This is the story of Aston Villa’s league title season 1980-81. We have now reached December 1980, where Villa were sitting top of the table 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.
Ayresome Park was the destination of Villa’s next match. Middlesbrough were mid-table, but had only lost once in their last six. The game looked to heading for a goalless draw as the last five minutes approached. As the snow was now of blizzard-proportions, suddenly things took off. Craig Johnston put Middlesbrough ahead. Gary Shaw’s 12th league goal of the season equalised the game, just two minutes later and then a further two minutes after that, Duncan Shearer won it for the home side. After the 12-match unbeaten run, Villa had now lost twice in their last three. This now cost them their place at the top. Liverpool beat Spurs with Ipswich drawing with Man City. Liverpool now moved to the top of the table, albeit on goal difference. Ipswich were two points back with three games in hand.
The Birmingham derby was next. Villa had won at St. Andrews back in October. Over 41,000 packed into Villa Park. After a goalless first half, David Geddis opened the scoring midway through the second half. Gordon Cowans played a ball over the defence for Geddis to run onto. He had the measure of Phil Hawker and as Jeff Wealands came out, Geddis coolly slipped the ball under him. With Peter Withe still out injured, Geddis now had proved to be an able replacement. The Blues failed to clear the ball, which fell to Geddis. He flicked it with the outside of his boot, but it hit the post. Shaw was on hand to put them two goals up before Geddis hit his second of the match with seven minutes to go. Ken McNaught floated a free-kick from his own half which Allan Evans got up to nod on, and Geddis managed to squeeze the ball past the Birmingham keeper to put the home fans in raptures with a 3-0 win.
It was an important win as Liverpool and Ipswich played out a 1-1 draw at Anfield. Villa were back on top, a point ahead of Liverpool with Ipswich two points back.
Villa then visited Brighton. They’d beaten them 4-1 at home and confidence was high. Michael Robinson, whose goal had beaten Ipswich the month before, scored after 15 minutes. But much like with Ipswich, Villa couldn’t find an equaliser and this was another famous win for relegation-threatened Brighton.
This was their third successive away defeat. They’d registered just two wins in their last eight. This was now being to be a worry. Liverpool and Ipswich both won and now the top three were separated by just two points. Ipswich still had two games in hand.
Now for the Christmas period. Withe was back for the Boxing Day visit of Stoke City. He scored the only goal of the game too, his first goal for two months. Stoke keeper, Peter Fox tipped Shaw’s header onto the post. But Withe was first to react to fire the ball in. Liverpool were held at Old Trafford and Ipswich won at Birmingham. Liverpool and Villa were now level on 33 points with Ipswich on 32.
The next day saw Villa travel to the City Ground to take on European Cup holders, Nottingham Forest. Villa went ahead thanks to a bizarre own goal from Larry Lloyd. Dennis Mortimer took an inswinging corner on the right. McNaught flicked it on at the near post. Shilton got down to push the ball away, where Lloyd took an almighty swipe at the ball with his right foot. The combination of his kick and Shilton’s outstretched hand spun the ball back over the keeper’s head and into the net. Just before the break, Trevor Francis equalised. A counter-attack lead by Wallace, found Anderson ahead of him down the right. His ball into the near post was cleverly turned in by Francis. With 20 minutes to go Shaw put the visitors back in front and they looked to be heading for a much-needed away win. It was a lovely move, started by Shaw with his back to goal just inside his own half. He controlled the ball on his chest then played it to his left for Mortimer to take it on. The Villa captain played Kenny Swain in on the right. The Villa right-back had enough time to look up and assess his options. Geddis went near-post to draw the defence. Swain picked out Shaw, who’d arrived at the far post and as so often was the case that season, he made no mistake. But with four minutes to go Martin O’Neill brought Forest back level. Ponte’s ball into the box was blocked by Gary Williams, who then tried to thump it forward but it hit Ponte and the loose ball fell to the future Villa manager, and he hit a right-foot shot past Rimmer, so the game ended 2-2.
Liverpool and Ipswich were both held to a draw, so it was as-you-were at the top.
1980 ended. Liverpool were top with Villa second, both on 34 points. They had an identical goal difference too but Liverpool had scored more goals. Ipswich were on 33 points with two games in hand.
Villa were still in a good position. Their home form was excellent. Unbeaten in nine and only one loss all season. It was their away form that was causing some concern. They’d picked up one point from their last four on the road. What would 1981 bring?
The New Year began with the traditional Third Round of the FA Cup. The draw had thrown up a pearler too. Ipswich Town v Aston Villa. Third against second in the First Division.
These were the days when all ties were played at 3 pm on a Saturday. So for those other than the 27,721 who were at Portman Road, they had to wait till the Match of the Day highlights later that evening to see any of the action. The game was as absorbing as expected. Paul Mariner won it with a goal after just 12 minutes and Villa’s cup season was finished.
On the bright side, Villa were now free to concentrate on the league as Ipswich also had a UEFA Cup campaign to deal with and Liverpool were still in the European Cup.
Talking of which, the League season resumed with the visit of defending champions, Liverpool to Villa Park. If the Villa Park faithful dared not dream of a title challenge to this point of the season, after this game they could think of little else.
With both Phil Thompson and Alan Hansen injured, Paisley was forced to shuffle his defence. He moved Phil Neal to centre-back to partner Colin Irwin, which putting Richard Money in at right-back. He didn’t want the two inexperienced players Colin Irwin and Richard Money to have to deal with Shaw and Withe.
Ironically, much of the threat came from Tony Morley on the left as Money struggled to deal with him. This is where the opening goal came from after 19 minutes. Morley turned Money inside out twice, then crossed for Shaw to shoot. Clemence could only parry it and Withe was there to knock in the rebound. But Villa’s early impetus faded as the champions came more into the game.
With the home side still leading going into the final 10 minutes, Swain made progress down the right. Swain had been a forward at Chelsea, but Ron Saunders had converted him to a right-back and his performances during this season had been a revelation. He back-heeled it to Shaw, and as the defence pushed up looking for offside, Mortimer saw his opportunity and made a run forward into space. Shaw found him and as Clemence came off his line, Mortimer beat him on his left.
A crucial win for Villa, who moved back to the top of the table. This felt like a marker being put down. The biggest crowd for over four years packed into Villa Park to witness it and the disappointment of losing to Ipswich in the cup the previous weekend was all but forgotten.
Reflecting on this season, Morley flagged this game up as the moment they started to believe;
“you never count your chickens, but that was the moment we realised we had half a chance to go on and challenge for the title. When you beat a team like Liverpool, and deservedly so, we were there now and could challenge them in anything.”
Ipswich beat Nottingham Forest, 2-0 so Liverpool were down to third. Three days later Ipswich took full advantage of one of their games in hand and thumped Birmingham, 5-1. They were clearly the best team at the time and now lead the table by a point with a game in hand. This just showed how important the win over Liverpool had been for Villa.
The tough games continued as Villa made the short journey to Highfield Road to take on Coventry City. The Sky Blues had won just two of their last eight and were sitting in 15th. The biggest crowd of the season for Coventry saw Morley break the deadlock ten minutes into the second half. Ten minutes later Withe doubled the lead. Mark Hateley got one back for the home side but it was another tough local derby negotiated by Villa and two more points to add to their tally.
Ipswich were held at Everton and Liverpool won at home to Norwich. Ipswich now lead Villa on goal difference, with a game in hand, with Liverpool two points back.
Villa sat out the FA Cup Fourth Round. Liverpool were knocked out at Goodison Park in the Merseyside derby and Ipswich went through against Second Division Shrewsbury, in a replay.
The final league game of January saw Manchester City visit Villa Park. John Bond had steadied the ship at City and they’d won four of their last five and lost just once in their previous ten. With both Nicky Reid and Ray Ranson missing, Villa saw their chance and took it. Gary Shaw scored his 15th league goal of the season after just two minutes. Villa held City at bay and won 1-0. Three successive wins since the New Year and momentum was building.
Ipswich thumped Stoke, 4-0 to boost their goal difference. With Liverpool going down at Leicester for their second defeat in three, the top two were now four points clear. Ipswich still held the advantage with a game in hand and six goals better off, so at this point, it looked like theirs to lose.
Villa travelled to Everton to meet a side who’d not won in their last five. But their FA Cup triumph over Liverpool gave them a risky edge. An early goal again was crucial, as Morley put the visitors in front in the 3rd minute. It was a stunning individual goal and was voted “Goal of the season”. The move began down with Williams in the left-back position. His ball up to the halfway line found Shaw, facing his own goal and closely marked by Billy Wright. Shaw turned the Everton defender perfectly, and he was able to bring in Morley who’d begun his run from the halfway line down the left. When Morley received the ball he was already at full pelt. Mick Lyons was retreating, not knowing which side Morley would go. The Villa winger then dropped his shoulder and turned inside to his right before letting fly a fierce shot which flew past Martin Hodge’s left hand. Poor Hodge was only making his second start of the season, but few keepers would’ve stopped that. What no one knew, until he revealed years later, was Morley had been wound up by his manager and Everton paid the price.
Morley was an Everton fan and knew friends and family would be there to watch him. Saunders also knew this, so the day before the game he made noises about how the winger was getting a bit too big for his boots and he might be dropped for this game. Just hours before kick-off Saunders changed his mind, and the wound-up Morley was determined to show his manager a thing or two. This goal was the result.
Trevor Ross levelled things from the spot before Mortimer restored Villa’s lead before half-time. This was the sort of game where the next goal would be important, and it fell to Villa as Cowans scored from the spot.
Ipswich wouldn’t lie down, though as they came from a goal down to beat Crystal Palace, 3-2.
Villa now had two weeks off to recharge their batteries. Ipswich beat Charlton in the cup to reach the Fifth Round. Then they played their game in hand at home to Middlesbrough. Alan Brazil scored the only goal of the game and Ipswich were now two points clear with a goal difference advantage of six. That was probably worth another point on its own.
Crystal Palace arrived at Villa Park, sitting bottom of the pile. Withe scored twice, the first after just four minutes, as a 2-1 win made it five straight victories.
Ipswich still didn’t blink as they saw off Wolves in a 3-1 win. Liverpool were held at Brighton and now had gone five since their last win. It was becoming clear this was a two-horse race.
Having taken on Ipswich the previous week, Wolves now entertained Villa. The short journey was another success giving them six straight wins for the year. Withe scored his third in two matches to take him to 12 in the league for the season. But he left it late with just seven minutes to go.
But they couldn’t find a way past Ipswich, who put four past Coventry to give them their fifth successive win. They still lead by two points and now had a goal difference advantage of 10. It was now 11 games since Ipswich last tasted defeat in the league.
Ipswich were chasing a remarkable treble. They were top of the league and in the Quarter-Finals of both the FA and UEFA Cups. March was where they might start to find the pressure of fixtures count against them. Whereas Villa just had one competition to concentrate on.
The first weekend of March gave Villa the opportunity to go level on points with leaders Ipswich, who were in FA Cup action.
They made the trip to the North East to take on Sunderland side who’d won just one of their last six. On a typically blustery day at Roker Park, the determined swirling wind contributed to Evans putting Villa in front within two minutes of the kick-off. A right-footed cross from the left by Morley into the area was suddenly caught by the wind. It was taken beyond the defence for Evans at the back post who headed it across goal into the net. It was the sixth goal of the season for the big defender. 20 minutes in they were two-up. It was another incisive move that carved open the Sunderland defence. Mortimer started the move in midfield. He found Shaw, who held it up to allow his skipper to continue his run. Shaw then laid it off to Cowans who’d seen Mortimer’s run. He found him with a first time pass and the Villa number six was clear on goal and beat Barry Siddal in the home goal.
Sunderland got a goal back through Joe Hinnigan, his first for the club, but Villa won 2-1. Seven wins from seven matches in 1981. They were still second, level on points, but of course, they’d played a game more.
Ipswich drew 3-3 with Nottingham Forest in their FA Cup Quarter-Final tie and so an extra fixture was added to their schedule. In the week they resumed their UEFA Cup campaign beating St. Etienne in the Quarter-Final first leg.
In midweek, Arnold Mühren ’s goal beat Forest in the replay and their treble hopes were still alive, but the fixtures were piling up.
Villa then welcomed Manchester United to Villa Park. They’d lost just once there all season, winning 12 of their 15 home matches thus far. United had lost their last three and four of their last five matches.
So much of Villa’s success since the turn of the year was their fast starts. Inside the opening half an hour, Withe had scored twice to give them a 2-0 lead at the break. His first was a simple ball out to Swain on the right. His cross to the far post was headed in by Withe. His second was the sort of finish Gerd Müller would’ve relished. Morley’s in-swinging corner was headed on at the near post and hit Withe’s shins. The ball bounced away from goal, and Withe got there, turned on a sixpence and hit a hard shot past Gary Bailey’s left hand.
However, in the second half, it was the visitors who were the fastest out of the blocks. Joe Jordan scored within 60 seconds of the re-start. Coppell with some good work down the right, crossed to the far post where McIlroy’s header was tipped up in the air by Rimmer, and Jordan was unmarked and headed into the empty net. 20 minutes later and Coppell again got down the right, and this time his header to the penalty spot was powered home from the head of Jordan for his second, and United were level. Straight away Villa attacked through Mortimer down the right. His cross into the area was turned in at the near post by Shaw and Villa were back in front. Much to everyone’s amazement, United grabbed a draw. A clumsy challenge from Williams brought down Coppell just inside the box. Sammy McIlroy scored from the spot with just two minutes remaining. A pulsating game ended 3-3. United hadn’t scored for five matches, and only had two in their last seven. Now they’d managed three in one game.
Villa’s seven-game winning run was at an end.
Meanwhile at Portman Road, Ipswich not only took advantage by winning, but 3-0 improved their goal difference. They were a point clear of Villa, with a game in hand and a goal difference advantage of 12. Villa only had nine games to go.