How Aston Villa became European champions

Discipline, energy and luck.

The three elements that, Tony Barton himself, manager of the Birmingham club in 1982, when they were crowned champions of the European Cup, highlighted of his team. That Aston Villa side was heavily criticized for being a team that did not have a lot of talented players or a beautiful playing style, for which it received all kinds of comments, from those who spoke of this success story and showed genuine surprise of them getting so far to those who spoke of injustice.

In any case, this achievement of a team that only a decade before was playing in the third tier of English football is noteworthy.

Aston Villa flag

History of Aston Villa

The club was founded in 1874, being one of the pioneers in the professionalization of football and was one of the 12 founders of the Football League back in 1888. They had their golden age at the end of the 19th century that lasted until before the start of the World War I, being widely recognized as the most successful club in England up to that time. The period between World War I and II, as well as the years after the end of the second, as in many English clubs, left Villa in a state of recovery.

At the end of the 1960s, the club experienced a difficult time that led them to play in the second division for the second time in their history (the first was in 1936) and, almost consecutively, they fell to the third division, where they remained a season, although that cost the position of the board of the time.

In 1974, Aston Villa was in the second division and opted for Ron Saunders as manager, who had been a great striker with very good goalscoring records and who had done a very good job on the bench at Norwich City, at which led to the English first division and to a League Cup final and at Manchester City where he also managed to reach the final of the same cup, in both cases, without being able to lift it.

In Saunders' first season (1974-75), Villa returned to the top tier of English football as well as winning the League Cup, a success they would repeat in 1977. However, Saunders' main success at the Birmingham club was win the first division in the 1980-81 season, 71 years after the last time Villa won it.

1981-82 season

As champions of England, Aston Villa had the right to participate in the European Cup, something that for the first time in their history they were going to be able to do. The European Cup was being dominated at that time by the English clubs since the 5 previous editions had been shared between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Interestingly, by mid-season, Aston Villa had only performed well in the continental competition as they had missed out on domestic cups and were in the middle of the league table.

In February 1982, after failing to reach an agreement for a new contract with the club's board of directors, Saunders resigned from his position after a successful spell of almost 8 years at Villa, a situation similar to the one that led him to leave his post at Norwich City. The Birmingham club had a European Cup quarterfinal tie against Valeriy Lobanovskyi's Dinamo Kyiv, one of the most successful teams of the time and one of the most revolutionary managers in this sport, for which the board considered that it was convenient not to make major changes in the team and they decided to appoint Tony Barton, Saunders' assistant, as the new manager.

In this context, March arrived and Dinamo Kyiv expected the visit of Aston Villa for the first leg of the quarterfinals of the European Cup. Barton's team (and previously Saunders's), had been characterized for being that, a team, that was solid in defense and without outstanding stars that only conceded two goals in the tournament and managed to keep 7 clean sheets on 9 games played in that edition of the European Cup. That combination had already been enough to overcome the great English teams in the previous season and Barton opted for the same formula to succeed in Europe.

In Kyiv, Aston Villa achieved a 0-0 draw which, at that time, crossing the Iron Curtain, was practically a victory and in England, in the second leg, they managed to beat Dinamo 2-0, something that, as the Villa players themselves recognized, made them believe that the dream of being European champions was possible. In another context, the politicians had started the Falklands War, which pitted Argentina against England, so the English were a country at war while the following phases of the tournament were being disputed.

In the semifinals, the opponent was Anderlecht, the Belgian champion. In the first leg, Aston Villa would win with a solitary goal from Tony Morley, a very skillful and elusive English winger who had been important in the club's recent stage of success and who had earned him to be part of the England national team. The task in the second leg was to defend Morley's goal, something Birmingham side felt comfortable with and a 0-0 draw was enough to reach the final.

The final

The last obstacle between Villa and the cup was the powerful Bayern Munich of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Paul Breitner, who had just comfortably beaten all their rivals in the tournament. The match was being played at the De Kuip Stadium in Rotterdam, Netherlands, with a large number of Aston Villa fans in and around the stadium.

Nine minutes into the game, goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer, a former Manchester United and Arsenal player and regular starter for "The Villains" for most of the Saunders and Barton spell, was injured and his substitute was Nigel Spink, a 23-year-old who, despite being in his fifth season at the club (just like Rimmer), had only one official match for Villa. The Germans, perhaps taking advantage of Spink's inexperience, tried to test the young goalkeeper who managed to respond in a good way every time he was required and, together with Bayern's own mistakes, allowed them to reach the 66th minute with 0-0 on the scoreboard.

At that minute, Gary Williams, left back, made a touch of the ball to escape his mark and pass the ball to Morley, who from the left showed his ability by making two dribbles that allowed him to gain space to make a good cross that allowed Peter Withe to score the most important goal in the club's history. Hence the banner that is in Villa Park to this day: Shaw, Williams, prepared to venture down the left. There's a good ball in for Tony Morley. Oh, it must be and it is! It's Peter White. Withe was a striker who was a reflection of the team; tall, strong, hardworking, not very skillful or showy but he was the team's goalscorer. Bayern kept trying until Hoeness managed to beat Spink, however, the linesman raised his flag indicating the advanced position of the German striker. Together with the goalscorer Withe, Spink was the hero of the night and that opened the doors for him to stay 14 more years at the club and play 460 games with the Aston Villa shirt.

It is very subjective to talk about merits or justice in football since it depends on the perspective and tastes of each one. However, the story of how Aston Villa maintained the hegemony of the English in Europe is one of the most surprising that has to tell the European Cup.
Nathan Annan is from South Africa and loves to write, and above all about his favorite sport, football. Nathan's interest in football was sparked late but after watching a few matches in his hometown of Johannesburg during the 2010 South Africa World Cup, he was hooked.