The late seventies and early eighties are most memorable for fantastic music, questionable outfits and Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister. However, the period also heralded a new dawn for English football in Europe.
Manchester United and Celtic had triumphed in the European Cup in the late sixties and English clubs continued to emerge as a European superpowers throughout seventies resulting in English football dominating the European Cup by the end of the decade. From 1977 to 1982 the European Cup was retained in England. Inconceivable to ever happen again to such an extent, this truly was the time that English clubs dominated Europe and one of those teams that rose to European glory were Aston Villa in 1982.
Aston Villa’s remarkable story was masterminded by Ron Saunders. The no-nonsense manager had impressed at Norwich City before getting his big chance at Manchester City in 1973. The Englishman’s tough management style was reportedly not supported by the more seasoned professionals at City, and despite leading them to the League Cup final, poor league form led to Saunders being dismissed after less than six months in charge.
Saunders became boss at Villa Park the following June and was tasked with guiding the historic club back to the First Division.
Aston Villa were one of the biggest sides in England. By 1974, they had won the First Division seven times, the FA Cup seven times and the League Cup once, and were respected as a big club by all. However, after a period of turmoil in the late sixties, they were left languishing in the Second Division upon Saunders’s arrival.
The man from Birkenhead managed to promote Aston Villa back into the First Division in his first season at the club. The Villains also triumphed in the League Cup that season and the appointment of Saunders seemed like shrewd business by ‘Deadly’ Doug Ellis, the then-chairman of the club.
Villa’s revival would be based around young players. Perhaps because of his time at City, Saunders did not trust the more experienced professionals at Villa, so adopted a ruthless approach when it came to moving them on and replacing them with younger players that he felt he would be able to trust.
Signings were a pivotal part of Villa’s rise to European glory and in 1975, Saunders made two of his most important, signing Dennis Mortimer from Coventry and Andy Gray from Dundee. Gray formed a formidable partnership with Brian Little, which proved crucial in Villa scoring 76 goals and finishing fourth in the 76/77 season and winning the League Cup for the second time in three years.
Villa were still missing some important pieces of the jigsaw, and these came in the form of defenders, Allan Evans and McNaught and goalkeeper, Jimmy Rimmer, who would all become the backbone of Villa’s team. In the next three seasons, Villa stabilised themselves in the top ten, with two eighth place finishes and one seventh place finish.
However, the club were anything but stable off the pitch. Doug Ellis’s passion and desire to be involved with running the club meant that he had a strained relationship with Saunders, who did not appreciate his interfering. Therefore Saunders would have been quite pleased when Ellis was ousted from the board in 1979.
(Ellis did return to the club in 1982, but he missed out on being closely associated with club’s most successful modern period.)
However, despite the turmoil in the boardroom, Villa grew from strength to strength on the field and the 1980/81 season saw them reach the pinnacle of domestic football. Gray’s departure one year before and Little announcing his retirement due to injury at the start of the season meant that Peter Withe was signed to complete Saunders’s side.
Sir Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town side proved to be Villa’s closest title contenders, however their other commitments in cup competitions meant that Aston Villa pipped them to the title by four points, winning the First Division for the first time in 71 years.
The oldest player in the team was Rimmer at 30, and because of Saunders’s belief in youth many of their players like Gary Shaw, Colin Gibson and Gary Williams were youth graduates and the remarkable feat was fulfilled with Saunders using just 14 players all season. The tight-knit group of players personified Saunders’s ethos of hard work, and for Villa the adventure had only just started.
The Villans had played in the UEFA cup twice before under Saunders – qualifying through winning the League Cup – however, their title win meant that they would play in the European Cup for the first time. Villa began their European adventure against Icelandic side Valur. Villa coasted to a comfortable 5-0 win in the first leg at Villa Park and won the away leg 2-0 courtesy of a brace from Shaw. European giants like Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Juventus were all potential opponents in the next round, but luckily Villa avoided them all and drew Dynamo Berlin.
In the first leg of the tie, in East Germany, Tony Morely was the hero, scoring two fantastic goals as Villa fought to a 2-1 victory. The second leg would prove to be even more nail-biting as they conceded an early goal but managed to prevent the East German side from scoring again to go through on away goals to progress into the quarterfinals.
Despite Villa’s European run, tensions were rising off the field and compounded with the poor domestic form, Saunders made the shock decision to quit on 9 February 1982. Whilst the reasons why Saunders left are relatively vague, it is believed to be because of a disagreement with the board.
To rub salt into Villa wounds, Saunders stayed in the city and took over at their rivals, Birmingham City. Villa fans could have been forgiven for feeling angst at what appeared to be a clear betrayal. However, they instead directed their anger at the Villa board.
Tony Barton, Saunders’s assistant manager and trusted friend, was the man tasked with taking over. Barton needed to balance improving Villa’s league form alongside continuing their European adventure. Their success had been built by Saunders and Barton was clever enough to change very little upon becoming manager.
Barton’s first European game was the quarter-final against Dynamo Kyiv, who were strongly favoured to progress. Villa drew the first leg 0-0 away in Simferopol before the return leg at Villa Park a fortnight later. The Villans triumphed in front of their fans, courtesy of first-half goals by Shaw and Ken McNaught, as they progressed into the semi-finals where they would face Anderlecht.
Liverpool’s surprise defeat against CSKA Sofia meant that Villa were the only side left flying the English flag and by the time of the semi-final, Barton had impressed enough to be permanently appointed as manager on a two-year deal.
The home leg was officially his first game in charge and a goal from Morely meant that Villa took a 1-0 advantage into the second leg in Brussels. Villa produced another typically solid performance in Belgium and the scoreless draw meant that they were going to play in the European Cup final. The incredible occasion was sadly marred with crowd trouble, however, for Barton, it did not matter, the somewhat accidental manager would lead Villa out against Bayern Munich in Rotterdam.
Villa had been the underdogs throughout their European cup run, however, that was nothing compared to the final.
Villa’s dramatic season would take one last turn just nine minutes into the final, as goalkeeper Rimmer had to be replaced due to a neck injury. His replacement was youth graduate, Nigel Spink, who had only previously played one senior match for Aston Villa. The occasion did not overawe the 23-year-old, however, and he produced a fantastic performance as he thwarted Bayern attack after attack.
It looked as though it would only be a matter of time until Bayern scored, however when the deadlock was broken in the final it was not a goal for the German side.
Cue Brian Moore’s iconic commentary: “Shaw, Williams, prepared to venture down the left. There is a good ball in for Tony Morely. Oh it must be and it is! It’s Peter Withe.”
Villa’s shock lead perplexed the German side and Villa’s dogged determination and organisation that Saunders had integrated so vigorously at the club was on show for all to see as Villa shocked Bayern in Rotterdam to become European champions.
Tony Barton had been in charge of the club for just 56 days when he led Villa to European glory and stunned the world.
In 1974, Villa were in the Second Division. However Ron Saunders oversaw a promotion, two league cup wins, and a First Division title triumph. It was a shame, then, that when Villa completed their remarkable rise by becoming champions of Europe, Saunders was not there to take the acclaim.
Villa could not sustain their success and Barton was dismissed in 1984, before in 1987, just five years after winning the European Cup, Aston Villa were relegated back to the Second Division. However, their incredible story of how they shocked Europe will truly never be forgotten.