How Aston Villa won the European Cup (and were then relegated five years later)

How Aston Villa won the European Cup (and were then relegated five years later)
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Winning the European Cup, or the Champions League as it is somewhat inappropriately called today, has never been easy. Take the example of Aston Villa in the 1981-82 season. Riding high on their title win achieved under Ron Saunders, the club cleared a number of imposing obstacles along their way to the ultimate European glory. A journey across the continent that involved rotten fish, sand, ice, violence, a shock resignation and two unknown English heroes who would write their names in the Villa Park hall of fame. Villa’s story that season was rarely dull.

Saunders had infamously called upon only 14 players during the 1980-81 championship-winning campaign, but knew he had to get extra bodies in to deal with the workload facing Villa during the new season. However, Andy Blair would be the only new player to join the club, a bone of contention between Saunders and his board, something that created tensions at the club and played a role in what was to follow. Villa may have been lucky with injuries in the previous year, but they would not be so fortunate come the start of the 1981-82 season.

Key injuries to Gary Shaw and Ken McNaught stretched the squad immediately, with 13 players already used by the third league game. Two defeats in the opening two league matches indicated that defending their crown was not going to be easy, and six consecutive draws, after a 3-1 win at Tottenham, were just as worrying, especially given that this was the first season of the new three points for a win system. By the time the European Cup first round arrived, it was becoming increasingly apparent that Villa would need to look to one of the three cup competitions they were playing in for success.

First round: FC Valur Reykjavik

At least the first round draw was kind to a Villa team entering the competition for the first time. FC Valur Reykjavik were the ideal opponent , the Icelandic part-time outfit containing a teacher, economist and radio commentator in their team. Unsurprisingly, Saunders demanded that his team go “flat out for four or five goals”, and in front of 20,481 at Villa Park, he got his wish. The 5-0 win was as comfortable as it sounds, with winger Tony Morley opening the scoring, and Peter Withe and Terry Donovan both grabbing braces. The Times described Valur’s efforts as a “frail challenge”, and that was probably being kind.

Peter Withe celebrates after scoring one of his two goals against FC Valur of Reykjavik. Photograph: Gerry Armes/Popperfoto/Getty Images

The return leg was just as straightforward, despite the icy gales and smell of rotting fish in the air. Boosted by the return of Shaw, who had been out with a foot injury since a pre-season friendly in Greece, Villa eased through 7-0 on aggregate, the England U21 star scoring both goals in Iceland. A lot of big guns remained in the tournament – Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Benfica – so Villa were reasonably happy to draw Dynamo Berlin in the next round.

Second round: Dynamo Berlin

Villa had beaten the East German national team 4-2 in a pre-season match but Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest had struggled to beat the club in their 1980 European Cup quarter-final. With the first leg to be played in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, the Times’ Norman Fox was quite right in his assessment that “Villa will do well to return with a draw or a manageable defeat”. They would get a lot more than that, but would owe a great debt of gratitude to both keeper Jimmy Rimmer and flying winger Morley.

Aston Villa winger Tony Morley shows a Dynamo Berlin defender a clean pair of heels during their European Cup second round second leg at Villa Park. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Villa passed their first real test, Morley’s goal after five minutes crucial in setting the tone, although Dynamo’s players were not impressed that Shaw had been flagged offside earlier in the move, only for the referee to ignore his linesman. The early strike played into Villa’s hands, allowing them to absorb pressure and hit the home team on the break, but an equaliser from Riediger just after the break and the concession of a penalty after substitute Ivor Linton had been adjudged to have tripped Wolf Netz looked to have undone the good work with 10 minutes to play.

Luckily, Artur Ullrich hit the post with his spot kick; unluckily the rebound flicked Rimmer on the way back, leaving the goal gaping for the East German. Rimmer reacted superbly, though, leaping up to turn Ullrich’s second attempt over the bar. Panic over, Villa then had the added bonus of snatching victory just five minutes later. Morley sprinted from his own half to score a “wonderful goal befitting a stirring performance,” to use the words of Fox, the winger showing his growing importance to both club and seemingly country. Yet come the 1982 World Cup, Morley was nowhere to be seen, a very strange decision when taking his European displays into account.

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As the second leg progressed, it was clear to all that those final 10 minutes in Berlin had been crucial. Despite peppering the visitors’ goal, Villa would be frustrated throughout the night, and ended up walking on the precipice. Terletzki’s goal for the visitors after 15 minutes left the tie level on aggregate, and Rimmer was needed once more to tip a late Riediger effort on to the post. Villa went through on away goals, yet had managed to put their supporters through the wringer.

Quarter-final: Dynamo Kyiv

When the draw was made in December, Villa were handed another tricky trip behind the Iron Curtain. Dynamo Kyiv, who would provide the USSR with eight players in the 1982 World Cup, were dangerous, although Villa would benefit from the fact that the quarter-final first leg would be Kyiv’s first competitive match of the year due to their winter break.

The tie was three months away, but in the meantime Villa’s season appeared to lurch from one drama to another. Disappointingly defeated in the League Cup quarter-final by neighbours West Brom – Morley was sent off in the tunnel at half-time – the form of the defending league champions dipped alarmingly: the team started February in 17th place and just three points off the relegation zone. And then loomed another crisis on the horizon.

On 9 February 1982, Saunders quit the club, after a row with major shareholder Ron Bendall. “If I’m employed to run a football club, then I’m not an office boy,” Saunders complained, although it is believed that the main issue revolved around his contract. It was reported that Saunders wanted a rolling contract, giving him a three-year payoff in the event of his sacking, but when Bendall declined, the manager resigned.

Ron Saunders leaves the Aston Villa training ground, Bodymoor Heath, after resigning as manager. Photograph: Gerry Armes/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Bendall turned to Aston Villa’s chief scout Tony Barton to fill Saunders’ shoes on a caretaker basis. He was a complete unknown to many up and down the country, but a man who obviously had an eye for talent, having spotted half the championship-winning squad. To complete the madness, Saunders then rocked up at city rivals Birmingham City, and lost to his old club immediately, giving Barton his first win as manager. Villa fans left Saunders in no doubt about their feelings. “Saunders, you must be fucking mad” and “we don’t need you anymore” among the ditties aimed at their former manager.

Barton stopped the rot, winning seven out of his first 12 league games, and although Tottenham knocked Villa out of the FA Cup, the return of McNaught and the restoration of the championship winning line-up for the first time, put the club in a positive frame of mind as the quarter-final of the European Cup neared.

Due to icy conditions in Kyiv, the first leg was moved 300 miles south to the Crimean city of Simferopol, but this was not completely to Villa’s satisfaction. Expecting to stay in the coastal city of Yalta, the team were moved to a different hotel, and lodged an official complaint. Taking their own provisions, including 150 steaks, 12 dozen eggs, 112 pounds of potatoes, and bread, coffee and tea, the mood of the players and officials was hardly helped on their arrival. Tucking into a snack provided by the hotel, midfielder Gordan Cowans opened a bread roll up only to find a dead cockroach inside.

Aston Villa players and officials at Birmingham Airport before boarding their flight to Kyiv. Photograph: Gerry Armes/Popperfoto/Getty Images

To top things off, Villa were informed that Kyiv had moved the kick-off forward two hours to accommodate local TV, yet none of the grief Villa experienced on their trip appeared to do them much harm. Even the absence of key centre-back Allan Evans did not have a negative impact. Des Bremner slotted into the gap and, aided by stirring performances from McNaught and skipper Dennis Mortimer, Villa’s 0-0 draw was a case of job done.

Before the return leg, two things dominated the newspapers. Firstly, the future of Barton, with the press speculating that he would be appointed manager on a permanent basis if Villa finished the job against Kyiv, and secondly, the state of the Villa Park pitch. The wettest March on record in Birmingham had created a waterlogged mud bath, with the club spending £12,000 on a pitch cover (heavy gales prevented Villa using it, though). At one point, the second leg looked in danger, but with the help of 150 volunteers, the pitch was made playable mainly due to vast amounts of sand being dumped on the playing surface.

On the night of Liverpool’s shock exit to CSKA Sofia, Villa kept the England flag flying with a comfortable 2-0 win over a lacklustre Kyiv. Goals from Shaw and McNaught took them into the next round, the only downside being the dislocated elbow suffered by Mortimer. Just over a fortnight later, Barton was rewarded with a three-year contract, and as Villa’s new manager visited Belgium to watch semi-final opponents Anderlecht, the club’s season, which had threatened to be very much an “after the Lord Mayor’s show” affair, was moving towards an exciting conclusion.

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Semi-final: Anderlecht

Barton witnessed a very strong defensive outfit in the Belgians, Anderlecht extremely dangerous on the counter-attack, and knew that keeping a clean sheet in the first match at Villa Park was crucial. And so it would transpire. Anderlecht came to frustrate Villa, but once again Morley was the matchwinner, his goal on 27 minutes separating the teams. Evans, Shaw and Morley all went close to adding to the advantage, but overall Barton was delighted with the result.

“Aston Villa are still close enough to the European Cup to buy some silver polish,” wrote Frank McGhee in the Daily Mirror after the first leg, with the press agonising over whether the one-goal lead would be enough against an Anderlecht team that ended the first leg strongly. Barton had plenty to worry about before then, though. Bremner, Mortimer, Shaw, Cowans, McNaught and Evans all had knocks, leaving the manager to joke that Villa were running out of ice to treat the numerous injuries. “It looks like a battlefield here,” said Barton. That statement would be very apt for the events in Brussels during a night seeped in tension.

The scenes in Anderlecht’s stadium were sadly familiar at the time. Fighting on the terraces before the kick-off continued into the match and, when one fan invaded the pitch as Kenneth Larsen was moving towards Rimmer, the referee ordered the players back to the dressing rooms for seven minutes. A lack of segregation was the major problem, along with the fact that an estimated 600 Villa fans had travelled without tickets, leading to the riot that saw 27 arrested and 20 injured. “You’re the scum of Birmingham,” sung the Villa fans not involved in the kerfuffle. The police were constantly fighting a running battle, armed with batons. It wasn’t pretty.

Aston Villa players celebrate their victory over Anderlecht after their European Cup semi-final second leg. Photograph: Keith Hailey/Popperfoto/Getty Images

The chaos sadly overshadowed Villa’s fine achievement in reaching the European Cup final – McNaught and Evans superb during the 0-0 draw – and for a time it looked as if Villa’s participation in the competition was in doubt. Anderlecht appealed to Uefa that the match should either be replayed or that Villa should be kicked out completely, and on the last day of April an eight-man committee met to decide the fate of the English club. Anderlecht’s appeal was dismissed, and although Villa were fined £14,500 and ordered to play their next European home match behind closed doors, Barton and his players could breathe a huge sigh of relief.

The final: Bayern Munich

Villa did their best to make sure there was not a repeat in the final, which was to be hosted in Rotterdam. The club distributed 13,000 tickets for the final through their official travel club and appealed to the government to prevent unofficial tour operators from selling tickets that they had purchased from the continent. At the conclusion of the final it would be Villa’s football and their success that everyone would be concentrating on.

There was no doubt that Barton’s side were big underdogs for the final. Bayern Munich may not have won the trophy since 1976, but with players of the calibre of Klaus Augenthaler, Paul Breitner, and two-times European Footballer of the Year in Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the Germans were much more experienced, and despite England’s fantastic recent record in the tournament – Liverpool and Nottingham Forest had won the trophy in the last five years – Bayern were understandably seen as favourites.

One man who did fancy Villa was the Daily Mirror’s Dave Horridge. Admittedly it is not quite up there with predicting Leicester City winning the Premier League, but Horridge’s pre-match assessment turned out to be spookily accurate. “Both sides are at full strength and if Morley achieves his aim [of shining in the final] I can see Villa scraping through by the odd goal.”

Morley would play his part, but Villa’s main hero on the night was an unknown 23-year-old goalkeeper with only one previous appearance in the first team (on Boxing Day 1979). Rimmer had ricked his neck in training on the Tuesday and, despite taking painkillers to try to make it through the match, he had to admit defeat after only nine minutes. Enter Nigel Spink.

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Spink was called into action a few times in the first half, saving neatly at his near post from a Bernd Durnberger effort, and pulling off a fine stop to deny the dangerous Rummenigge. The young keeper was helpless, though, when an acrobatic overhead kick from Bayern’s star forward narrowly went wide, as Bayern worked through the gears in the first half. Villa had been on the back foot for the most part but had just about managed to keep Bayern at arms length.

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge goes close with an overhead kick. Photograph: Horstmüller/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The second half took a similar course. The red wave relentlessly bashed against the white wall as Bayern surged forward and gave Villa and their supporters many anxious moments. McNaught and Evans were magnificent, and Spink continued to shine when needed. Another fine save to thwart Durnberger added to his growing confidence and, even when he was beaten, Evans cleared off the line to frustrate the Germans.

And then the moment arrived: that one chance Villa had hoped would arrive so they could win the European Cup. The opportunity was very nearly spurned. After a smart ball by Shaw down Villa’s left, Morley turned Hans Weiner inside out, crossing to leave Peter Withe with a simple tap-in. But the ball bobbled up on the muddy and sandy surface, and the centre-forward did not make a clean contact.

“It just hit a bobble and sat up a bit. I half hit it with my foot and half hit it with my shin,” Withe explained later. Luckily, his effort clipped the inside of the post and crossed the line, the centre-forward celebrating in the net, before hugging Shaw and being wrestled to the ground by Cowans.

Peter Withe scores Aston Villa’s winning goal. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

The goal is now immortalised on a banner on the North Stand at Villa Park, with Brian Moore’s commentary a reminder of Withe’s 67th-minute strike: “Shaw, Williams, prepared to venture down the left. There’s a good ball played in for Tony Morley. Oh, it must be! And it is! Peter Withe!”

Perhaps Bayern used up all their luck with English sides in their controversial final against Leeds in 1975. After all, they were the better side in the 1982, 1999 and 2012 finals but came away with nothing. Withe’s goal seemed to knock the stuffing out of the Germans and, even though there were a few anxious moments – including Hoeness rightly having a goal ruled out due to offside – Villa held on and kept the cup in England.

Villa supporters in Rotterdam. Photograph: David Bagnall/Rex/Shutterstock

“It’s just a fantastic trophy to pick up,” Dennis Mortimer once said. And he was so desperate to get his hands on the European Cup that he stood by the presentation area patiently waiting for his team-mates to join him after they had gone to celebrate with the sizeable Villa following. The cup would later be filled with Champagne, paraded through Birmingham city centre, and also accompany Spink to his home town of Chelmsford.

Tony Barton, only in charge for 56 days, could now put a European Cup triumph over Bayern Munich on his CV, very much like Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea 30 years later. “This is the greatest moment in the history of Aston Villa,” declared a jubilant Barton post-match as he praised the superb team performance before singling out Spink for a special mention.

Aston Villa keepers Jimmy Rimmer, left, and Nigel Spink at East Midlands Airport with the European Cup in tow. Photograph: David Bagnall/Rex/Shutterstock

Spink was a big part of the story, the inexperienced youngster becoming an overnight sensation. “I wasn’t surprised I played so well because I’ve been playing like that all season in the reserves,” he said, taking it all in his stride. He would have been an all-time legend without playing for the club again, but with 458 appearances over the next 14 years, it’s safe to say he is firmly written into Villa folklore.

Inevitably, 26 May 1982 was as good as it got for Villa, Barton and Spink. A quarter-final defeat to Juventus saw Villa’s grip on the European Cup loosened, and although the Super Cup was won, the gradual break-up of the team over the next few years proved disastrous. By 1984 Barton had gone, and the club was spinning out of control.

It’s strange to think that just five years after their monumental triumph Villa would be relegated. And it’s even stranger to contemplate that come next season some of their older fans will now be able to say that they have been through it all: from Rotterdam to Rotherham. But at least they have those memories of a time when Villa conquered Europe.