When Villa were Champions of Europe

Ulet Ifansasti

It's the triumphant return of Holte History. And this week's subject is Aston Villa's greatest triumph.

After a long absence, Holte History is back. And for this latest installment, let's take a look at Aston Villa's greatest moment. When looking at results from the last three season, it's can be difficult to imagine Aston Villa as being able to compete with the powerhouse teams from across Europe. But in the 1981-82 season, they did just that.

In the 1980-81 season, Aston Villa won the English First Division championships for the seventh time in their history. They won the league by four points over second place Ipswich Town. Ron Saunders' team's strong point seemed to be at the back. They allowed just 40 goals in 42 games in the title winning season. They made Villa Park a fortress, winning 16, losing only 2, and allowing just 13 goals in 21 games at home that season. In addition to the honor of being English champions, this meant Villa got to enter the 1981-82 European Cup (today known as the Champions League).

The late 70s and early 80s was a dominant period for English clubs in the European Cup. The five previous editions of the competition had been won by English teams. Liverpool were the defending champions and also won the tournament in both 1977 and 1978. Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest teams won the trophy in 1979 and 1980.

33 teams entered the 1981-82 European Cup, 32 champions of leagues across Europe, and the holders of the cup, Liverpool. The competition was a straight knockout competition. French champions Saint-Etienne and East German champions Dynamo Berlin played a preliminary round tie, which Berlin won 3-1 on aggregate, to narrow the field down to 32 teams.

Aston Villa's first round opponent was Icelandic champions Valur. The late 70s and early 80s was a sucessful period for Valur. They were Icelandic champions in in 1976, 1978 and in 1980. The campaign kicked off on September 16, 1981 as Villa hosted Valur at Villa Park. The visitors proved to be no match for Villa. The home side won the first leg 5-0. Tony Morley kicked off the scoring in the sixth minute. Peter Withe and the little used Terry Donovan (only made 17 league appearances in his career at Villa) each added two goals in the win. In the return leg in Iceland, a Gary Shaw double ensured an easy passage to the second round. Villa won 2-0 on the night, and 7-0 on aggregate.

Villa's second round opponent would prove much tougher. Aston Villa traveled to Berlin to play East German champions Dynamo Berlin in the first leg of the second round on October 21, 1981. In the fifth minute, Tony Morley volleyed home a ball that came off a Gary Shaw header to give Villa an away goal and the lead. Villa took the lead into halftime, but in the 50th minute Hans Jürgen Riediger headed home a free kick to equalize. With just over 10 minutes to go, Villa midfielder Ivor Linton brought down a Berlin player inside the box, and Dynamo were awarded a penalty. Artur Ulrich's penalty hit the post. The ball deflected off the post and off keeper Jimmy Rimmer and went straight back to Ulrich. But Rimmer managed to miraculously tip Ulrich's follow up effort over the bar to preserve the tie. A few minutes later with Dynamo still pressing, Peter Withe cleared a Berlin corner. The ball took a bounce right into the path of Tony Morley who went a spectacular solo run and put the ball away. Villa were once again in the lead. The game ended 2-1, and Villa went home with the advantage. (If you would like to watch highlights of the game, here!)

They wouldn't know at the time just how crucial Morley's second goal would be. The return leg at Villa Park was played November 4, 1981. Despite the home advantage, Dynamo Berlin opened the scoring. In the 15th minute, Frank Terletzki scored, and the tie was now 2-2. Villa managed to hold out the rest of the game, and ended up going through on away goals.

They were into the quarterfinals, where Soviet champions Dynamo Kyiv were waiting. However between the two ties, manager Ron Saunders resigned on February 8, 1982. Despite being in the quarterfinals of the European Cup, Villa found themselves in mid-table in the league, which lead to Saunders leaving the club. In his place, assistant Tony Barton took over.

Villa traveled to Kyiv for the first leg of the quarterfinals on March 3, 1982. Villa's miserly defense again came in handy, as the two teams drew 0-0. In the second leg, Villa once again struck early. In the seventh minute, Gary Shaw went on a mazy run through the Kyiv defense before slotting in from a really tight angle. Just before half time, defender Ken McNaught headed in from a corner to double the advantage. That was all Villa needed, and they were through to the semifinals. (Highlights of that game.)

In the semifinals, Villa were drawn against Belgian champions, Anderlecht. The first leg was played in Birmingham on April 7, 1982. In the 27th minute, a nifty Villa counterattack got the ball to Tony Morley at the top of the box, and he scored to give Villa a 1-0 edge. (Highlights) From there, Villa's defense did it's thing again, holding out Anderlecht for the remaining hour in Birmingham, and all 90 minutes in Belgium. Villa were through to the Final in Rotterdam.

The opponents would be West German champions and three time European champions Bayern Munich. While Villa had relied on a miserly defense, Bayern's run to the final was filled with goals. They beat Swedish club Öster 6-0 on aggregate in Round 1. In the second round, they took out fellow European giant Benfica 4-1. They knocked out Romanian champions Universitatea Craiova 3-1, before finally beating Bulgarian club CSKA September Flag 7-4 on aggregate in the semifinals. While Villa did not feature too many names that would stand out to non-Villa fans, Bayern had some giants of the game. Bayern's captain was Paul Breitner, who was part of the West German 1974 World Cup winning squad (and scored a goal in the 74 final). Karl-Heinz Rummenigge featured as a striker in the Bayern side.

The 1982 European Cup final took place May 26, 1982. Bayern were wearing their tradition red kits, while Villa took the pitch in their away white kits. Once again a Villa match featured a major moment happening in the first 10 minutes. Only this one wasn't a goal. Starting keeper Jimmy Rimmer became injured, and had to be substituted off in the 9th minute. Nigel Spink, making just his second first team appearance, had to come in. Despite the loss, the Villa defense performed just as it had throughout the rest of the tournament. Spink made some great saves in goal, as Villa kept Bayern out.

They kept Bayern out long enough for this to happen:

The following season, Villa lost to a Michel Platini-led Juventus in the quarterfinals, but not before making a good effort of defending their trophy. Aston Villa never reached those heights again, and were even relegated from the first division in the 1986-87 season. While Villa have had fantastic seasons, and finished high up in the Premier League table, they haven't duplicated anything close to what they did in the 1980-81 and 81-82 seasons. But for those two seasons, they were kings.

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