Kevin Gage Interview
Kevin Gage was signed by Graham Taylor to add steel to his Aston Villa team that was to attempt to get promoted at the first time of asking back in 1987-88. Taylor was a vocal fan of the Wimbledon spirit and as an original member of the Crazy Gang that had taken the Dons up to the top flight, Gage was a versatile leader on the pitch and a natural piece in the jigsaw puzzle as he looked to take the team back into the top flight.
“The gulf between the top flight and what was Division Two, now the championship, is much wider now.” – Kevin Gage
Kevin Gage was signed by Graham Taylor for £250,000 and made 115 league, FA cup and League Cup appearances scoring eight goals from 1987-1991. He played mainly at full-back and in midfield. Gage made it into David Platt’s Villa dream team on the club’s website.
‘[He] was never given the credit he deserved,” said Platt on Gage. “A winner, with good techniques, he could play in a variety of positions. Full-backs need to be able to pass the ball and get forward as well as defend – and he could do that.’
Nowadays Gage is based in Sheffield and is a big fan of Sheffield United – the club he joined after being sold by Ron Atkinson. He played 113 times for the Blades, two less than his time at Villa Park.
After being ever present in the league and cup in Villa’s promotion season of 1987-88, Gage next experience was in what he describes as a “consolidation” season. Where after only four wins before December, the team hung on to their top flight status only staying up with results going their way on the last day…
MOMS: What do you remember about battling for survival in the 1988-89 season? It hadn’t started well…
Kevin Gage: It never did feel like a battle. It didn’t feel like we were in a relegation scrap. We were stuck in the bottom third of the league, but not rooted in the bottom three and we never really felt we would go down. We always believed we had enough quality to stay up. In the three seasons under Graham Taylor we were promoted, consolidated, then finished runners-up but even in that disappointing consolidation season we could see we had enough to avoid going back down.”
And yet on that last day against Coventry you could have gone down on goal difference… What was the feeling in the dressing room? Did you feel like celebrating? Or just heaving a sigh of relief?
It was frustrating because I wasn’t involved much after getting a bad injury in March away at Millwall and wasn’t back until the following season. When we got the result against Coventry, it was more of a relief than anything else. ‘Celebration’ is certainly the wrong word. But if the current Villa team can somehow turn it around and stay up, they would be certainly be entitled to celebrate!”
Obviously, Villa sold their goalscorer in Benteke. You had a talismanic striker in Alan McInally at that time and his goals had got you promoted and kept you up that season. Is that natural, consistent goalscorer all it takes? Villa would have lost every game he scored in if he hadn’t scored.
You certainly need a goalscorer, and in McInally we had a good one but to survive you can’t be shipping goals at the back like the current team. He was great in that first promotion season after he joined from Celtic and he went off the boil in the second season a bit (he had 14 goals that season but just one league goal after January), but he still earned a big money move to Bayern Munich so they must have seen something they liked!
Would you agree it was easier to get promoted to the top flight in those pre-Premiership days as the difference in standard between the two leagues wasn’t as big?
The gulf between the top flight and what was Division Two, now the championship, is much wider now. It was much easier to go up and stay up back before the Premiership. These days it’s rare for a team to come up and make much of an impact in their first season, unless they’re a Manchester City with massive resources.
Let’s say the Graham Taylor of the late ‘80s were to have become Villa’s manager after Tim Sherwood left – what would he have done to turn the club’s fortunes around and get them up the table?
I think Taylor would put together a nucleus of English players, battle-hardened players ready for the Championship who could handle themselves – if you know what I mean. All his career he created a great team spirit and would use bonding exercises to build that. When he signed a player he would look into their backgrounds and personalities to see how they would fit in. He was an old school manager and I don’t think he would be scouting players from France or other countries.
There’s another big difference between then and now – Villa teams of that era had very few non British Isles players, Kent Nielsen and Dwight Yorke spring to mind. Were you aware of players on the continent?
As players we didn’t pay attention to the foreign leagues at all. We would watch Football Italia on Channel 4 in the early-90s and we knew the biggest stars on the international teams, but we couldn’t tell you anything about the Roma centre-back and didn’t know anything about the emerging youngster at AC Milan. These days, people are more aware – even if it’s just from playing FIFA on Playstation – and even the man in the streets knows more about world football in general.
“I think Taylor would put together a nucleus of English players, battle-hardened players ready for the Championship who could handle themselves.” – Kevin Gage
Villa fans today hear a lot about the young talent in the U-21s but aren’t seeing many breaking through, even at a time when the season could use a shot in the arm. Paul Lambert and Tim Sherwood both seemed loathe to put the young players in and would say things like ‘they aren’t ready’ but you were in the team when Olney came along…
When Ian Olney broke into the first team, it really was a case of ‘good enough is old enough’. He was doing well in the reserves (16 goals in 18 games) and importantly he suited the style of the first team. He was really good at holding up the ball and that helped David Platt from midfield, Tony Daley who would be flying all over the place and the likes of Ormondroyd on the left.
Perhaps he peaked too soon and I know his problems with injuries eventually caused him problems (Olney scored 16 goals in 88 games for Villa before being sold to Oldham), but he was a good fit at the time, coming in as an alternative to McInally.
The current Villa ownership has come under fire from the fans. It was very different under Doug Ellis who was highly visible…
We knew Doug Ellis was at Villa Park every day. It wasn’t like he would come to training and stop in for a chat – Graham [Taylor] handled him really well and didn’t let him get involved in the football side of things. He knew Taylor was a good manager, so he let him manage. After a good win he might come down to the dressing room, pop his head round the door and say “well done” or before kick-off he might stop by and say “all the best” but he left the football to Graham.
On a lighter note, you do realise you lost on your home debut to Birmingham City at Villa Park?
That was the promotion season, but that following season – the one we’ve been talking about – we beat them 13-0 over three games (2-0 and 5-0 in the League Cup home and away, 6-0 in the Simod Cup) … and I scored three against them that year!
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