So far in this Coronavirus pandemic inspired series looking at the golden age of football obsession the late 70’s and early 80’s we have looked at Brain Clough and Peter Taylor (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings- The late 70’s and the 80’s when Football was really Football: Clough and Taylor conquer Europe.) leading Nottingham Forest to the League title and successive European Cups and Liverpool’s dominance both domestically and in continental competition under Bob Paisley and the legendary Anfield Boot Room (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 2- Bob Paisley and the legendary Anfield Boot Room dominate England and Europe.). This time we are going to look at the team that made it six European Cup wins in a row for English clubs between 1977 and 1982, Aston Villa.
Anyone who has ever visited the old school Birmingham football cathedral that is Villa Park can’t have possibly missed the references to Aston Villa’s victory over Bayern Munich in Rotterdam in May 1982. The most prominent of these runs across the front of the North Stand’s upper tier and reads: ‘Shaw, Williams prepared to venture down the left, there’s a good ball played in for Tony Morley…oh, it must be!… And it is! Peter Withe!’ Another iconic piece of commentary by perhaps the main voice of football in that bygone era, Brain Moore.
The story of Aston Villa’s rise to the very top of the European game is as surprising as it was to be short-lived. At one time in the mid-1960’s Villa were the most successful club in English football with the six league titles (albeit the last championship having come in 1909/10) and seven FA Cup victories. The club however after the forced retirement of Joe Mercer through ill-health, were relegated to the Second Division for the third time in their history in 1967. The following season after Villa finished 16th in the second tier the club was facing spiralling debts and vociferous criticism of the Board which resigned as a result. The future was at that point looking very bleak for one of the founder members of the Football League.
In 1968 London financier Pat Matthews bought the club and appointed entrepreneur (“Deadly”) Doug Ellis as Chairman much to the consternation of a large proportion of Villa fans as he joined them immediately from being a director at bitter cross-city rivals Birmingham City. Ellis did however endeavour to assuage supporters by suggesting that his spell at Birmingham had been a perfect introduction to the game, showing him how a club ought not to be run!
Ellis actually had two stints as Chairman of Villa which frustratingly for him bookended the title and European Cup successes, the first ran from 1965 to 1975 although he remained on the Board before stepping down altogether four years later, he came back shortly after the victory in Rotterdam and whether by coincidence or not, oversaw Villa’s relegation to the Second Division in 1987 before eventually selling up to American billionaire Randy Lerner in 2006.
Villa couldn’t escape relegation to the third tier in their first season under the new regime but eventually stabilised under the management of former club captain Vic Crowe and eventually returned to the second tier, promoted as champions with a record 70 points in 1971-72. In 1974 Ellis made the managerial appointment that would eventually lead Villa to the very pinnacle of European football, even if neither chairman nor manager were there to be part of it, when he brought in fellow Wirralonian Ron Saunders.
Saunders had cut his management teeth with non-league Yeovil before briefly managing Oxford for just 12 games and then being appointed at Norwich and leading the Canaries to the Second Division title. He had just resigned from Manchester City when Ellis and Villa came calling.
Saunders had a reputation as a steely, determined but perhaps difficult character, he left Norwich after a falling out with the board and resigned from City after five months as a result of a dispute over his contract. Perhaps Villa was the perfect destination for him where Ellis would go on to forge a reputation as “Deadly Doug” a ruthless firer of underperforming managers.
Stoic and stony-faced in the way he presented himself, Saunders was as far removed from the maverick showmen managers of the era such as Brian Clough and Malcolm Allison, operated with a military-like discipline and was reportedly both deadly serious and highly principled. Yet his approach brought success.
Villa won the League Cup and promotion back to the top flight in Saunders’ first season in charge and even though they followed that with four consecutive top ten finishes and another League Cup triumph in 1977, it is probably fair to say that not too many Villa fans were anticipating anything but more of the same going into 1980-81.
It had been more than seventy years since Villa had been crowned league champions, but they started the season losing only two of their first eighteen games, at Ipswich and at home to Everton in consecutive weeks before heading to Anfield to face Bob Paisley’s reigning champions. Despite being beaten 2-1 Villa were top of the table by two points and the title race was shaping up into a three team battle between Villa, inevitably Liverpool, and to the surprise of many a vibrant and exciting Ipswich Town side managed by a relatively young upcoming manager, a certain Bobby Robson, who would go on to win the UEFA Cup in May.
After a run of indifferent form towards the end of the year Villa hit top stride again in January. As Liverpool started to fall off the pace the run-in evolved into a two-horse race between Villa and Ipswich, the latter were fighting on three fronts: in the FA Cup and UEFA Cup as well as the League, whereas having been knocked out of the FA Cup in the Third Round by their title rivals Villa could focus their full energy on the title push.
As February ended however it was Ipswich who were leading the way by two points with the smart money seemingly on Robson’s side. However towards the end of March and into April they lost key matches at Manchester United, Leeds and then West Brom; was their heavy schedule catching up with them? Their stumble allowed Villa to overtake them and top the table by a single point.
The two sides met for the third time that season at Villa Park in mid-April where goals from Alan Brazil (yes that Alan Brazil!) and Eric Gates secured all three points for the pursuers. However unable to build on what should have been a pivotal victory Ipswich lost three of their next four matches. Villa for the most part held their form and going into their last game of the season at Highbury in early May Saunders’ side had a four-point lead over their rivals albeit having played a game more. 2-0 down at half-time with the news that Ipswich were leading at Middlesbrough, Villa’s title ambitions were hanging in the balance. At full-time both teams had lost so the title was headed towards the West Midlands sparking the surreal sight of the losing away supporters having a party on the Clock End.
It may sound bizarre to anyone who has grown up watching football post the launch of the Premier League in 1992, but the title-winning squad that Saunders had built utilised a grand total of just fourteen players during the entire campaign. Like the Clough and Taylor sides at Derby and Forest it is also didn’t comprise any superstar big name players; it was a young side with only goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer being over 30.
Saunders built his team on a solid, organised and resolute defensive base but with sufficient flair at the top end to score the goals that they needed. In a similar fashion to Clough’s side it relied on a big man to win and hold up the ball, the fact that this was Peter Withe who had won the title with Clough at Forest lends an element of prescience. In this incarnation of the tried and trusted ‘British style’ the target man Withe was partnered with a highly talented young forward Gary Shaw who but for a series of cruel injuries throughout his career would surely have gone on to become one of the most celebrated players of the 80’s. Between them the pair combined for a total of 38 league goals that season.
The front two were supplied but also aided and abetted on the goal-scoring front by pacey and skilful winger Tony Morley. In the engine room club skipper Dennis Mortimer, who went on to make more than 300 appearances for Villa, partnered exciting young playmaker Gordon Cowans, another who had his career stymied by injury.
The following season 1981-82, as has happened so often after a surprising triumph, Villa lost their opening two league matches and struggled in the opening weeks of the season. After nine games they had won just one, in February with the champions sitting in seventeenth place, Saunders quit with rumours of a contract dispute and the potential return of Doug Ellis being highlighted as potential explanations, but Saunders never provided any further illumination of why he chose to leave the championship winning team that he had forged. If that wasn’t shocking enough for Villa fans, just days later Saunders was unveiled as the new man in charge at hated rivals, Birmingham City.
While the season was essentially dead in terms of the League, although the new man at the helm Tony Barton did spark an upturn in form and progress towards survival and a steady, if disappointing, eleventh-placed finish; Villa were still making progress on the European front having disposed of Icelandic side Valur and then East Germany’s Dynamo Berlin, while crucially avoiding that season’s competition’s big guns including: Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Juventus.
In March, when the competition restarted after the winter break it was Dynamo Kiev in the quarter final. Villa held on for a solid point in the away leg in the Soviet Union as was, and then eased through at home thanks to first half goals from Shaw and centre-back Ken McNaught setting up a semi-final clash with Anderlecht. A goal from Tony Morley in the opening half hour of the first leg in Birmingham was enough to see Villa through to the Final in Rotterdam where they would face the formidable Bayern Munich who had won the competition for three years in a row between 1974 and 1976.
The Final is a game that still lives vividly in the memory of this, at the time 9-year old, football obsessive as due to my father’s work we were reaching the end of four years living in Rotterdam and were avid followers of Feyenoord and regular attendees at De Kuip. This didn’t however stretch to an invite on the corporate tip that secured my dad’s attendance at the match and instead, in the days before multi-channels and home recording facilities, I was going to have to share watching the match with my mum interspersed with Love Story on another channel!
In the match (presumably before Love Story had got underway!) I remember veteran goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer injuring his troublesome shoulder after just 10 minutes and having to be replaced by rookie reserve Nigel Spink who was making just his second first team appearance. Such was Spink’s assured display in keeping Bayern at bay that he was to remain Villa’s first choice between the sticks for the next ten years.
In the end the game was won by a goal from Peter Withe with just over 20 minutes to go turning home a low cross from Morley from close range. Bayern had a goal ruled out for offside with just three minutes to play while Villa also had a goal disallowed themselves with just seconds remaining, the iconic trophy was however Birmingham-bound and Aston Villa who just ten years earlier had been languishing in the Third Division, had conquered Europe.
Sadly for such a storied and traditional club Villa couldn’t push on from their success, they finished tenth the following two seasons and then just half a decade after being Champions of Europe they were relegated in 1987.
In many ways what Saunders built and what Villa achieved was a combination of the perfect ingredients all coming together at exactly the right time, the opposite of a perfect storm if you will, although for Villains of a certain vintage there must always be the question of how things may have panned out had Saunders stayed with the club?