Ordinarily, football goes in cycles and no one club dominates indefinitely; even supposed dynasties such as Liverpool in the 1970s and 80s, and Manchester United in the 1990s and 2000s, finally came to an end.
Now Manchester City are threatening to build a similar legacy with five Premier League titles in the last ten seasons and three out of the last four, but only time will tell.
So, it is with that in mind that we welcome you to the third instalment of our new series, Falls from Grace.
In previous editions, we have looked at the relatively recent drops from the pinnacle of the game to the relegation of both Manchester clubs. We started by looking at Manchester United and their ‘feat’ of managing to be relegated just half a dozen years after winning the European Cup. In this article, we will investigate a club that managed to even surpass that feat and get relegated just five years after taking Europe’s premier trophy.
Aston Villa were one of the founder members of the Football League and were the second winners of the coveted league and FA Cup ‘double’, back at the tail end of the nineteenth century. A story of mixed fortunes over the next ninety years or so saw Villa take a total of six league titles and seven FA Cups by the time the 1980s rolled around. An impressive toll to be sure, but the fact that the last of the titles was some seventy years earlier in 1910 somewhat diluted the sense of achievement.
The 1960s and 1970s had seen Villa fall from grace to an extent that they were relegated not only from the top flight but also from the Second Division to the third. That these relegations came within the spell of a four-year period was particularly galling for the Villa faithful, who were yearning for a return to better days.
After promotion back to the Second Division was secured in 1972, progress was steady. Ron Saunders was appointed manager in 1974 and in his first full season in charge, the Villains were promoted back to the top flight and also secured the League Cup courtesy of a single-goal Wembley victory over Norwich City. The League Cup was also won two years later when Everton were defeated 3-2 after three matches.
By 1980, Aston Villa had settled in the First Division as a solid if unspectacular side capable of challenging for the top six and European football, but were rarely, if ever, considered title contenders.
All that was to change in the 1980-81 season.
In August 1980, Ron Saunders signed Peter Withe from Newcastle United and paired him up front with Gary Shaw. It was an inspired move as the pairing would produce 38 league goals, with Withe ending the season as the club’s top goalscorer and in the England squad.
It was a special season that will surely never be repeated, as Villa only fielded fourteen players the entire campaign with seven players being ever-present and three more players making 36 starts or more from 42 league games. Despite having a threadbare squad, Villa soon settled into a rich vein of form and established themselves in a two-horse title race with Ipswich Town.
Out of both domestic cups early and not competing in Europe, Villa could concentrate on the league while Ipswich were heavily involved in both the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup, reaching the semi-finals of the former and the final of the latter.
Despite this workload and injuries and fatigue beginning to take their toll, Ipswich looked to be in the driving seat when they went to Villa Park and won a vital league game with just six matches remaining.
Although the odds seemed to be against Villa, nobody was willing to take defiant Saunders’ offer up of betting against them still taking the title, and it was just as well as Villa found their form again while Ipswich went into freefall.
On the last day of the season, Villa were away at Arsenal knowing a draw at Highbury would be enough to give them the title, while a defeat would leave the door open to Ipswich to steal in and take the title on goal difference if they won their last two games.
As the sides trooped in at half-time, the Tractor Boys’ dream was still alive as they led by a goal to nil in their match at Ayresome Park, while Villa were two goals behind at Highbury.
Despite no further change to the scoreline in North London, the title was Villa-bound due to two second-half Middlesbrough goals without reply, and so Aston Villa had won a first league title in seventy years.
With a fine blend, Villa looked set to at least challenge for a good few years to come, but the wheels started to come off to some degree almost immediately. A poor defence of the league title followed and by Christmas, it was apparent that the title would not be retained with Villa struggling in mid-table. Progress in the European Cup was better, though, and the first two rounds were safely negotiated and there was a quarter-final date with Dynamo Kyiv to look forward to in March.
Before that, however, Villa were to suffer a catastrophic blow when they lost manager Saunders following a long-standing battle with the board. It was an almighty blow, but assistant, Tony Barton stepped into the breach and guided the club past Kyiv and then Anderlecht in the semi-finals and so into a Rotterdam showdown with hot favourites, Bayern Munich.
The story of May 26 1982 needs no retelling for Aston Villa supporters, but for the neutral, the facts of the matter are every Villa player turned in the performance of a lifetime. None more so than reserve goalkeeper, Nigel Spink, who was forced into action in the ninth minute and promptly turned in a man-of-the-match performance. After withstanding a barrage of German pressure, a Villa counterattack ended up with Withe scoring the most important goal of his career and the only one of the game.
So, how did Villa go from these peaks to being in the Second Division just five years later? Well, the following season showed no real cause for alarm as although the side was unable to either retain the European Cup or else challenge for the title, the top six was reached and the European Super Cup was won courtesy of a two-legged victory over Barcelona. The side that had won the league just two seasons earlier was slowly beginning to break up, and injuries were taking their toll on starlet, Gary Shaw, who had been tipped for the very top, but still, the future didn’t exactly look bleak.
A further disappointing fall away in 1983-84 ended with the club finishing in tenth spot in the league and Barton was sacked by returning chairman, Doug Ellis. Ellis had been forced out of the club some years earlier and his time away from the club coincided with its greatest-ever period. This was said to be something that galled Ellis during his time at the club to the degree that he banned pictures of 1981 and 1982 from being displayed around the club.
Whether that tale is true or not, his appointment of the 36-year-old Graham Turner in place of Barton certainly raised eyebrows. Turner had, to be fair, done a decent job in managing Shrewsbury and taking them to the Third Division title and mid-table in the second, but was perhaps not the big-name required to take the club forward to the next step.
Turner’s two full seasons in charge were largely uneventful ones and at no point did Villa ever look remotely like challenging for honours again. Two mid-table finishes followed and when the 1986-87 season got off to a bad start, Ellis pulled the trigger and Turner was fired to make way for Billy McNeill, then managing Manchester City.
A famed ‘Lisbon Lion’ from Celtic’s greatest day in 1967, much was expected from McNeill. Although he had walked out on Manchester City with the club themselves in the bottom three, he had a sterling record as Celtic manager before that with three Scottish League titles to his name at that point. With a promotion also to his name at Maine Road, McNeill was seen as just the man to get Villa back on its collective feet, but instead, his tenure at the club was an unmitigated disaster.
The season lurched from one crisis to another with tales of player unrest, supporter dissatisfaction, rows between McNeill and Ellis, and a general malaise around Villa Park that would have been unthinkable just five years earlier. In the end, Villa finished rock bottom of the table, eight points adrift of safety.
It was a truly remarkable turnaround for a club whose future had looked so rosy just a few years earlier and McNeill, Unexpectedly, paid for it with his job.
In his place came Graham Taylor, who had worked wonders at Watford for a decade, and under his astute leadership, Villa’s transformation was as dramatic as their fall from grace had been. Within three seasons, Taylor had led the club back to the top flight at the first time of asking and then gone onto seriously challenge for the league title once again before finishing runners-up to Liverpool and qualifying for Europe.
After Taylor left for England, Villa’s fortunes continued to fluctuate with some success being achieved under managers Ron Atkinson and Brian Little, before subsequent struggles again in later years. Aston Villa were once more relegated in 2016 before winning their Premier League status back three years later.