This is the story of Aston Villa’s incredible run to the league title in 1980-81.
The previous decade had seen seven different clubs win the league. In the seasons running up to this one, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Ipswich were consistently the top clubs in England. Suddenly out of the pack emerged the lads from Villa Park.
When you look down the list of English league champions, Villa feature quite highly. The club was a founder member of the Football League in 1888. By 1910 they’d won six titles, more than any other club, yet by August 1980 it had been 70 years since their last one.
At the start of the ’70s, they were in the third tier, but by 1975 they were back in the big time, promoted from Second Division as well as lifting the League Cup.
That was the season Ron Saunders took over as boss. The League Cup win was the third different club he’d taken to the Final in successive years. Villa was the first time he’d been on the winning side.
1977 was another successful year with another League Cup win and a fourth-place finish in the league. However, this was followed by three mid-table finishes, so there was little to suggest they were about to become the best team in the land.
Saunders had shipped out a number of players who’d contributed to goals such as Andy Gray, Brian Little, Ray Graydon and John Deehan.
In came a young local lad called Gary Shaw. He was the top scorer in 1980 and Saunders recognised he needed some experience up front. He recruited Peter Withe from Newcastle United, paying a club record £500,000. Withe was part of Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest which won the title in 1978. He was a typical English number nine of the time. Tall, good in the air and tough as granite.
The supply from the wing came from Tony Morley. Blonde-haired, like Shaw, Morley played mainly down the left despite being primarily right-footed. In midfield, they possessed one of the most creative, elegant and clever players of his generation, Gordon Cowans. He’d been at the club since the age of nine and was an important part of the local trio with Shaw and Morley. These three suffered the toughest treatment metered out by the manager, but they responded well. They were captained by Dennis Mortimer, who like Withe, was born in Liverpool. Mortimer was a box-to-box midfielder who’d joined the club from Coventry City.
This season was unusual by today’s standards where Villa only called on 14 players for all 42 matches. Seven players played in every match. You could argue they were lucky with injuries, but it’s what they did with what they had that counted in the end.
Saunders was the mastermind. A dour individual who never seemed content with his lot, but his determined and stern exterior hid a personality with a will to win which drove his players on. Many of those who played under him rarely heard any praise from him. He was always demanding more, never appeared to favour any player.
The season began at Elland Road, and started badly when Eamon Deacy conceded a penalty in the opening two minutes. Byron Stevenson made no mistake from the spot to put the home side in front. Then, Morley equalised right on half-time. He was given too much space to turn and fire a shot past John Lukic. On the hour Morley raced away down the right, beat two challenges and crossed to the far post, where Shaw was unmarked and he got his season off and running with the winning goal. The 2-1 win was followed by a 1-0 win in the week at home to Norwich City with Shaw grabbing the only goal of the game.
Withe scored his first of the season when he put them in front at Maine Road against Manchester City in the opening ten minutes. When he doubled their lead in the final 15 minutes, they looked likely to record another win. However, a penalty from Dennis Tueart brought the home side back into it before Ray Ranson scored a late equaliser.
The structure of the League Cup back then was that the big clubs didn’t enter until the Second Round, and this round was over two legs. Villa’s first tie was against Leeds United again. The first leg was at Villa Park, where Morley scored the only goal of the game to give them a slender lead to take to Elland Road.
The month ended with the visit of Coventry City. One of the aspects of this season was the number of ‘Midlands derbies’. With Villa, Coventry, Birmingham, Wolves, Stoke City, Nottingham Forest and Leicester all in the same division it added some extra spice to the competition.
Gary Shaw scored the only goal of the game midway through the second half. Four games in and Villa were locked with Ipswich and Southampton on seven points at the top.
Villa completed their League Cup Second Round tie with a win at Leeds. Withe scored early, but then Arthur Graham levelled things on the night. Right on half-time, Shaw put Villa back in front. He scored again in the second half and Villa won 3-1 on the night and 4-1 on aggregate.
The first league game of the month was a huge one. They turned up at Portman Road to take on early leaders, Ipswich Town. Ipswich had just come off the back of a 4-0 win over Everton, and were in good form. Their Dutch midfielder, Frans Thijssen scored 10 minutes into the second half and it proved to be the only goal of the game. Villa’s unbeaten run had ended.
A week later their unbeaten home record fell too. Everton arrived at Villa Park having only won twice but two goals in four first-half minutes from Mick Lyons and Peter Eastoe won it for the visitors.
Villa were down to 10th. Maybe this season wasn’t going to be that different to the previous ones?
A week later they were back at home when Wolves were the visitors. Emlyn Hughes put through his own net after just four minutes to give the home side the lead. With 20 minutes to go Mel Eves equalised and it looked as if they were going to go three games without a win. Then, David Geddis scored his first of the season as he headed in a Cowans free-kick with just six minutes remaining, to give Villa a much needed victory.
They were looking to progress further in the League Cup when the Third Round had them matched with Cambridge United, who were then a Second Division club. Tony Morley gave Villa an early lead but then goals from Northern Irish international Tommy Finney and Steve Spriggs put Cambridge in front inside the opening 20 minutes. They hung on for a shock win. Three defeats in four matches for Villa certainly didn’t suggest the season would end well.
Their first visit to London saw them take on Crystal Palace. The ‘Team of the Eighties’ were on the slide and had lost their last four, but the game was still goalless going into the last five minutes. Gary Shaw again popped up with a crucial late goal and Villa took home the points.
They finished the month in fourth place on 11 points with Liverpool and Everton, four points off the leaders Ipswich.
This was the month when things really took off. Up to now, they were only team in the top nine who hadn’t reached double figures for goals. In October this all changed.
Sunderland arrived at Villa Park with a side containing Sam Allardyce. They were off the back of a 4-1 win over Leeds United. The first half looked to be ending goalless but centre-back Allan Evans put the home side in front just before the break. The ball was crossed from the left wing and Evans met it on the volley on the far-right hand side of the area.
Evans had formed a solid partnership at the back with former Everton defender, Ken McNaught. He was also adding some vital goals too. He was bought to the club initially as a striker from Dunfermline, but soon converted to a centre-back. In the second half, the blonde duo of Morley and Shaw put Villa further ahead before Evans scored his second of the game. 4-0 was just the win they needed and the biggest crowd of the season at Villa Park went home very satisfied.
Midweek saw them travel to Old Trafford. United were two points behind Villa and although they’d only lost once, they’d drawn far too many matches.
Withe opened the scoring in the 15th minute. Sammy McIlroy’s penalty levelled things and then Steve Coppell put the home side in front just 60 seconds later. The second spot-kick of the night went to the away side and Gordon Cowans opened his account for the season. However, they were only level for two minutes, before McIlroy grabbed his second of the night to put the home side back in front. They couldn’t hold onto the lead again as Gary Shaw scored his sixth league goal of the season and a pulsating game ended 3-3.
The weekend brought the first Second City derby of the season. Birmingham City’s side included Archie Gemmill, Colin Todd, Alan Curbishley and Frank Worthington. It was Worthington who had the best chance of the early stages, when he danced through the Villa penalty box, only to see his deft chip cleared off the line by McNaught. The Blues had the better of things for much of the first half, but it was Villa who went in at half-time in front. A corner from the left was headed firmly by McNaught. Wealands, in the City goal, parried it and McNaught’s second attempt was handled by Mark Dennis. Gordon Cowans scored again from the spot. City were unbeaten in 20 home matches and desperate to maintain their record, and within four minutes of the re-start, they were back level. Deacy brought down Alan Ainscow to give the home side a penalty. Frank Worthington equalised from the spot. Again, it looked like being a draw before another late goal gave Villa the points. With just six minutes remaining, McNaught floated a free-kick into the area. Allan Evans scored his third in successive weekends as he turned and met the ball on the volley to give the Villa fans the bragging rights with a 2-1 win.
Villa were now up to third, level on points with Liverpool, a point behind Ipswich.
The following weekend and the locals were now getting behind their team as the attendance breached the 30,000 figure for the first time in the season. Tottenham were the visitors, having won their last two. Morley scored either side of half-time before Withe completed a 3-0 win.
Both Ipswich and Liverpool drew so Villa were now up to second, behind Ipswich on goal difference.
Brighton were the next visitors to Villa Park. They’d won their first match of the season, but had only won once more in their next ten. John Gregory put them in front midway through the first half, then 12 minutes later skipper Dennis Mortimer got his first of the season to level things at the break.
Villa were the fastest out of the blocks for the second half as Withe put them in front. Then Des Bremner scored his first of the season. When Gary Shaw hit the fourth they’d scored three times in 13 minutes to blow away the opposition.
Ipswich weren’t in action so now Villa were now top of the league, albeit having played two matches more. This was the first time in just over four years Villa had topped the pile.
They ended the month with a trip to the south coast to take on Southampton. The Saints welcomed back Kevin Keegan after he’d missed the last five matches. They’d only won once in their last eight. Villa lead at half-time after Morley put them in front. Steve Moran then equalised on the hour. Ten minutes later Withe scored his sixth league goal of the season to win it for Villa.
Four straight wins, unbeaten in their last eight with seven wins. Villa were two points clear of a still unbeaten Ipswich at the top of the table. Liverpool were one of four clubs four points further back. This was the last season of two points for a win.
October had seen five wins and a draw from their six matches. Another six were up in November, including a visit to Anfield and two more Midlands derbies. Could they keep their run going?
A home game against Leicester was first up. They’d just beaten Wolves to end a run of three straight defeats. With a 19-year old Gary Lineker up front, they weren’t expected to cause Villa many problems. Two goals in four minutes in the second half from Shaw and Cowans gave the league leaders a comfortable 2-0 win. The goal from Shaw emphasised the partnership he was developing with Withe. A ball was played up to the big number nine and he headed it down for Shaw to fired it past Wallington.
Ipswich were held to a goalless draw at home by West Brom, the first match they’d failed to score, and Villa were now three points clear.
A week later it was Villa’s turn to take on West Brom. Against a side that included Bryan Robson, Cyrille Regis and Peter Barnes, Villa’s winning run came to an end. They’d won five on the trot but The Baggies held them to a goalless draw, just as they had Ipswich the week before.
Ipswich drew again so Villa were still three points clear.
A midweek trip to Carrow Road to meet Norwich was up next. Gary Williams was now back in starting line-up having not taken part since the opening day. Graham Paddon gave the home side the lead at half-time, before Shaw equalised on the hour. Villa’s dominance finally paid off with Shaw hitting his 10th league goal of the season with just five minutes to go. Two minutes later Evans made it certain, heading in a cross from Shaw, as Villa won 3-1.
The win was significant as the night before a goal from Brighton’s Michael Robinson ended Ipswich’s unbeaten record. Villa were now five points clear and it was only mid-November. Liverpool had moved into second on goal difference above Ipswich.
Back at Villa Park at the weekend, Leeds United’s Alex Sabella put them in front after just ten minutes. But with ten minutes of the first half to go, Shaw hit his fourth in the last three matches and the game was level. It ended 1-1. Another point dropped but it extended their unbeaten run to 12.
Ipswich beat Leicester so they were back in second place, having cut the lead to four points.
Then it was a trip to Anfield. Liverpool were chasing a third successive league title. They’d lost just once all season but their problem was they were drawing too many games. Kenny Dalglish opened the scoring in the 65th minute. Allan Evans equalised with 12 minutes to go and it looked like they’d grab another point. But then with a minute to go, Dalglish scored his second and Villa’s 12-match unbeaten run was at an end. You felt it was a lesson handed out by the champions, just in case Villa had aspirations on taking their crown. But the Midlands club weren’t going to disappear anytime soon.
With Ipswich winning at Nottingham Forest, Villa’s lead was down to two points with Liverpool a further point back.
Another crowd of more than 30,000 were at Villa Park for the visit of Arsenal. They were in fourth so this was another tough test for the leaders. Morley scored his sixth league goal of the season to put Villa in front just before the hour. It was one which appears in every highlights package of the season. Bremner surged across the midfield and found Morley on the left. He played the ball into Shaw in the penalty area. The Villa number eight had his back to goal. He held the ball up, waited for Morley to continue his run and then laid it off for Morley to fire it past Jennings. But instead of going on, they were pegged back when Brian Talbot equalised. The game ended 1-1. Another game against a top-four side and still no win. One win in five, and only five points from a possible ten. To make things worse, Withe picked up an injury and would be out for the next three weeks. Was the pressure of leading starting to bite?
November ended with Villa still top, two points above Liverpool in second with Ipswich a point back but with three games in hand. West Brom were fourth, level on points with Ipswich.
Join us in part two where the season enters the last month of 1980.