Dwight Yorke has revealed how the last two claret and blue League Cup conquests were the making of him after wiping his trademark smile off his face – and then replacing it with tears of joy.
The former Villa and Manchester United striker will be following the action avidly when his old clubs clash in an eagerly-anticipated repeat of the 1994 final at Wembley on Sunday.
It will bring back painful memories for Yorke who was completely left out of Ron Atkinson’s matchday squad for the memorable 3-1 triumph over Sir Alex Ferguson’s favourites.
But Yorke insists his Coca-Cola Cup heartache and the euphoria of scoring in Brian Little’s Worthington Cup victory over Leeds two years later were responsible for him coming of age.
“A career-shaping moment arrived in the 1993-94 season when we fought our way through to the final,” recalls Yorke.
“It should have been a highlight but it became one of the worst experiences of my career. I had figured in the team, largely playing as a wide midfielder, all the way through the route to the final and felt I had done well.
“I remember all the build-up so clearly, the excitement, and my thinking ‘I’m going to play’.
“And then I remember settling in at the hotel team meeting, everyone but the established guys on a knife edge about whether they will be playing.
“Deep down I was confident of selection... but suddenly the team is read out and my name is missing.
“I was stunned. It hurt so much. I was never exactly sure why he left me out.”
Atkinson’s decision to omit Yorke was vindicated by Villa’s victory – but the Trinidad striker was so disheartened that he considered quitting football.
“Villa won the game against Manchester United 3-1 – a result against the odds I must add as United had won the double the year before,” he said.
“Nobody predicted that scoreline and for Ron that’s all that matters. But it left me feeling badly hurt.
“I had come to England because I wanted to be a somebody. I had worked hard, so I thought; I trained hard, took on board lessons from the older lads and I’d led a clean life off the pitch.
“ But it obviously wasn’t enough. I was so disheartened I felt like packing it all in and going back to Tobago.
“But if I went back it would be as a failure. What was there for me except a dull local job and a lifetime of regrets?
“And Big Ron’s decision made me even more determined to improve. He would leave Villa before the following season was halfway through, but I was a tougher and even more determined player for his presence.”
Yorke proved his newfound determination in 1996, with a crucial semi-final double against Arsenal and the last final goal against Leeds. “Our 3-0 victory was as comprehensive as the scoreline suggests,” he remembers. “On the Monday morning of 25 March 1996, two years after that crushing disappointment of Villa’s previous final, I woke up at our Wembley hotel after a night celebrating with a beautiful blonde beside me wondering if life could ever be sweeter.
“I had flown over my mentor Bertille St Clair to watch his protégé at Wembley. Back home the entire island would have been huddled around their TV sets to watch their boy in action.
“I rounded off victory scoring our last goal and if you look very closely at the TV pictures there were tears in my eyes, so emotional was the experience. That momentous day has been burned on my brain for ever.
“The sheer numbers of supporters especially our own was unbelievable. I can still hear them singing the New York, New York anthem adapted just for me.
“‘It’s up to you Dwight Yorke, Dwight Yorke’. Oh man, it was just incredible... breathtaking.
“Two years earlier I had been heartbroken when left out of the Vila team which beat Manchester United in the final.
“Now I could walk into Villa’s dressing room and know that, if I was fit, I would be playing.
“My football was where I wanted it to be. At last I was The Man.”