“Who would that be then? We’ve gone through the lot haven’t we?”
Except for Aston Villa of course.
“Oh yeah I forgot about that. They won it in…erm…when was it again?”
1982 – beat Bayern Munich 1-0… Peter Withe got the goal. Nigel Spink coming off the bench after 10 minutes as a sub goalie… remember?
“Er… yeah…erm… of course.”
Once you take a generous pinch of salt after hearing that last line, you do wonder as to why the Birmingham club’s triumph in becoming kings of Europe back in 1982 is forgotten about. Liverpool and Manchester United are, in terms of history, honours won and prestige, England’s biggest clubs but has Villa’s success been forgotten about because of that? Unlikely as everybody remembers Nottingham Forest’s two triumphs but then again, in Mr Clough they had a master of publicity who could sell ice to an Eskimo. The two men who would, at separate stages, oversee Villa’s European campaign that season were the complete one-eighty of Old Big ‘Ead up at Nottingham.
Ron Saunders did not court the media spotlight as much as Clough and maybe that’s why in the long run everybody recalls the latter’s great achievements. After all, like Saunders, Clough was a manager of a club that had not been universally courted by the media and he set about correcting that state of affairs by not only building a great side, but making sure the public knew about them as well.
While Saunders never played the media game (his last interview to a national newspaper is believed to be in 1981), one thing he had in common with Clough was that he could build a great team. After all, it was no fluke that Villa had won two League Cups before claiming their first league title in 71 years in 1981 when they pipped a very good Ipswich side managed by Bobby Robson who would win the UEFA Cup that season. Saunders would manage the first half of Villa’s European campaign before a dispute with the club’s board saw him walk out. His replacement was Tony Barton – a quiet, unassuming figure who was described by captain Dennis Mortimer as “a nice guy who never shot his mouth off but just got on with the job”.
Impressive though Villa’s league title win was, it was Robson’s Ipswich who had captured the hearts of those in the media who had romantic ideals of how they thought the game should be played. Certainly the Suffolk side were very easy on the eye and their stylish play was entertaining. But as was shown the following season when outmuscled by Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen in their defence of the UEFA Cup and by the way they ran out of gas to let Liverpool take the title on the last day, when up against a shrewd operator like Saunders who would eke out a result when the cards were stacked against him, it would be Villa, not Ipswich, who would have the staying power needed to become champions.
Aston Villa’s European adventure got off to a good start when they received a decent opening draw. This was before the time of the lop-sided Champions League was set up to no doubt help a cabal of ‘elite’ clubs avoid embarrassing exits to so-called ‘diddy’ teams as here, it was a knockout format from start to finish. You could get anyone in the draw as Celtic found out when they landed, and subsequently lost to, Italian giants Juventus. Villa instead were paired with Icelandic minnows, Valur.
The tie went the way many expected as Villa went nap on their visitors from the Arctic with goals coming from Tony Morley and doubles from both Withe and Terry Donovan. The second leg in Iceland was a routine matter with two goals from Gary Shaw completing a 7-0 aggregate win.
Nevertheless, Saunders had prepared his men not to be undaunted about taking a trip to the eastern side of the Berlin Wall and Villa went for their hosts from the off with Morley firing in a superb volley from outside the box to give them a fifth minute lead. Back came Dynamo in the second half who levelled thanks to Hans-Jürgen Riediger’s well-timed header in 50 minutes.
It looked like Berlin would come away with a one-goal lead to take back to the second leg in Birmingham when they were awarded a penalty six minutes from time only for Artur Ullrich to hit the post. Despite the rebound presenting the East German international with another chance to score, Villa goalkeeper, Jimmy Rimmer, pulled off a superb save to deny him.
What happened next from the resulting corner saw Villa’s defence clear the ball to Morley who ran the length of the pitch to score a sublime winner.
Step forward chief scout Tony Barton to become Saunders’ successor. He managed to fit into his new role with relative ease as given he had discovered many of the current first team players in his scouting role, they no doubt owed a debt of gratitude to him for giving them their big break and were determined to thank him in the best possible way.
Upon resumption of the European trail, he was faced with another trip behind the Iron Curtain as Villa drew Dynamo Kyiv of the Soviet Union. Given the first leg was to be played in March 1982, Kyiv’s own ground was deemed unplayable due to the wintry weather with the game being switched to the warmer climbs of Simferopol in the Crimea region of Ukraine.
Villa rode their luck early on with Kyiv’s star man, Oleg Blokhin, missing two good chances which the former European Footballer of the Year would normally have put away. Barton’s men did improve in the second half and should have taken the lead when Morley’s cross picked out Shaw who was six-yards out, but instead of hammering the ball in, he tried a clever flick which allowed Kyiv keeper Viktor Chanov to make the save. Luck was again on Villa’s side late on when Vadim Yevtushenko had the ball in the net only for the referee to judge he had fouled Des Bremner in the build-up. A decision that seemed harsh as very little contact appeared to be made.
With victory both on the pitch and in the UEFA ‘courtroom’ assured, Aston Villa headed off to Rotterdam to face West German giants Bayern Munich who had by that time, won Europe’s big prize three times in a row in the mid-70s and had a cast of stars such as Paul Breitner and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge who would help West Germany reach the World Cup final that summer. A tough task indeed and one that would get tougher after nine minutes of the game had elapsed.
Nigel Spink was a 23-year-old goalkeeper who had mostly spent his Villa career playing reserve team football and had only played once for the first team. However, regular keeper Rimmer had injured his neck in training and although both he and manager Barton decided to risk playing the game, it was one that backfired with the pain sustained by the injury becoming too much for Rimmer to deal with.
On came Spink but bizarrely, Bayern held back from testing the youngster’s nerves with some long-range shots as most sides in that situation would have done. Crucially, this allowed the inexperienced Spink to get accustomed to his bearings, ease any nerves that he had and when, 20 minutes later, the Bavarians did decide to test the novice out, he was more than ready as he pulled off save after save.
There has been, and still is, a tendency for those in Britain to sneer at the defensive strategy employed by Italian sides which is known as ‘catenaccio’. Fans of the game on these shores traditionally prefer a more attack-minded game but on this night in Rotterdam, Villa had no choice but to ‘go Italian’ as Bayern after half an hour got into their stride and began to pepper Spink’s goal. Thankfully for Villa, the breathing space allowed to Spink earlier had allowed him to perform like a veteran of considerable standing. Such was Bayern’s pressure however that the only way they would be denied victory was if the English side held on for a penalty shootout or mug them on the break. The latter presented itself in the 67th minute.
Seeing that Bayern had over-committed in attack, Shaw made a break up the pitch. He then played in Morley who advanced into the penalty box and crossed the ball low to an unmarked Withe who fired the ball in off the post to give Villa the lead. It was a goal that would seal his name in Aston Villa folklore with the club displaying ITV commentator Brian Moore’s commentary on a banner which is displayed at the North Stand of Villa Park. It reads:
“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 Withe.”
The luck that had served Villa well against Berlin, the away leg in Kyiv and in the UEFA hearing over the trouble in Brussels had one last card up its sleeve late on. Bernhard Dürnberger looked to be in on goal only for Dieter Hoeneß to get greedy and snatch the ball from his team-mate to fire the ball into the net. However, Hoeneß had done so when being in an offside position. Had he left Dürnberger, who was onside, alone to carry on, the midfielder might well have given Bayern a reprieve and sent the game into extra-time.
It wasn’t to be and Aston Villa were crowned as champions of Europe. An achievement which seems to have been forgotten by those outside Birmingham, but one that deserves as much recognition as the achievements of the other British sides that have lifted the trophy.