The season had now reached March 1981. Villa’s seven game winning run had just been ended by a thrilling 3-3 draw at home to Manchester United. Ipswich were top of the league with 50pts from 32 matches. Villa were on 49pts from 33 matches. Behind them were four teams separated by a point but they were 8pts off the pace.
At this stage, it looked like a two-horse race.
After their winning run came to an end against Manchester United, Villa’s title hopes suffered a further blow when their unbeaten run ended a week later at Tottenham. It had been ten games since they last tasted defeat in the league. So when goals in each half from Garth Crooks and Steve Archibald won it for the home side, it gave a fairly flat atmosphere on the bus home.
That was until they heard the news from Old Trafford that goals from Mickey Thomas and Jimmy Nicholl had seen Manchester United beat Ipswich, 2-1. Ipswich themselves had gone 12 matches since they were last beaten, so this was a blow but softened by news Villa had lost too.
Peter Withe missed the Spurs defeat and was absent again a week later when Villa were at home to Southampton. His replacement, David Geddis got on the scoresheet for his 4th goal of the season. Not bad seeing as he’d only played seven games. The game hadn’t started that well when Allan Evans put through his own net to give the visitors the lead. Tony Morley levelled things two minutes before the break in a counter-attack similar to his brilliant goal against Everton. A ball up from the back was knocked on by Geddis to Morley who was away and clear. He beat Peter Wells and Villa were level. At stoppage time at the end of the first half, Williams won the ball in midfield. He found Geddis free on the right and he fired Villa into the lead.
Villa were back with a win. So were Ipswich, with a 4-1 victory over Sunderland.
Ipswich were on 52pts from 34 matches. Villa were on 51pts from 35 games. Before the month was up, Ipswich went to Leeds United and were beaten by three H’s. Kevin Hird, Carl Harris and Paul Hart gave Leeds a surprisingly comfortable 3-0 win. Villa now had more hope. Two defeats in their last three games. Was the pressure getting to Ipswich?
April would be critical. Not only did Ipswich have seven league games to go, but they were now in the UEFA Cup Semi-Final and also the FA Cup Semi-Final.
From the beginning of April, the mood had changed. Villa went to Leicester, who were third from bottom. McNaught brought down Alan Young in the area and Steve Lynex scored from the spot to give the home side the lead. The tension was ramped up. But dependable Withe, back in the side after missing the last two games, equalised with his 15th of the season. Gordon Cowans took a free-kick near the bye-line on the Villa left and he lifted it to the near post where Withe got up to head it in. In the 33rd minute, a ball played forward was nodded down by Withe and Des Bremner had anticipated the big striker would win it. He burst onto the loose ball and fired a left foot shot past Wallington to give the visitors the lead.
Bremner has fond memories of the goal as he didn’t score many with his left. But just as Villa thought they’d be in front at the break, they contributed to the home side getting back level. Evans and Bremner got in each other’s way, and then Cowans tried to tidy up and pass it back to Rimmer at the near post. But the keeper was unable to hold onto the ball and Lynex nipped in, ran across the six-yard area and knocked it in. It was a scrappy goal to concede and were these signs of nerves?
It may have been a nervy half-time but Villa came out firing on all cylinders. Bremner played Swain in down the right and as he reached the bye-line he produced a beautiful cross right onto the head of Withe whose header wasn’t going to be stopped. Then ten minutes into the second half, Villa had a free-kick about 25 yards out to the left of the ‘D’. Cowans and Mortimer played it short and then to the right where Morley hammered a right-foot shot low into the corner to make it 4-2. Another two points and the perfect response to the Spurs loss.
Things got better when they found out Ipswich had gone to The Hawthorns and been beaten 1-3. Having lost to three H’s at Leeds they were undone by three B’s with goals from Brendan Batson, Ali Brown and Peter Barnes.
Had Ipswich blown it? Three defeats in their last four. Villa were now on top for the first time since the beginning of January and there were just six matches to go.
In midweek Villa had the last of their tough local derbies when they were at home to West Brom. A tight, nervy game was settled with just two minutes to go, thanks to Withe. He now had 17 for the season and had overtaken Gary Shaw, who’d gone five games without a goal.
Villa were flying. They now had a three point lead at the top giving them a crucial advantage as Ipswich only had one game in hand.
On the same night, Ipswich beat Cologne in the first leg of the UEFA Cup Semi-Final, but their league title hopes were hanging by a thread.
The difference between the two teams was particularly important as the next fixture for the two was against each other.
Just under 47,500 people packed into Villa Park for the Tuesday night visit of Ipswich. This was the home side’s chance to put a further nail in the visitor’s coffin. But Alan Brazil spoiled the party with a goal inside the opening five minutes. A long ball forward by John Wark looked comfortable for McNaught to deal with, but he hesitated, allowing Paul Mariner to steal in and find Brazil who scored. A typically hard-fought contest brought out the qualities of both sides.
Try as they might, Villa just couldn’t find an equaliser. With 11 minutes to go Bremner’s loose pass allowed Mariner to surge forward. He found Eric Gates to his right and the little number 11 hit a great strike right into the top corner to double their lead. The mood inside Villa Park went distinctly flat. Shaw got one back with five minutes to go after the fired in a shot from the edge of the area after Withe had brought it down. For a while, there were hopes of a late comeback. But ultimately they just couldn’t find an equaliser and the title race had seen another twist.
It was a vital win for Ipswich. They’d just lost in the FA Cup Semi-Final to Manchester City at the weekend so their treble dreams had been crushed, but they could still smell a league and UEFA Cup double.
Cowans reflected how the team was really upset about the defeat. But equally determined. Evidently, Saunders gave an interview after the match to Barry Davies where he was very upbeat about his team’s chances, challenging anyone to “bet against us”.
Villa were on 55pts from 38 games with Ipswich on 54pts from 37. Advantage back to Ipswich. Especially as three of their remaining five matches were at home.
The Easter programme was up next and this could well settle things.
Villa played host to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. Forest weren’t in good form and this was the perfect time for Villa to get back into gear with a rousing first-half performance. Just on the half-hour, Morley produced another wonderful cross on the left near the bye-line. At the far post, Bremner came in and he was pushed by Robertson and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Cowans scored the penalty to give Villa the lead.
Right on half-time Morley, who’d troubled Anderson all day down the left-wing, produced another cross to the far post where Withe headed in against his old club to give Villa a two-goal lead. It was his 18th of the season it turned out to be the winning goal They cruised to a 2-0 win to ease some of the tension.
Ipswich were at home to Arsenal, who were back in fifth. The Gunners were doing well, having not lost in their last five, winning four. They continued their good form as Charlie Nicholas and Kenny Sansom scored either side of half-time and now Ipswich had undone all their hard work from the Villa game.
Worse to come on Easter Monday as they went to Norwich for the East Anglian derby where Justin Fashanu scored the only goal of the game. This was now a full scale disaster. Five defeats in their last seven matches at exactly the wrong time. Villa drew 1-1 at Stoke, so Ipswich weren’t punished too much. Withe put Villa in front midway through the first half, but within three minutes Stoke were level thanks to Brendan O’Callaghan.
One of Villa’s star performers, Tony Morley, had a personal emergency to deal with on the Saturday night. His house burned down and he literally lost everything. He had to go to a jumble sale on the Sunday morning to find some clothes to wear. When he got to the training ground he approached his manager to tell him what had happened, and Saunders reply to hearing Morley’s house had burned down was;
“We don’t pay you for that, son. We pay you to play football”
Morley always had a tempestuous relationship with his manager. Saunders would probably point to this bringing out the best in the player, but these days it comes across as unbelievably cold.
Villa were now four points clear at the top with Ipswich still having a game in hand. The goal difference was four in Ipswich’s favour, so Villa would probably need another three points to clinch the title from their last two matches.
Ipswich’s fixture pile-up was no better illustrated than this week when two days after the Norwich defeat, they had to travel to West Germany to meet Cologne. They won 1-0 to reach the UEFA Cup Final, but couldn’t celebrate as they had to travel back home to meet Manchester City in the league.
Villa were also at home, to Middlesbrough. They were now in a position where they could win the league that day. They put on a show for the final league game at Villa Park. Gary Shaw scored his 18th of the season after 23 minutes of the first half. Villa just kept the pressure on their opponents all game. Withe and Evans made a nuisance of themselves in the Boro area, and the loose ball fell to Shaw who fired it home.
Early in the second half, Williams floated a lovely ball from the left to the far post and Withe headed in his 20th of the season to give them breathing space. With ten minutes to go a corner from the right was fumbled by Platt and Allan Evans rounded off the scoring with his 7th goal of the season. Villa won 3-0. It was a party atmosphere at the ground.
Later it was revealed in the build-up to the game that Withe had tried to calm down the dressing room by saying they shouldn’t fear Boro as he always scored against them. After the match, he confessed to having made the story up, but it got the desired effect.
Back in those days, there was no social media or internet to keep fans up to date with games going on elsewhere. During the match when Villa were 2-0 up there was a rumour going around that Ipswich were losing. At the end of the game the players were getting a bit carried away thinking they’d won the league, but news soon came in Terry Butcher had scored the only goal of the game, as he had in Cologne, to beat Man City. A 1-0 win kept them in touch.,
Villa were on 60pts from 41 games. Ipswich were on 56pts from 40 matches. Ipswich still were ahead on goal difference but only by two goals. Villa just needed a point to secure the title.
There was no Final Day concept back then like there is now, but all teams still kicked off at 3 pm on a Saturday. For some it would be their final match of the season, for others they’d still have fixtures to fulfil.
The final game of the season for Villa was a trip to Highbury to meet Arsenal. Meanwhile, Ipswich were at Middlesbrough.
A free-kick on the left for Arsenal was headed on at the near post by John Hollins and Willie Young turned it in with his left foot to put them in front in the first half against Villa.
At Ayresome Park Paul Mariner put Ipswich in front against Middlesbrough and suddenly Villa weren’t in control of their own destiny. Just before the break Villa had a free-kick down their right flank. Jennings punched the cross away firmly and it fell to Charlie Nicholas on the edge of his own area. He immediately hooked the ball downfield where Brian McDermott was marked by the two full-backs. He eased past Swain and as he reached the edge of the Villa box, he swung a right boot and the ball went through Williams’ legs and beyond Rimmer’s outstretched right hand to trickle inside the post. Arsenal now lead 2-0 and Villa were in trouble.
Rimmer would later claim this game was the worst he ever had for Villa, and it came against his old club.
At half-time, Ipswich were now back in it. As it stood they were two points behind Villa and they still had a game to go. Had Villa frozen at the finishing post?
Middlesbrough had lost their last three matches and seven in their last nine. They had nothing to play for and the Ipswich fans were starting to believe they might just pull this off.
Then in the second half, Bosco Jankovic equalised for Middlesbrough. Now Ipswich would have to score again.
At Highbury Villa were struggling to get a hold of the game. It had been a long season but it looked as if they’d blinked at the wrong time.
Then all of a sudden some of the supporters who had brought in radios to the game started to spread the word. Jankovic had scored again. This couldn’t be happening, could it? But it was true. Middlesbrough now lead 2-1 and even though Villa were losing this would be enough to give them the title.
No further goals in either game so Aston Villa had been crowned League Champions, despite losing their last game of the season.
Morley says it was nothing to do with the occasion, they just didn’t perform that day. Allan Evans says they were really proud of the way they’d played all season, but in that match, they let themselves down.
But defeat was softened by the fans streaming onto the pitch at the end of the game to celebrate the league title.
The occasion became known as the ‘transistor championship’ as many Villa fans had transistor radios to listen to goings on with the Ipswich game and were able to pass the news to the players.
For Ipswich, they couldn’t dwell on what might have been, as they were then in action in the UEFA Cup Final. This format was over two legs. They won the first at Portman Road, 3-0 against the Dutch side, AZ Alkmaar. Two weeks later they lifted the trophy despite losing 2-4 on the night, but ultimately winning 5-4 on aggregate.
In between these two matches, they played out their final league fixture of the season, which fittingly for the way their season had crumbled, was a defeat at home to Southampton.
Aston Villa had ended their long wait for another league title. They had done it using just 14 players, seven of whom played in every match.
Some tried to belittle their achievements, not only pointing to not suffering the injuries other teams, such as Liverpool, did. They also pointed to the fact they lost to Ipswich three times that season. Arsenal eventually finished third, after an astonishing run at the end of the season winning seven of their last eight. Villa never beat them either.
Ipswich were the country’s preferred winners, often playing the most attractive football. They were on course for a treble and ended up with just a European trophy. The season was just too long for a small squad.
This is where Villa again benefited. Ipswich put them out of the FA Cup in the Third Round, so from early January they only had the league to concentrate on. Whereas Ipswich were fighting on three fronts.
Villa themselves pointed to the fact they had more local rivals to get past. That season saw them take on Birmingham, West Brom, Wolves, Coventry and Leicester City, all within 50 miles of Villa Park.
They did the double over Birmingham, Wolves, Coventry and Leicester. They beat West Brom at home but were held 0-0 at The Hawthorns. Nine points from a possible ten in matches which all would have been highly charged affairs.
They beat defending champions, Liverpool, at home in January and their form in 1981 was impressive. 12 wins from 17 games with just three losses were the cornerstone. Whereas Ipswich, who’d looked odds on to lift the title, lost seven of their last ten.
Only Ipswich scored more than Villa and only one team (Man Utd) conceded fewer The defence became the bedrock of their success. Old stagers like Rimmer and McNaught were key, with Evans chipping in with seven goals as well. The full-backs were dependable. Saunders converted Swain from a striker at Chelsea to right-back. At left-back Williams and Gibson played about half the season each, but were equally consistent.
Up front, the experience of Peter Withe served them well as he was the top scorer with 20 in the league 21 in all competitions. Gary Shaw hit 18 in the league and 20 in all. Left-winger, Tony Morley also hit 10 in the league and 12 throughout. Their front three managed 48 in the league, which outscored Ipswich’s front three of Brazil, Mariner and Gates who pitched in with 41.
For years people have tried to diminish Villa’s achievement saying Middlesbrough won the league for them. But in reality, they won the title by four points. Of course, we’ll never know whether Ipswich would’ve performed better in their final game at home to Southampton if the title was still up for grabs. By then they were a very tired squad and Villa’s consistency was what gave them the edge.
Their first ever European Cup campaign, 1981-82 saw them defeat Bayern Munich in Rotterdam as Withe scored the only goal of the game. But Saunders left under a cloud before they reached the Final. The team was soon broken up and just six years after they were League Champions, they suffer relegation to Division Two.
For Villa 1980-81 will always be a famous season. Their first title for 70 years, and in the intervening years they’ve finished second twice (1989-90 and 1992-93).
The celebrations went on for ages and the players point to this, and the European Cup success the year later, as being their finest moments in their club career.
One thing about Villa’s Championship winning performance which seems unlikely to be matched is they used just 14 players for 42 league games.
For Villa supporters, these names have gone down in folklore.
Rimmer (42 appearances), Swain (42), Williams (21), Gibson (19), Deacy, Evans (39, 7 goals), McNaught (42), Bremner (42, 2), Mortimer (42, 4), Cowans (42, 5), Withe (36, 20), Shaw (40, 18), Morley (42, 10), Geddis (8, 4)