFA record, 'was also to mark the end of a long period of English dominance in Europe.' A few months later, Hamburg would take the European Cup off English soil for the first time since 1976.

Spink, meanwhile, found his place under threat from the more-than-capable Mervyn Day. Some years earlier, Day had been named PFA Young Player of the Year - still the only goalkeeper to win the award - as he helped West Ham to FA Cup glory. He was to play 30 times for Villa before Spink saw off his challenge, and would go on to play for Leeds, Luton Town and Sheffield United.

And from then on, Spink was as unchallenged for Villa for the rest of the decade as Shilton was for England. Sadly the same could not be said for his side; as the European Cup winners slipped away to one destination or another, their former club struggled gamely before giving up the ghost and sliding into Division Two.

But if Spink was part of that relegated side, he was a far more important part of the side Graham Taylor led back to the top flight. It seems astonishing to think that a Second Division team could have a spine of Spink, Mountfield, Cowans and Platt, and so it is less surprising that with the addition of Paul McGrath and a few others, that promoted side would go on to challenge for the title in 1990, finishing runners-up to Liverpool. Spink did not miss one game that season.

He would go on to see off the challenge of Les Sealey as Villa entered the Premiership era and again finished as runners-up, but the emergence of Mark Bosnich would prove a step too far for a man coming towards the latter half of his thirties. Spink was sitting on the bench as Villa beat Manchester United in the 1994 League Cup final, and eventually left the club in 1996, going on to become the oldest goalkeeper in West Bromwich Albion's history at 39.

Three years and 44 appearances for Millwall followed, before a 43-year-old Spink hung up his gloves following a spell at Forest Green Rovers. He would go on to coach at Birmingham City - "It felt strange going to the other club," he admits - and is currently polishing Chris Kirkland's skills at Wigan Athletic, a true veteran of the game.

But to a certain generation of Aston Villa fans, despite more than 450 appearances and nearly two decades of service, he'll always be the young goalkeeper in one of football's greatest stories.