Aston Villa finished dead least in the Football League First Division in 1986-87. They finished eight points back of Charlton Athletic. Just five years after winning the European Cup, Aston Villa were headed to the Second Division.
Villa could not have started the 87-88 season much worse. After taking just two points in their first four games, Villa found themselves in 20th place. On September 5, 1987, Villa picked up their first win of the Second Division season. Goals from Mark Lillis and Mark Walters gave Villa a 2-0 win away to Leicester City.
From that point forward, Villa did not lose another league match until November 7th. The undefeated run, which included a win over West Bromwich Albion, shot them all the way up to third place. Over a 14 game stretch, Villa picked up 29 points. They sat six points back of Bradford City and were behind Middlesbrough on goal difference.
That November 7th loss came to Milwall, but league form would pick back up after that. The following week, a win at Oldham Athletic set Villa on another undefeated league run. A couple weeks later, Villa avenged an earlier loss to Birmingham City by beating them 2-1 away in the return match.
On January 1, 1988, Aston Villa beat Hull City 5-0 at home. The win sent Aston Villa top of the table, ahead of Middlesbrough on goal difference. A 2-0 win away at Manchester City on January 23rd sent Villa six points clear at the top of the table. After losing three of the first six league matches of the season, Villa had lost just one of the next 24.
After the win over Manchester City, Aston Villa began to wobble in a major way. A Valentine's Day loss to fellow title contender Middlesbrough cut Villa's lead to just one point. Another loss came the next week against Blackburn, sending Rovers top of the table. Villa arrested the slide after that, beating Plymouth Argyle and Bournemouth, returning to first place.
On April 4th, Villa lost to Oldham. It was their fourth loss in five matches and saw them clinging on to first place by just one point. A 1-1 draw the next Saturday wasn't enough to keep Villa in first, as a surging Milwall went top. Villa wouldn't return to the top of the table again.
Despite winning their next two matches, Villa had slipped to third by May 2nd. By that time, Milwall had clinched promotion and the league championship. Villa's 1-0 win over Bradford on May 2 was crucial. Villa went into that match three points behind Bradford. A loss would have ended Villa's chances of automatic promotion. A draw would have put them three points behind Bradford and Middlesbrough with just one match remaining.
However, Villa got the win and went into the last day of the season with automatic promotion still within reach. As things stood, Villa were equal on points with Bradford and one behind Middlesbrough. Villa's final day opponents were Swindon Town, who were comfortably mid-table. Middlesbrough faced Leicester, who were also safely in mid-table. Bradford had to face Ipswich Town, who were, get this, mid-table.
Despite the match against Swindon being an extreme must win for Aston Villa, they couldn't muster a goal. Swindon held them for a 0-0 draw. But a funny thing happened. Leicester won 2-1 away to Middlesbrough, one of Leicester's goals coming from future Villa caretaker manager Gary MacAllister. Ipswich won 3-2 away at Bradford.
Aston Villa and Middlesbrough both finished on 78 points. They both finished with a goal difference of +27. Middlesbrough scored 63 goals. Aston Villa scored 68. By virtue of goals scored, Aston Villa finished second, getting the second automatic promotion spot. Villa were back in the First Division.
In the 1988-89 season, Aston Villa stayed in the First Division by the skin of their teeth. Their draw at home against Coventry City on the final day of the season was enough to keep them up. Villa escaped relegation in 88-89 by finishing just one point ahead of Middlesbrough.
All match results and historical table data courtesy of 11v11