When Aston Villa conquered Europe

As Chelsea and Manchester United prepare to battle for a Champions League semi-final spot, Ross Mackiewicz recalls one of the most memorable European Cup runs of them all.

It was a crowning glory not only for the men in white, but also for the Midlands region back home as Dennis Mortimer shook the hand of UEFA President Artemio Franchi and lifted aloft England’s sixth consecutive European Cup, and Aston Villa’s defining trophy. The Villains may have relinquished their grip on the Division One crown much earlier that season, but nothing was going to stop them from winning the coveted European Cup. In their inaugural season in the competition the likes of Peter Withe, Tony Morley, Dennis Mortimer, Gary Shaw, and Allan Evans sealed their places in the history of Aston Villa Football Club.

Ron Saunders had steered the club back into the top flight in his debut season in charge, 1974/75. He rebuilt a ship that had been sinking for some time, which had been playing in the old Third Division at the turn of the 1970's. Despite its rich tradition, Aston Villa Football Club had been in dire straits; but a wave of fresh air oozed around Villa Park when Saunders took his place in the managerial chair. Although he wouldn’t be sat in the dugout against Bayern Munich in Rotterdam, he was the one who laid the foundations for the success that culminated in 1982.

The rise of the club in the 1970's was gradual. Two League Cup triumphs in 1975 and 1977 under the influence of a poetic Brian Little – whose career was tragically cut short (at just twenty-six) by injury. The little man in front of goal spent the entirety of his brief career in claret and blue but his influence on getting the club back to the top flight was huge. Had he been injury-free, Villa may have been League Champions a lot sooner.

Nevertheless, a frantic title race in 1981 between Saunders’ Villa and Bobby Robsons' Ipswich Town culminated in thrilling style. In a close-fought battle it was the boys in claret and blue that came out on top – though only just. The lead changed multiple times at the top and despite The Tractor Boy’s doing the double over the Midlands club (as well as in the FA Cup), it wasn’t enough to pip them to the post. Villa lost on the final day of the season away to Arsenal 3-0.

My father as a youngster ended up on the pitch of Highbury that day as the travelling fans flooded onto the turf and rejoiced at the club’s first top flight championship in seventy-one years. An appearance from Pelé at the beginning of the game seemed to buoy the Arsenal players as Villa went spaghetti-legged and failed to fly out the traps. Regardless, a defeat wasn’t to matter, Villa were the champions and Europe beckoned.

By this time, Saunders had established a side blessed with efficiency and a sprinkling of flair. Skipper Dennis Mortimer – one of the country’s most dynamic midfielders – was the linchpin. He had the ability to make last-ditch runs to get behind the defence and snatch a goal. His effort against Everton at Goodison Park in the championship-winning season epitomised his talent as he burst through the heart of the opposing back line before rounding the keeper and slotting home. Although he was indispensable to the claret and blue, he never established himself at international level.

Mortimer was the heartbeat of the Villa midfield accompanied by the robust Gordon Cowans, a man who is idolised by the Villa faithful. Des Bremner, a man easily recognisable by his infamous perm, was once described by Saunders as the most underrated player he ever signed. There is truth to the great man’s words, with Bremner remembered as a real team player whose influence was of huge benefit to his peers.

Making up the quartet in midfield was Tony Morley, who constantly galloped up and down the left wing, bamboozling full-backs with his quick feet and trickery. An old fashioned winger who implemented pace, guile and flair into his style of play. Like Mortimer, Morley was unable to establish his worthy credentials at international level.

The back four consisted of Allan Evans and Ken McNaught in the centre of defence, with Kenny Swain and Gary Williams down the flanks. Between the sticks was Jimmy Rimmer who had previously won a European Cup with Manchester United in 1968. His 1982 triumph confirmed as the first professional to win two European Cups with two separate clubs.

At the opposite end of the pitch were Peter Withe and Gary Shaw. Brian Little’s retirement led to Mr Saunders acquiring Withe just shy of his thirtieth birthday from Newcastle United. From there on in he formed a devastating partnership with youngster Shaw who won the PFA Young Player of the Year in 1981. Villa’s starting eleven picked itself for the near entirety of those two years.

The Birmingham-based club crushed Valur Reykjavik in the first round with a 5-0 drumming occurring at Villa Park in the first leg and a Gary Shaw brace in the second, resulted in a 7-0 aggregate win. Things wouldn’t be so plain sailing in the next round with Dynamo Berlin. The East Germans proved tough opposition and their physical presence gave the Villa players two robust ties. A Tony Morley brace in the first leg resulted in a 2-1 win but it was the visitors who grabbed the spoils at Villa Park with a 1-0 victory thanks to Frank Terletzki. Thankfully for Villa they sneaked through on away goals.

More drama was to come when Ron Saunders walked out on the club after a disagreement with the board over a new contract at the turn of 1982. With the club in the last eight, he opted to relinquish his duties. To rub salt into the wounds of the Villa faithful he jumped straight into the manager’s hot seat at Birmingham City. Though time has healed those wounds, the immediate reaction was one of shock. His assistant Tony Barton took over the reins to complete the task in hand.

Dynamo Kiev of the old Soviet Union stood in the way at the quarter-final stage. Villa were struggling domestically and it had become apparent that Europe was the sole objective. They drew the first leg in early March 0-0, before clinching the tie at Villa Park thanks to goals from Shaw and McNaught.

Belgian champions Anderlecht were the last obstacle for Villa to navigate. The tie will regrettably be more remembered by the UEFA delegates as one marred by trouble between both sets of supporters. With Tony Barton at the helm, Gary Shaw netted the only goal of the tie at Villa Park and it proved to be enough to book the Midlands club a date with the champions of Germany (Bayern Munich) in the final.

Villa went into the game at Rotterdam as huge underdogs. The talent in the Bavarian squad was formidable. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Dieter Hoeness, Bernd Durnberger, Paul Breitner...all momentous names in European football.

Things started badly for the Villians: Jimmy Rimmer was forced off early on and was replaced by rookie Nigel Spink between the sticks – only his second first team appearance. Villa feared the worst. A young man with next to no experience coming on as a substitute in the biggest game of his life – but how he excelled. Without a doubt he was man of the match as he made a number of vital saves. The Bavarians poured forward time and time again, constant pressure, yet they couldn’t find the back of the Villa net.

One save in particular by Spink epitomised his credentials. Durnberger played a lovely one-two with Breitner down the left-hand side, and as the number seven looked to smash the ball home, Spink showed tremendous reflexes to get down low to his right and gather the ball. It looked for all the world as if Bayern were going to run riot, but Spink kept Villa in the game.

Villa dug in deep, defended resolutely and most importantly stayed in the contest. They withstood the Bayern onslaught and now it was their turn to have a chance at creating history. After sixty-seven minutes, Gary Shaw picked up the ball in-field as Williams diverted the attentions of Bayern with a run down the left wing. This allowed Tony Morley to into space, and the wide man latched onto Shaw’s through ball before weaving his magical feet and opening a little pocket of space to square the ball across goal. Peter Withe's effort was a complete mis-kick, but it went off the woodwork and in. Villa were ahead.

Brian Moore’s commentary for the goal can now be seen on a huge banner at the North Stand at Villa Park; “Shaw, William 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!” A sea of claret and blue behind the goal at the De Kuip Stadium erupted into a mass of jubilation and hysteria. Peter Withe had scored the most important goal of the club’s history. Now all they needed to do was hang on.

Pal Csernai’s team pressed for that elusive equaliser but couldn’t break down the Villa defence. They even had a goal chalked off for offside when Hoeness failed to time his run correctly, but Villa held on to capture their one and only European Cup. They continued England’s dominance of the competition by bringing it back to Division One for a sixth consecutive year. A remarkable achievement, from a club that just a decade previously had been languishing in obscurity.

To read more from Ross, visit his blog, and follow him on Twitter @rossmackiewicz.