By J Hutcherson (Apr 14, 2020) US Soccer Players - English clubs put together a run of European champions from 1976-77 through 1981-82, and it was the last one that was the biggest surprise. Aston Villa entered the tournament after finishing four points ahead of Ipswich Town with Arsenal, West Brom, and Liverpool rounding out the top five in 1980-81. They would finish 11th in 1981-82. A team that didn't end up in their domestic league's top 10 somehow won the biggest prize in European soccer. So which was the fluke, the disappointing league finish or lifting the European Cup, and just how good was Aston Villa in 1981-82?
Aston Villa surprised the old First Division in 1980-81 using a small group of players under manager Ron Saunders. They weren't a juggernaut, losing eight times that season and exiting both domestic cups in the third round. What they were was a consistently improving team building on a 7th-place finish the previous season after back-to-back 8th-place finishes. Saunders started with the club in 1974-75, winning promotion and quickly figuring out what he needed to keep his team relevant in the topflight. With Liverpool the marquee team in England and Nottingham Forest winning back-to-back European Cups seemingly out of nowhere, there was a clear understanding of how to succeed in that era. Poach players that did better for you than at their previous team, and spend if you can.
Tony Morley, Gary Shaw, and Peter Withe made up Aston Villa's attack, combining for 48 goals in their title-winning season. With Villa's starting lineup basically set, what they did on the field was no surprise to their opponents. No other player on the roster had more than four goals in 1980-81, creating a simple scenario. Shut down Morley, Shaw, and Withe, and you shut down that offense. All three were in place for the title defense, but the production wasn't there. In 80-81, Villa scored 72 goals. In 81-82, they scored 55. Adding to their issues was the change from two to three points for a win, opening up the table in a way that created larger gaps and less opportunity. The difference between Villa and 11th-place Stoke City in 80-81 was 18 points. In 81-82, the difference between 11th-place Aston Villa and champions Liverpool was 30.
The European Cup
Before the addition of the group stage and the Champions League rebranding in 1992-93, the European Cup was a smaller and simpler tournament. Only league champions and the defending champion participated. That limited field meant it only took eight games to make it to the final. The opening rounds played out over the Fall with the quarterfinals the following March. Like now, the European Cup final was the headlining act of the season, set for May 26, 1982.
Aston Villa in the European Cup
With Liverpool in as defending champions, Aston Villa was well aware of the level of difficulty that they faced. Villa's tournament started against Iceland's Valur. There's no use playing up the old first round of the European Cup, consistently producing mismatches. Morley opened the scoring and Withe added two goals in the opening 5-0 win. Shaw replaced Morley in the second-leg, scoring both goals. Business had resumed for Villa. November's second round increased the level of difficulty with Villa beating Dynamo Berlin 2-1 on the road with goals from Morley. Dynamo Berlin won the second-leg 1-0 with Villa advancing on the away goals rule. That was it for the European Cup in the Fall of 1981, four games with Villa waiting for the quarterfinals.
Ron Saunders quits
Aston Villa found themselves without a manager on February 9, with Saunders quitting the club. Speaking for himself, Saunders would later say that it was a control issue with management suddenly obsessed with the European Cup. In fairness to Villa's board, there was a clear path to European glory. They had a manageable draw in the quarterfinals against Dynamo Kyiv with Liverpool and Bayern Munich the biggest threats left in the field. In fairness to Saunders, clubs like Universitatea Craiova had also advanced to the quarters that season, so maybe let your manager do his job domestically and in Europe. Instead, Saunders immediately took the job at Aston Villa's biggest rivals Birmingham City. Villa promoted assistant manager Tony Barton to the top job, another bizarre part of the club's European Cup story.
The Cup resumes
Villa faced Dynamo Kyiv in the quarterfinals, drawing 0-0 in Russia on March 3 and taking the series 2-0 at home on March 17. Shaw opened the scoring with Villa's league troubles already in evidence. Since December, they'd lost seven times and found themselves struggling in the new three-point era. On the bright side, they were now the only English club left in the European Cup with Liverpool knocked out by CSKA Sofia. After beating Dynamo Kyiv, Villa lost back-to-back league games. A West Midlands win over West Brom on March 30 lead into their semifinal opener on April 7. At home against Anderlecht in an era where the Belgian league was among the best in Europe, Villa won 1-0 from a Morley goal. The second-leg finished scoreless in the suburbs of Brussels. In between the first and second-legs, Villa went on a three-game undefeated streak in the league. That saved them from an even more disastrous finish while waiting for the European Cup final. Over their last seven league games, Villa won twice, drew twice, and lost three.
The 1982 European Cup final
The 11th-place team in England meets the 3rd-place team in the Bundesliga in Rotterdam to see who is nominally the best team in European soccer. Bayern's journey to the biggest game on the calendar went through Sweden's Oster, Benfica, Universitatea Craiova, and CSKA Sofia, beating the club that knocked out Liverpool 7-4 on aggregate in the semifinals. To call Bayern the favorites was to notice how bad Aston Villa was domestically. In fairness, Villa had the tougher European Cup schedule, navigating it well under frankly ridiculous circumstances. Somehow, the European Cup final would prove slightly more ridiculous. 9 minutes into the game, Villa goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer would sub out with an injured shoulder, making way for Nigel Spink. Since joining Aston Villa in 1977, Spink had played in one game. In his second, he kept a clean sheet in the European Cup final. Withe scored the game's only goal in the 67th minute with Morley doing the work down the flank to find him directly in front of the goal. It was as Villa as Villa got in that era, this time winning the European Cup.
So how good was Aston Villa in 1981-82?
Not as good as they were the previous season, but also unlucky in a league that was in transition. The change to three points for a win really did open up the table, with some clubs adjusting quicker than others. Liverpool under Bob Paisley and later Joe Fagan took full advantage, realizing that they could make the league title all but irrelevant with games left on the schedule. That allowed full focus on the later stages of the European Cup. It was an early version of Champions League strategy, avoiding getting bogged down in a domestic title fight that might take away focus from the bigger prize. Aston Villa's situation in 1981-82 was about hanging on in the league. The club was in trouble before Saunders opted out, with an increasing tendency to drop points on the road. At home, Villa won more games than any team in the First Division. There's a version of this same team that is in contention domestically without applying very much in the way of revisionist history. That doesn't make them good at league level. Still, this was a team designed to compete near the top of the table suddenly navigating Europe as defending champions. Of the three English clubs that won European Cups from 1977-82, Aston Villa is the worst of the three, but consider what it took just to be on that list.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Logo courtesy of Aston Villa