This article originally featured on Tale of Two Halves back in June, 2019 – written by Henry Muldrew.
The recent European finals involving English teams invite discussion not unnaturally about the rude health of the nation’s teams. It also has a habit of rewinding back to the immediate pre-Heysel era of similar English European football domination. Just as a reminder it was a fairly long fuse of a period depending on your take, but it certainly exploded in seven European Cup wins out of eight with the flag of St. George sticking out the top from 1977-1984. Let’s have a look at Aston Villa’s victory in 1982 and also their title win the previous year.
This is a slightly long-winded way of getting to what this piece is about but it opens the door. The three teams who of course paraded the big trophy around various European cities were Liverpool (four), Nottingham Forest (twice) and Aston Villa. At the time and since objective press and fervour has venerated these clubs in different ways. But whilst accepting the fact that of the seven pieces of pie available, Aston Villa only brought home one of them I have always felt that they still never quite received the credit they deserved. In short, my point is that their lack of coverage is more than just their winning it only once compared to the others. Let’s have a look at this.
What could be the reasons behind this situation, be it fact or perception? Without looking for reasons that may not exist a few things imminently spring to mind about that period. If we start with the race for the 1981 League Championship, it eventually boiled down to a race between Aston Villa and Ipswich Town. It had a touch of the battle between Spurs and Leicester in 2016 but certainly, neither club had come from the blue yonder in the way Leicester did. Ipswich had always been a strong side in the more recent Robson years but certainly, Aston Villa were not amongst the favourites for the title in the summer of 1980.
So when they won it at Highbury in early May 1981 they received respect and admiration especially for only using 14 players to achieve their goal. Many admired the searing wing play of Tony Morley and the fresh blond goalscoring flash of youngster Gary Shaw or “Gary Gary Shaw” as the song went. But through it all, one sensed a couple of things. Firstly, that the footballing media were a tad coy as nobody had really seen the league campaign unfold as it did.
Also, there was a feeling that the neutral wish had been for Ipswich to win the league. This was not a slight on Villa but many had a soft spot for the team from Suffolk due to the respect many had for Bobby Robson. They had served their time around the higher echelons of the game for several years and the excellent football produced primarily from the Dutch duo of Muhren and Thijssen ought to be rewarded was an unspoken thought.
None of this was particularly overt but it was there nonetheless. If we pursue this a little further perhaps a bit more is illustrated if we analyse the way the media works. Everyone is familiar with the term ‘good copy’. This is such a massive conscious and unconscious driver in how stories are put across and digested. It can be seen in very simple formats. A writer wanting to big up the goal scorer will tell you that ‘he sent the goalkeeper the wrong way’. Really! – the goalkeeper had no choice which way he went? The ‘copy’ and colour is in the active and not the passive. Elsewhere, Borg v McEnroe works on similar though more obvious lines.
Taking this thought up quite a few octaves if we apply it to Aston Villa it is a theme that carries. The roots of it have a lot to with manager Ron Saunders. He was a taciturn Scouser that played a fairly straight bat to the press. The noise coming from the press bowling questions at him would have been a fairly dull thud. A dull thud rather than a lightening thwack. It’s not as if Liverpool’s Bob Paisley was rock and roll with the press either, but his team had tended to the talking for him since his appointment in 1974. The Liverpool formula hadn’t really changed – good players doing the simple things well and the press had given up to some degree trying to find some new angle.
This is all a bit of unnecessary shadow boxing as the real copy in the form of Brian Clough was regaling in coloured neon comparatively by the River Trent. Ego spilled all over nationwide newsprint and airwaves. Many employed in those industries would tell you there never has really been such natural copy since. Jose Mourinho had a fair go at it. If you managed to get behind Brian Clough the story was of course ‘little’ Nottingham Forest. I trust that is not unfair as they came straight from the second division to firstly rule the country and then Europe over that three year ’77-80 period. Clough certainly played on it. That was another thing – Villa were not seen as a small club and this may have had resonance.
This was the backdrop that Aston Villa faced media-wise before we start looking elsewhere for factors that might have diminished their claret and blue stars at the time. Earlier I mentioned Morley and Shaw as the main gravitational pulls in the team but apart from them they were not a team of flash or personality. Organised and hard-working with the spine doing all the things you need, they were reinforced by good management and team spirit. The team had the requisite mix of youth and experience and simply got on with it.
Captain Dennis Mortimer, another Liverpudlian was fairly low key in the nation’s consciousness. There were a few other recognisable faces such as ex Evertonian Ken McNaught, Chelsea’s Kenny Swain and certainly Peter Withe who had won the title with Forest in 1978. Goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer had served his time with various clubs in the previous decade and Gordon Cowans in midfield had a profile. Household names they were not.
The European Cup run of 1982 had a few things negatively impacting on publicity as well. The first two rounds against Valur of Iceland and Dynamo Berlin did not set the pulses racing. It should be said here that there tended to be a sort of mental shutdown from British football fans towards teams behind the Iron Curtain. This was simply a by-product of the cultural and political division of Europe at the time. It was to a degree unfair on some of the teams from the communist bloc as many were excellent. But by and large many fans just hoped for a result on a journey out there and hoped to move on. Few fans travelled on such trips. Journalists certainly did not relish trips out to the Bulgarias, Hungarys, and Russias of the time.
So if Dynamo Berlin in those days wasn’t quite Barcelona, a trip to Kiev for the quarter- finals was a form of proper farewell. Actually, there was a story here as the match was moved from Kiev and amidst shocking food, accommodation and general arrangements Villa moved through to the semis to face Anderlecht in Brussels. In the semi-final and aside from the result, rioting during the match from Villa fans almost had them thrown out of the competition but they survived to face Bayern Munich in the Rotterdam final.
All this happened alongside the change of manager as Saunders resigned in February to be replaced by unknown chief scout Tony Barton. A massive story but again the nation simply didn’t know him. It took a while before they did but did that process detract from the team’s achievement?
The final itself did have drama with rookie goalkeeper Nigel Spink replacing injury victim Jimmy Rimmer after ten minutes to put in a heroic performance. Beating Bayern with the likes of Rummenigge, Breitner and Augenthaler who hadn’t won the trophy since 1976 really was some feat but was media fatigue towards an English team winning the European Cup in evidence? After all, this was the sixth year in a row an English team had won the thing. That is probably the least substantial argument here but when you put all these things together it might explain why Villa seemed to never get the credit they deserved.
I’ll leave it like this. If you ask any random amount of football fans to name England’s European Cup/ Champions’ League Winners some, I am sure, will struggle on remembering Aston Villa. Shouldn’t be, but there you go.