As part of our look back at the 1978-79 First Division season, Steve Mitchell caught up with author and Villa fanatic Graham Denton, who recounts events of last weekend which saw Nottingham Forest equal a football league record.
That rain-soaked Saturday afternoon, along with my father, I was sitting in the Witton Lane stand watching the home team take on a Nottingham Forest side looking to equal Leeds United’s record of 34 unbeaten league games.
Three days before, Forest, the reigning league champions, had battled to a goalless draw at Anfield to secure a 2-0 aggregate success and eliminate holders Liverpool from the European Cup. Clough’s men were the very models of consistency. They hadn’t been beaten in Nottingham itself since April 1977. By contrast, after a narrow opening day home win against Wolves followed by a 4-1 thrashing of Spurs in London â€“ the visitors completely spoiling the White Hart Lane debuts of Tottenhamâ€™s two new Argentineans, Ardiles and Villa â€“ Villa’s form had been unpredictable at best.
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A crippling injury crisis â€“ Ron Saunders virtually powerless to field the same line-up for two games running â€“ hadn’t helped. Nevertheless, when a patched-up outfit went in at half-time deservedly 1-0 up â€“ Tommy Craig putting home a 19th-minute penalty after a foul by centre-half Larry Lloyd â€“ I had every belief that that this would be Villa’s (and my) day. It wasn’t. First through Tony Woodcock in the 49th minute and then John Robertsonâ€™s contentious 79th minute penalty (Dennis Mortimer had clearly tripped Ian Bowyer outside of the box but, despite vehement Villa protests, the referee refused to change his mind), Forest marched victoriously into the history books.
Just to add to Saunders’ woes, Gordon Cowans, after accidentally kicking the bottom of Archie Gemmillâ€™s boot, broke a bone in the instep of his right foot. It was the first time I’d ever seen Villa lose in the flesh. Later that day, ‘Summer Nights’, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s song from the Grease movie soundtrack, took over top spot in the UK music charts for what would be a seven-week residency, but I felt like I’d been plunged into deepest, darkest winter.
Six days later, as I celebrated my 14th birthday, I was still in a black mood. Time did, naturally, heal those teenage wounds and looking back now, almost 40 years on, considering all that they went on to achieve, I have to say I feel quite privileged to have witnessed that Cloughie side that day, on such a momentous occasion. It was a side that, of course, would go on to become European champions exactly seven months later.
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As for Villa, a season of struggle on the pitch and off-field disharmony manifested the following summer in transfer requests from several of their top stars, including Brian Little, John Gidman and Andy Gray.
It was heart-breaking at the time that many of my favourite players wanted to leave the club. Needless to say, I had little inkling then that two years’ hence my beloved boys in claret and blue would themselves be sitting right at the very summit of English football, as champions for the first time in 71 years.
Graham Denton is the author of The Odd Man Out: The Fascinating Story of Ron Saunders’ Reign at Aston Villa by Pitch Publishing and is available to order here