Villa's Greatest Heroes: Peter Withe

Eyebrows were raised when Aston Villa forked out £500,000 on a journeyman striker plying his trade in the Second Division with Newcastle United.

They would have left foreheads if someone had told the fans that, less than two years later, Peter Withe would score the winning goal in the most important match in the club's history.


Not that it was a classic finish. "Peter says to this day he meant it," says Tony Morley. "But I can tell you now it came off his shin."

Morley should know better than anyone. It was his drilled pass that left Withe with the simplest of opportunities (although that description does the number nine no justice; only the best strikers find space to have simple opportunities against defences of the quality of Bayern Munich). Withe, however, maintains there was no luck involved - even if he does admit it wasn't as sweetly-struck as many of the goals that had fired Villa to that final, and the league before it.

"I told myself to concentrate 150 percent," he said later. "Then, just as I was about to make contact, it hit a divot and bobbled. I followed through and hit it with my shin." A moment's doubt? Apparently not. "As soon as I connected, I knew it was going in, even though it went in off the post."

"If he had connected properly, the goalkeeper might have made a save but the way it bounced off his shin, he had no chance," remembers Morley. And Aston Villa became the fourth English team to win the biggest trophy in club football.

The flight of the ball towards Manfred Müller's goal was far from the only thing unpredictable about Withe. His decision to choose Villa in the summer of 1980 shocked his nearest and dearest, for amongst the seven teams chasing his signature were Everton, his boyhood side. "I had watched them as a kid. I used to sell programmes outside the ground," he remembered. "My family and friends couldn't believe it when I turned down Everton."


But the Toffees were a team in transition, and Ron Saunders sold Villa to Withe as genuine title challengers, despite the side having just finished seventh. Withe, said Saunders, was the final piece in the jigsaw. As usual, he was right.

A choice between his childhood dreams and chance to challenge for a second title must have seemed like a dream to the 29-year-old Withe, who had been an apprentice electrician 15 years earlier, playing football as and when he could. Even when he finally turned professional, at the age of 20, it was in the less than glamorous surroundings of the Fourth Division and Haig Avenue, with Southport.

A few years later, with Withe long gone, the Sandgrounders were voted out of the Football League in favour of Wigan. They followed another of the clubs where Withe served his whirlwind apprenticeship, Barrow, who were replaced by Hereford Town in 1972. And that was where things turned slightly unusual for the striker.

Withe, never afraid of a challenge, upped sticks for South Africa, playing for both Port Elizabeth City and Arcadia Shepherds in a year. It was at the latter where another famous Villa number nine took a hand in his career; the late Derek Dougan recommending him to Wolverhampton Wanderers. Withe arrived in the top flight of English football only slightly belated; his efforts in the lower league and the southern hemisphere had all been before the age of 22.

And so began a spell that saw Withe, like so many of his peers, represent more than one of Villa's local rivals. Birmingham City paid £50,000 to take him to St Andrews - a move that, five years later, would contribute to the concerns some Villa fans felt when Saunders chose to gamble on the striker. His next stop in the Midlands brought him his first title medal. Like Saunders four years later, Brian Clough saw enough in Withe to convince him the striker could play a part in a team challenging for the title.

Not just challenging for, but winning. Nottingham Forest were newly promoted from the Second Division, but were entering three years that exceeded even Clough's wildest dreams. Withe, along with the likes of Peter Shilton, Kenny Burns, Viv Anderson and, of course, Martin O'Neill, shocked the nation by capturing the championship at the first attempt.

But that was, for the moment, the end of the glory for Withe. Forest would go on to win two European Cups in two years, but he would not be part of it. Clough, keen to raise funds to bring in Trevor Francis from Birmingham City, took the chance to quadruple his money, selling the powerful striker to Newcastle United for £200,000. The Magpies were Withe's ninth club in less than eight years.

His post-playing career has been equally as well-travelled, although most of his jobs have had far more longevity about them. Brought in as assistant manager to Jo Venglos in the ill-fated attempt to replace Graham Taylor, Withe then took the reins at Wimbledon, but lasted just four months at the helm. He was still respected enough to be offered the job as chief scout at Villa Park. And while he was performing that role things took, as they had 25 years earlier, an unusual twist.

In 1998, the Thai FA were desperately trying to save the game in their country. It would take a fighter to do it, and everyone in football knew there were few tougher fighters than Peter Withe.

"The game in Thailand was in a mess when I took over," he frankly admits. "They had been suspended by FIFA, along with Indonesia, over a Tiger Cup match which neither side wanted to win. Victory would have meant going to play Vietnam in Hanoi, somewhere they didn't want to go. Indonesia ended up winning 1-0 after an own goal."

Withe quicky turned things around, leading the side to the Tiger Cup (now the ASEAN Football Championship) in 2000, and retaining the biennial trophy two years later. Then things turned sour - for one, or possibly both, of two reasons: footballing and fashion.

Peter Withe scores for Aston Villa in the European Cup final

"It was because we'd lost to the United Arab Emirates and failed to qualify for the Olympics," remembers Withe. "It was never about the shorts." The shorts in question were Withe's; Vijitr Getkaew, the president of the Thai FA, suspending him for refusing to wear a suit. "I told him they were my work clothes and that I like to go on the pitch before a game to take the warm-up. The temperature is normally in the 90s - why should I wear a pair of trousers?"

In the aftermath of the dispute, Withe decided to take a break from the game, at the urging of his wife. "Kathy has always been there for me when and wherever I've needed to go for 30 years," he said. "I thought it was time we lived somewhere she wanted to." They settled on Perth; a mistake from Mrs Withe if she wanted the break to be anything other than short-lived. Her husband's reputation in the Far East was still considerable, and it isn't that far from Australia to Indonesia. There, a couple of years later and two days after Boxing Day 2004, Withe faced the biggest challenge of his career.

His side were due to face Malaysia in the semi-final of the Tiger Cup - the tournament in which Withe had made his managerial reputation with Thailand. But the day was overshadowed by one of the greatest losses of human life in memory. On Boxing Day, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were amongst the multitudes who lost their lives in the Asian Tsunami. Even more lost their homes and possessions, their family and friends.

Withe was on his way to take a training session with the Indonesia side when the disaster struck. He was never in danger; "Jakarta was too far south to be hit directly," he told The Observer some weeks later. "But as news of the disaster came through things changed. People were in a state of shock and despair."

In such circumstances, one realises that football is a trivial thing. "Almost every team member knew someone who had been affected. My assistant coach, Fachri Husaini, and one of my players, Ismet Sofyand, are both from Aceh and we’re still waiting to hear from missing relatives," Withe told the newspaper. During one team-talk, his interpreter broke down in tears. But if the beautiful game can be trivial, it can also be healing.

"It was hard for them to think about football, but I told them it was a chance to unite the nation. It's not much, but what else could I do?" A win over two legs took Indonesia to the final against Singapore. More than 110,000 people filled the stadium, and Withe himself arranged for two giant screens outside the ground to show the action inside. He was unable to make it three titles in a row; Singapore winning on the day. But he had made something of a difference in a country that needed all the balms it could get.

He is as sharp as he is compassionate. In the same interview that January, an Observer reporter asked him if he missed home. "Not really," Withe replied. "You can get a pint of Tetley's pretty much anywhere these days." That quick wit was as useful on the pitch as off it.

On April 25 1981, Villa went into their second-to-last match of the season, needing a win to stay ahead of Ipswich at the top of the table. The only problem was the opposition; Middlesbrough were Villa's bogey side, and they knew it. As the players worriedly prepared for the game, Withe announced that he had never been on the losing side against Middlesbrough, and wasn't about to start now.

"You should have seen their expressions," he laughed later. "We could have had ten, but settled for three. Afterwards, the lads congratulated me on keeping up my unbeaten record. It was rubbish - I had just made it up to get them in the mood." A week later, Villa's bogey side did them the biggest favour of all. Withe and co had frozen at Highbury, but Ipswich went down 3-1 at Ayresome Park, and Villa finally claimed that unexpected title.

Unexpected even by some of the players. "We knew we were a good side but we never really thought about the championship," said Withe. "If you thought that far ahead you would be frightened to death." Nothing else scared Withe that season, as he netted 20 times in 36 games to finish joint-top scorer in the league with Tottenham's Steve Archibald.

That glorious weekend at the start of May had another bonus for Withe - his first England cap. "How do you fancy playing alongside Keegan against the Brazilians?" Ron Saunders asked his target man. Withe hit the post, and impressed enough over the coming months to earn himself a place on the plane to the Spain in 1982 as Villa's first representative in an England World Cup squad.

He scored just one goal for his country, against Hungary in a European Championship qualifier, but the Holte End were always more interested in how he played at Villa Park than Wembley. In the championship and European Cup winning years, he did as well as anyone could have asked, and played on another three years as the best team in the club's history was pulled to pieces by Graham Turner and Doug Ellis. In the end, Withe moved to Sheffield United in what he later described as "the biggest wrench of my career."

Withe spent five years as a player with Aston Villa. While his service off the pitch makes that up to the best part of a decade, the big number nine remembers those playing days at the start of the eighties as his fondest memories in football.

His name now stands out proudly on a banner at Villa Park recalling Brian Moore's commentary of the goal that night in Rotterdam. Just so he knows the feeling is mutual.