“Shaw, Williams prepared to venture down the left. There’s a great ball played in for Tony Morley. It must be. It is! Peter Withe!”ITV commentator Brian Moore
These were the words that Villa fans heard from legendary ITV commentator Brian Moore during the 1982 European Cup final in what was our finest moment as a club to date, our biggest achievement. As a result, these words which every Aston Villa fan will be able to reel off on request, now proudly adorn a banner that stretches across the width of the North Stand, a sign of what our club has achieved and a reminder of what we aim to recreate.
The 1980-81 season prior to our European success was our seventh First Division title, the first since the 1909-10 season. Ron Saunders guided Villa to the top of the table with twenty-six wins, eight draws and eight defeats from forty-two games, finishing four points clear of second placed Ipswich Town with Arsenal finishing third and West Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion finishing fourth.
That season saw Peter Withe finish joint top goalscorer in the league with twenty goals in thirty-six games, sharing the accolade with Tottenham’s Scottish striker Steve Archibald. Peter Withe played a huge role that season, his first campaign for Aston Villa after signing for the club from Newcastle for £500,000 which made him the club record signing at the time.
Withe formed a brilliant partnership with Birmingham born Gary Shaw. Although it was Withe who would eventually pick up the award as the league’s top goalscorer that season, Shaw contributed a further eighteen goals meaning their partnership which netted a combined thirty-eight goals made up more than half of Villa’s goal tally that season which ended up at seventy-two in the league.
One of the most impressive aspects of this title winning season was that manager Ron Saunders was able to achieve this feat whilst only using fourteen players across the entire season, seven of which did not miss a game. This is something that Saunders knew needed addressing as his upcoming European endeavours would mean more games and take a toll on his squad but it wasn’t to be with midfielder Andy Blair the only addition to the small squad, arriving from Coventry City. This lack of support from the board would ultimately be the factor that results in the departure of Ron Saunders.
Villa started their European campaign with a 7-0 aggregate win over Icelandic side Valur. They then progressed to the second round where they drew German outfit, Dynamo Berlin. Aston Villa had beaten them 4-2 in a preseason friendly but they would not get through this tie with as much ease. A brace from Tony Morley in the first leg away in Germany, including an 85th minute winner would prove crucial as Villa ended up losing 1-0 at home in the second leg and scraping through on the away goals rule.
Next up for Villa was a trip to the USSR to face Dynamo Kiev however, this tie would come too late for Ron Saunders. On the 9th of February 1982, Saunders departed the club following a disagreement with the board over contract discussions. He was replaced by his assistant manager Tony Barton on a caretaker basis. Domestically when he took over, Villa weren’t in a good place, sitting 17th in the league at the start of February but Barton arrested the slump by winning seven of his first twelve league games.
The away trip proved difficult and a 0-0 draw was seen as a solid result as they managed to secure a 2-0 win on a sodden Villa Park which was the game that earned Tony Barton the manager’s job on a permanent basis with a three-year contract. It was goals from Gary Shaw and Ken McNaught that secured Aston Villa’s place in the semi-final.
Villa faced Belgian side Anderlecht in the semi-final and like in the second round tie against Dynamo Berlin, it would be Tony Morely who’d make the difference with a 27th minute goal in the first leg which would be the only goal of the two legs as Villa went through 1-0 winners on aggregate following a 0-0 draw away in the second. After the first leg, Frank McGhee wrote in the Daily Mirror “Aston Villa are still close enough to the European Cup to buy some silver polish,”.
26 May 1982, the day Aston Villa conquered Europe. The final in Rotterdam against Bayern Munich couldn’t have started much worse after goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer picked up a shoulder injury and had to be replaced by now club legend Nigel Spink who at the time had only made two first team appearances. His performance however was outstanding. Although it was Bayern Munich who were heavy favourites, it was Villa who were able to take their chance and Peter Withe’s famous goal came in the 67th minute. It wasn’t without drama though as Bayern put the ball in the back of the net with three minutes to go, only for it to be ruled offside with Villa also having a goal disallowed in the final seconds of the game. Despite going into the game as underdogs, when the final whistle blew it was Tony Barton’s Aston Villa who were kings of Europe after toppling the German giants.
Following this triumph, Aston Villa would go on to win the 1982 European Super Cup the following January in a 3-1 aggregate win over Barcelona. Villa were looking in trouble after they came away from the Nou Camp in the first leg 1-0 down. However, an 80th minute goal from Gary Shaw in the second leg at Villa Park levelled the score on aggregate and sent the game into extra time. A 100th minute penalty from Sid Cowens following a foul in the box on 18-year old Mark Walters put the Villan’s ahead and the lead was increased soon after with a 104th minute goal from Ken McNaught to seal the tie and the European Super Cup for Aston Villa.
As Villa fans, we have had many brilliant players don the famous claret and blue but like the sight of Aston Villa lifting a trophy, I’m too young to have seen many of them play. The European Cup winning side was littered with these icons of the club. Players like Brian Little, Jimmy Rimmer, Nigel Spink, Ken McNaught, Allan Evans, Gary Williams, Des Bremner, Gordon “Sid” Cowans, Dennis Mortimer and Tony Morley. To have a side with so many players of such high quality, it isn’t hard to understand why Aston Villa were so successful in this era.
What is hard to understand is that only five years after conquering Europe, Aston Villa would finish 22nd in the 1986-87 season and be relegated to the Second Division but they would return back to the First Division the following season at the first time of asking.
Moving into the 1990’s, players like Paul McGrath immediately spring to mind, so good that he’s known simply as “God” to Villans. I remember speaking to his centre back partner Shaun Teale, who himself is hugely underrated in my opinion as a result of McGrath’s excellence and he mentioned how great of an experience it was to play alongside the Irishman.
It wasn’t until the 1993-94 season that Aston Villa lifted another trophy, a Coca-Cola Cup triumph under Ron Atkinson. Villa had a rather comfortable run through the early stages, beating Second City rivals 2-0 on aggregate over two legs in the first round. They would then go on to beat Sunderland, Arsenal and Tottenham before nearly coming unstuck against Tranmere Rovers in the semi-final. Villa went away to Tranmere in the first leg and were losing 3-0 until a 90th minute consolation goal from the late Dalian Atkinson, a scorer of great goals, gave them a chance in the second leg. This goal would prove to be huge as Ron Atkinson’s men won 3-1 at home in the second leg following goals from Dean Saunders, Shaun Teale and an 88th minute goal from who else but Dalian Atkinson, to bring the scores level at 4-4. Villa would go on to win 5-4 on penalties, a lucky escape from what would’ve been a shock exit to a side from the First Division.
Ron Atkinson would do battle with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the final. A beautifully worked goal that was laid on by Dean Saunders and finished off by Dalian Atkinson put Villa 1-0 up in the 25th minute. A Kevin Richardson free-kick that was turned in by the creator of the first goal, Dean Saunders would put Villa 2-0 up in 75 minutes making it a mountain to climb for Manchester United. That was until Mark Hughes scored from close range in the 85th minute, bringing United back into the game. However, a 90th minute Dean Saunders penalty after Andrei Kanchelskis handled the ball on the line put the game to bed.
Aston Villa would go on to repeat this feat again two seasons later in the 1995-96 season but this time under manager Brian Little. The Villa legend was appointed halfway through the previous season after a poor run of form and a real threat of relegation resulted in the dismissal of Ron Atkinson. Brian Little came in and just survived, finishing 18th that season but the following campaign would prove to be a lot more fruitful for the club icon. Big changes were made with key players from two years prior like Dalian Atkinson, Dean Saunders and Shaun Teale all moved on from the club and replaced by Serbian striker Savo Milosevic, Mark Draper, Julian Joachim and now England manager, Gareth Southgate.
Brain Little would be proven right to have made these changes as another League Cup trophy would be added to the clubs glistening trophy cabinet. A 3-0 thrashing of Leeds United in the final would the icing on the cake of a brilliant run in the tournament that saw them only let in three goals along the way, one away at Peterborough in the second leg of the second round and two away at Arsenal in a 2-2 draw in the first leg of the semi-final.
That season will also be remembered for being the one where Villa fans saw veteran goalkeeper, Nigel Spink leave the club after nearly 20 years of service and well over 400 appearances to join West Bromwich Albion. As I mentioned earlier, he got his big break after almost five years at the club in the 1982 European Cup final when Jimmy Rimmer went off injured. He went on to become the sixth highest Aston Villa appearance maker and a club legend, what a player he was.
The 1995-96 season would prove very successful for Aston Villa as Brian Little improved on their 18th place finish the season before and finished 4th that campaign, qualifying for Europe the following season. As well as the League Cup triumph, Little also guided his boyhood club to the semi-final of the FA Cup before being knocked out by Liverpool. Great players filled the squad that year such as Mark Bosnich, Paul McGrath, Steve Staunton, Ugo Ehiogu, Andy Townsend, Ian Taylor, Dwight Yorke and a very young Lee Hendrie, a player I would eventually grow up watching as a first team regular for many years to come.
Brian Little would go on to manage Aston Villa for a few more years before resigning in February of 1998 when the club were sitting 15th in the Premier League and was replaced by John Gregory. Little’s success in 1995-96 which would go on to be our last trophy to date, paired with his near 250 appearances as player for the club before having to retire through injury at just 26, saw him inducted as one of the founding members into the Aston Villa Hall of Fame in 2007. A true icon of our club.
Being an Aston Villa fan born in 1999, I feel I’m lucky enough to remember the good times at our club. I’m not fortunate to have been born early enough to have witnessed the great teams of the 1970’s and 1980’s under the great Ron Saunders, Tony Barton and Graham Taylor or into the 1990’s, the last decade we won trophies under Ron Atkinson and Brain Little or the side that played under John Gregory. However, I was able to see us in Europe in the 2000’s under David O’Leary and Martin O’Neil, a feat we hope we can recreate in the coming seasons but something many young fans today have never seen and until recently, would never have considered imaginable again.
The team under Martin O’Neil was one I look back at with great fondness. Brad Friedel in goal who we signed in 2008 as a 37-year old was until Emi Martinez, the best goalkeeper I’d seen at Aston Villa and despite approaching 40, his saves were age-defying. A solid back line was consistent at Villa. Under David O’Leary we also had a solid goalkeeper in Thomas Sorensen, a very underrated goalkeeper in Premier League terms in my opinion. In front of him we had the outstanding centre back pairing of Olof Melberg and Martin Laursen who to this day, are the best centre back pairing I’ve ever seen at the club. Other excellent defenders such as Gary Cahll, Wilfred Bouma, current under-23 manager Mark Delaney, the late Jlloyd Samuel come to mind, all players of top quality.
Our midfield was excellent. Growing up, I always remember Villa having outstanding midfielders and under O’Neil it was no different. Gareth Barry was at the heart of it. Our eighth all-time appearance maker and one of the best players I’ve seen at Aston Villa which is why it came as no surprise when he became one of the first big signings of the Manchester City “money era”. Alongside him was a man loved dearly by every Aston Villa fan, Stylian Petrov. A warrior in midfield and just as tough off it, Petrov won the hearts of Villa fans with his tough, hard working style of play and supplied us with many memorable goals. The admiration and love towards him when he was diagnosed with Leukaemia whilst playing for the club which he successfully was treated for but would eventually lead to his retirement. During his treatment, applause would ring around Villa Park during the 19th minute of every game with 19 being his squad number and when he returned to the stadium with his family, a tearful lap around the pitch clapping each section of fans was met with ferocious applause and I’m sure a few tears from the stands too.
Other midfielders and wide players graced the Villa Park pitch during these times like Lee Hendrie, Ashley Young (his first spell at the club), James Milner, Thomas Hitzlsperger, Nolberto Solano, the list goes on.
Up front, Aston Villa were blessed during these times with many top strikers. Under O’Leary in the early 2000’s we had players such as Juan Pablo Angel, Dion Dublin, Darius Vassell and for a short time, Peter Crouch. Angel had his best season in 2003-04 where he scored 16 league goals, placing him joint 6th in the Golden Boot race alongside Nicolas Anelka, Michael Owen and Yakubu. He was a brilliant player to watch and one of my childhood heroes.
Gabby Agbonlahor is the club’s Premier League record goalscorer and was an ever present during this period since he broke into the first team in 2006 however, despite his impressive goal tally, he only broke into double figures for league goals in three seasons. In 2007, Aston Villa signed John Carew from Lyon with Milan Baros going the other way. During his time at the club, the big Norwegian would become a club icon and score some fantastic goals that are still widely talked about today but it was back injury in the 2008-09 season that forced Martin O’Neil to enter the transfer market and bring in Emile Heskey.
In my opinion, Heskey was a very underrated player throughout his whole career due to his low goal tally. This was no different at Villa where he scored only 9 goals in over ninety appearances for the club but his work to bring others into the game and his ability to get the team up the field by holding up the ball meant he formed a good partnership with Agbonlahor.
As John Carew was entering his final six-months at the club in the 2010-11 season, new manager Gerrard Houllier who’d taken over at the start of the season following the resignation of Martin O’Neil broke the club’s transfer record with a bid of £18m, potentially rising to £24m to bring in Darren Bent. Another very good striker, Bent was coming off two one and a half brilliant season’s with Sunderland and started very well scoring nine goals in sixteen appearances in the second half of the 2010-11 season. However, that would be the best we saw of Bent as he’d go on to score a further twelve goals across the next three seasons before joining Derby County after multiple loan spells and eventually being released by Villa.
That transfer fee for Darren Bent stood as our record deal for nearly ten years until we signed Wesley from Club Brugge for an initial £22m at the start of the 2019-20 season. We have since paid more than that fee on five occasions in the last two seasons with our new transfer record being set at about £33m for Emi Buendia at the start of the 2021-22 season. From this, I think it’s clear to see that in the time between Darren Bent being signed and the arrival of Wesley, there wasn’t much in the way of investment and what money was spent, wasn’t spent in the right ways. This is shown as between 2012 and 2020, Aston Villa didn’t finish above 15th in the Premier League and we spent three of those seasons in the Championship.
Though I have never seen Aston Villa lift a trophy in my lifetime, I have seen many brilliant and memorable players and moments during my time following the club since I was a young boy. I would say that the current state of the club and it’s standing in the game is the best I’ve seen in a very long time with the calibre of players we are now signing at a level we have not seen for many years. I’d like to think we are on track to bringing glory days back to Villa Park where we are competing in Europe once again and maybe in 15-20 years, there will be another banner spanning one of the stands at Villa Park with a famous quote from a commentator in a Champions League final that we are yet to witness. We can only hope
Written by Daniel Minton of Total Villa