From Division Three To Rotterdam: 10 Years In The Life of Aston Villa

At Elland Road on Sunday lunchtime, a spectacular run came to an end. Aston Villa had, prior to this one-all draw, won their previous eleven consecutive league matches. It’s a new club record, and Aston Villa is a club at which a record is a record. A look at the honours list tells its own story. Seven times the Champions of England, seven times the winners of the FA Cup, and five times winners of the League Cup. Champions of Europe. Owners of a stadium that has hosted World Cup finals matches, FA Cup semi-finals, and cup final replays of various flavours. Small wonder that it can feel as though the burden of history hangs heavily around the players necks, at times.

Amplified at least in part by having happened within living memory, the biggest piece of silverware in the Villa Park trophy cabinet – both literally and figuratively – is that European Cup win, which came in 1982. It was a victory that was simultaneously predictable and quite a major surprise and turned out to be a crowning glory for a club which had, ten years earlier, been playing Third Division football. Aston Villa had actually finished the 1971/72 season as the champions of the Third Division, and won promotion back to the First Division in 1975, a revival which ended a miserable period in the club’s history. They’d won the League Cup in 1961, but underwent a swift decline which resulted in them being relegated in 1967, after a period during which an ageing board of directors which hadn’t moved with rapidly-evolving times – they had a particular habit of selling their best players – were the subject of protests from supporters.

The second relegation followed in 1971, under somewhat different circumstances. Following the sale of the club at the end of 1968 to a group which installed Doug Ellis as chairman, the club’s first share issue since 1896 was held in the summer of 1969. It raised £200,000, of which £140,000 – not an insubstantial amount for a Second Division club at the time – was spent on new players. Ellis’s first job had been to bring in Tommy Docherty as manager, but Docherty was a disaster for the club. The team failed to win any of their first ten matches of the 1969/70 season, and ended it by getting relegated to the Third Division for the first time in their history. They finished their first season at this level in fourth place in the table, but still found a way to reach the League Cup final before losing to Tottenham Hotspur.

Once back in the First Division following promotion in 1975 the club made solid early progress, finishing in fourth place at the end of the 1976/77 season and winning the League Cup. Although they were top ten finishers for the rest of the decade, though, there was little to suggest where the club’s next major trophy was coming from. By the summer of 1980, for example, the previously fruitful attacking partnership of Andy Gray and Brian Little had broken up, with Gray sold to Wolverhampton Wanderers and Little hobbled by injury. Their replacements were Peter Withe, a seasoned former Nottingham Forest and Newcastle United battering ram, and Gary Shaw, a nineteen year-old who’d first broken into the first team a couple of years earlier. It was an interesting attacking pairing, but it didn’t look like one that could win the league title.

Talk of title favourites was unlikely to include Aston Villa in the summer of 1980, though. Liverpool were the clear favourites, having won the previous two. Elsewhere, Ipswich Town had been building up a head of steam in previous seasons and, whilst they hadn’t come anywhere near their 1978 title winning exploits since, Nottingham Forest had finished the previous two years as the champions of Europe. With West Bromwich Albion still strong, Tottenham Hotspur planning a new stand and a trying to build a new team, Southampton’s reputation growing, and both Arsenal and Manchester United starting to awaken again after several sleepy seasons, it looked like an open field below the defending champions.

By the end of January 1981, though, and with Liverpool faltering, the field had narrowed down to just two: Aston Villa and Ipswich Town. Villa were top and had played more games, but Ipswich were still going in all three competitions. The management style of Ron Saunders during the 1980/81 season would be best described as “minimalist.” Famously, of course, he only used fourteen players over the course of the entire season, which granted extraordinary continuity between them. An almost complete absence of injuries was, of course, a huge slice of luck. Knocked out early in the League Cup, and further distraction was removed when they were beaten by a goal to nil at Portman Road by Ipswich Town at the start of January. As Ipswich buckled under the sheer volume of fixtures that they still had to play, though, Villa glided through to the end of the season, winning the title at Highbury despite a two-nil defeat to Arsenal on the last Saturday of the season. It was the first time they’d been the champions of England since 1910.

Sometimes, a team just gets blown to the title on a wave of momentum, and it’s an almost impossible trick to repeat. By the start of 1982 Villa were sliding down the First Division and scowling Ron Saunders, a man with the demeanour of a world-weary 1970s TV detective, left on the 9th February with the team in sixteenth place in the table. Saunders’ departure from Villa Park was said to be a contractual dispute, but what happened next was the big surprise. Less than two weeks later Saunders re-emerged as the manager of… Birmingham City, who’d sacked Jim Smith six days after Saunders left Villa Park, and his first game in charge of them was at home against… Aston Villa. Villa won by a goal to nil.

It was the new manager’s first win in charge of the club. Tony Barton had enjoyed a reasonable playing career, running up just over two hundred appearances for Fulham, Nottingham Forest and Portsmouth, where he started as a player-coach and remained with the club’s coaching staff after his retirement as a player. He’d then gone on to become the head scout for Aston Villa, becoming assistant manager to Ron Saunders in 1980, but he had no managerial experience of his own. He did at least manage to get Villa into the top half of the table, in eleventh place above Nottingham Forest on goal difference, before the end of the season.

We should address the elephant in the room when it comes to talking about historical European Cup wins. The European Cup in 1982 was emphatically not the same competition that the Champions League is today. To get to this week’s Champions League semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur, Ajax have had to play eight teams, twice each – Sturm Graz, Standard Liege, Dynamo Kiev, Bayern Munich, Benfica, AEK Athens, Real Madrid and Juventus (they’ve only lost one of those sixteen matches, by the way – a home defeat to Real Madrid in the round of sixteen.) To get to the final in 1982, Aston Villa had to play four teams. Valur, Dynamo Berlin, Dinamo Kiev and Anderlecht. After putting seven goals without reply past their Icelandic opponents in their First Round match, they only scored five more goals in their other six matches, only beating Dynamo Berlin on away goals and winning their semi-final match by one goal to nil on aggregate. The early 1980s was not a vintage period for attacking European football.

Narrow wins weren’t the only way in which Aston Villa’s pathway to the final was threatened either, though. Their Third Round first leg match against Dynamo Kiev had to be moved three hundred miles south because of the weather, and the hotel was not to the players’ satisfaction. The return leg almost had to be postponed after the Villa Park pitch was left a quagmire by a horrendous spell of bad weather, but the application of a considerable amount of sand eventually rendered it playable. Far more serious were the events surrounding the second leg of their semi-final against Anderlecht. Hundreds of Villa supporters travelled without tickets and there was substantial fighting around the stadium, with apparently completely inadequate segregation in place. Anderlecht called for the match to be replayed or for Aston Villa to be thrown out of the competition altogether, but UEFA eventually settled on a small fine and Villa having to play their next home European match (which would, of course, be the First Round match in the following year’s European Cup) behind closed doors. 

The final was scheduled for the last Wednesday in May at De Kuip in Rotterdam, and Villa’s opponents were the formidable Bayern Munich. Eleven years earlier, Bayern had ended their season with a five-one win against Schalke in their first match at the Olympic Stadium. Their Bundesliga title the following year was the first of three in a row, and they won the European Cup – the first German team to do so – in 1974 and 1975. When West Germany won the 1974 World Cup, Bayern provided six of the players, all playing the final in their home stadium. The development of a startlingly talented group of players and the vastly increased commercial revenues from playing at a state-of-the-art 80,000 capacity stadium pushed Bayern Munich almost immediately into European football’s elite tier.

That 1975 European Cup win, however, proved to beginning of the end of an era. Bayern ended that season in tenth place in the table and, although they completed a hat-trick of European Cup wins against Saint-Etienne in Glasgow in 1976, two years later the club finished in twelfth place in the eighteen team Bundesliga, still their lowest ever finish in the league. Sepp Maier was forced to retire after a road accident in 1979, while Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller both left for the pension fund that was the North American Soccer League. The 1974 domestic title would turn out to be their last of the decade, but at the the start of the 1980s Bayern’s fortunes shifted again. Powered by Paul Breitner, who returned to the club in 1978 after four years away, and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern won both the 1980 and 1981 Bundesliga titles. They’d beaten Oster (Sweden), Benfica, Universitatea Craiova and CSKA Sofia to get to the final. West German champions for the last two years, providers of the spine of the West Germany 1982 World Cup squad and highly experienced in European football, Bayern Munich started as favourites to win the final, even though English teams had won the competition for the previous five consecutive years.

If Aston Villa’s 1980/81 First Division championship was won in part by a lack of injuries, it’s not entirely mischievous to suggest that their 1982 European Cup win may have – at least partly – been caused by one. None of this isn’t to say that Jimmy Rimmer wasn’t a highly capable goalkeeper. He sat on the bench for the 1968 European Cup final and won a medal for his troubles. He kept goal for both Manchester United and Arsenal prior to his transfer for Aston Villa in 1977, and certainly deserved more than the one cap that he managed – for which he only played forty-five minutes – for England. However, on the day before the match, Rimmer pulled his neck in training and had hoped that he’d be able to get through the game with enough painkillers. After nine minutes, though, he had to concede defeat and was replaced by Nigel Spink, who had started his career in non-league football, in the Southern League with Chelmsford City before arriving at Villa Park in 1977. He was twenty-three years old, and had made his league debut for the club two and a half years prior to this match, against Nottingham Forest on Boxing Day 1979. Villa lost that match by two goals to one. It was his only previous appearance for the club.

Spink’s goalkeeping heroics that evening long ago passed down into Aston Villa folklore, but the extent to which his contribution was relied upon told its own story of a European Cup final that Bayern Munich lost just as much as Villa won. Spink made magnificent saves from Bernd Durnberger and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, but he also rode his luck, at times, not least when Rummenigge’s acrobatic overhead kick dropped just the right side of his goalpost, when Klaus Augenthaler’s header was cleared off the line by Kenny Swain, or when Horsman’s low cross from the left was narrowly missed by Hoeness, who’d arrived unmarked and eight yards from goal. Bayern dominated possession, with Rummenigge the clearing house through which all their best football. For all of their chances and half-chances, though, they couldn’t quite force the ball over the line. 

Midway through the second half, the game swung suddenly and quite unexpectedly on its axis. It came, in keeping with the rest of the evening, against the run of play and after a sustained spell of Bayern possession. Right-back Wolfgang Dremmler lost his footing on the Villa left and Gary Shaw took advantage, feeding the ball through the channel for Tony Morley to run onto. Morley’s low cross found Peter Withe, unmarked and six yards from goal, and… it was almost the most expensive miss of Withe’s career. At the last second ball bobbled and, with goalkeeper Manfred Muller throwing himself across the goal, the Villa striker scuffed his shot, which bounced off the inside of the left-hand post, across the face of goal and it. A couple of inches to the right, and Withe’s place in the history of Aston Villa might have been very different, but it wasn’t. Villa led, with just twenty-three minutes to have to hang onto their lead. “If there’s not a better example of what football is, I don’t know…”, ITV match summariser Brian Clough told commentator Brian Moore, “…they could have been three-nil down.” 

Despite the pressure intensifying, Bayern couldn’t manage a great deal of chances to get themselves back onto level terms. There was, however, one heart-in-mouth moment for Villa supporters. With three minutes to play, Hoeness wandered offside before dropping back to collect a through-ball and drive it past Spink. He was correctly called as offside. Bayern’s pressure was intense for the last twenty minutes, but a combination of Withe’s goal and tiring end of season legs seemed to knock the precision and incision out of their football. The final whistle brought English clubs their six European Cup in a row.

After just fifty-six days as the manager of the club, Tony Barton was a European champion, but this was as good as anything would get again for Tony Barton and Aston Villa. At the start of 1983 they beat Barcelona by three goals to one on aggregate to win the European Super Cup, but they lost in the quarter-finals of that year’s European Cup to Juventus and haven’t played in the tournament again since. Barton stayed at Villa Park until the end of the 1983/84 season, but health issues interrupted his later career and he died following a heart attack in August 1993, at fifty-six years old still comparatively young man. It would take Bayern Munich until 2001 to become the champions of Europe again. 

The celebrations in Birmingham were, of course, long and loud. Indeed, they were so raucous that the trophy itself went missing, stolen by a student from a pub in Tamworth that the players went to, before turning up at a police station in Sheffield the following day. Aston Villa, however, would never see such pomp again. The team went into a decline in the years following this win and were relegated from the First Division in 1987. Their stay away from the top flight would only last one season, but after five years of atrophy they were relegated again in 2016. They remain in the Championship, but such has been the nature of their recent form that they are likely to start this season’s play-offs as the favourites to go up. The mood certainly seems different around Villa Park to this time last year, when they were beaten in the play-off final by Fulham. 

The intervening thirty-seven ears haven’t just changed Aston Villa. The game itself has changed enormously since that night in Rotterdam and it’s difficult to believe that a team of Villa’s means could withstand the sort of pressure thrown at them. Such is the lightning speed of the modern game that nicking a goal on the break and hanging on for dear life doesn’t seem to work very as a tactic very often any more. Could Villa ever repeat the trick? Such is the calcification of the Premier League that a dismissive “no” is the obvious reflex reply, but with four of the top six in the Premier League currently looking very much as though they don’t even want to qualify for next year’s Champions League, the question of whether that particular cartel can be broken and, if so, by whom is definitely tempting.

When Aston Villa fell down through the divisions at the end of the 1960s, a chain of events started which resulted in the club winning the European Cup. That 1987 relegation was largely forgotten by the start of the following decade, with Villa finishing as runners-up twice in the four seasons from 1990 to 1993. So, even with the club in fifth place in the Championship at present, we can only consider it plausible that a club of the size and scale of Aston Villa could indeed find their way into the Champions League again some day, however unlikely that might have felt for much of the last decade and however unlikely it might feel today. The club’s history might carry a cost for players with hopes and expectations to live up to. The fact that such a wild-sounding idea is more plausible than it probably should be, however, demonstrates that it might also carry some benefits as well.