Ron Saunders, Aston Villa and the often overlooked glory of the early 1980s

Ron Saunders, Aston Villa and the often overlooked glory of the early 1980s

Only eight men have led English clubs to the pinnacle of European football, by winning the Champions League, or as previously known, the European Cup. Yet many intelligent and avid football fans may well struggle to name all eight individuals. Most will easily whittle off the obvious names – Ferguson, Busby, Paisley, Fagan, Benítez and Clough, and will probably even remember the transient reign of Di Matteo at Chelsea – however, many highly knowledgeable football fans could well be forgiven for forgetting the name Tony Barton, who brought European success to Aston Villa in 1982.

In fact, the majority of English football supporters may even incorrectly tell you that Ron Saunders led Villa to European glory almost 40 years ago. Most probably, few football enthusiasts can recount any details about that all-conquering Villa side, who went from the Second Division to European champions in just seven years.


 Villa’s ascent 


In June 1974, Ron Saunders accepted the offer of Aston Villa manager, having recently been fired as Manchester City boss. Saunders was welcomed to a club who, much like the present day, were floundering against the burden of their own historical success.

Villa had dominated English football during the Victorian era, winning six league titles before the First World War. Villa could also claim seven FA Cup triumphs – the most in England at the time – and proudly boasted of being one of the original founders of the Football League. Yet when Saunders moved to Birmingham in 1974, Villa had only won two noteworthy trophies since 1921 and had only recently been promoted to England’s second tier. However, Saunders would act as the catalyst which would fabricate a meteoritic rise in Villa’s fortunes.

His first job was simple: return Villa to where they believed was their rightful home, the First Division. Following his appointment, Saunders promptly signed Leighton Phillips from Cardiff and poached Frank Carrodus from his former side Manchester City. But things didn’t start great for Villa, as they won just one of their opening five matches. The team’s dreadful away results were to see them sitting mid-table by the end of December.

However, a superb League Cup run was to inspire an upswing in results during the second half of the season. Villa won 15 of their last 18 matches and ultimately finished second behind Manchester United. The highlight of the season came in March when the Midlands side won the League Cup, defeating fellow Division Two outfit Norwich in the final. In just one year, Saunders had already given the Villa Park faithful what they yearned for – silverware and First Division football for the first time in eight years.

With Villa back in England’s top tier, Saunders was set on constructing a side that could not only stay in the league but challenge at the uppermost levels. In 1975, Dennis Mortimer moved to the club from Coventry and would become the cornerstone of Saunders efficacious side. The Villa boss was also to gamble on an untested 19-year-old striker from Dundee.

Andy Gray would prove to be an undoubted success at Villa Park, helped largely by the unstoppable partnership he formed with Brian Little. Little, who came through the Villa youth ranks and played for the side in the Third Division, had already proved his worth as a goalscorer, netting 20 times in Villa’s promotion campaign. 

The 1975/76 season saw Villa finish a respectable 16th, and above city rivals Birmingham City and Wolverhampton Wanders.  However, their performance in Europe was a different story. The team qualified for the UEFA Cup by virtue of winning the League Cup the previous year but produced a substandard showing in the tournament; Villa were dumped out in the first round by Antwerp after being pummelled 4-0 in Belgium.

The following season saw Villa finish an unprecedented fourth, just six points off leaders Liverpool (the equivalent of seven points with three points for a win). Gray finished the season as the league’s top goalscorer with 25 strikes, and with Little accompanying the Scot, Villa scored 76 league goals, more than any other team in the division.

Villa’s problems were coming at the opposite end of the field, however, and Saunders soon realised he would need to address this area if Villa were to continue climbing the table. Villa were to once again win the League Cup in 1977, two years after their last success. It took the Midlands side three attempts to get past Everton in the final, following draws in the first two legs. A stunning 40-yard strike from defender Chris Nichol and a double from Little meant the cup returned to Birmingham for the second time in three years.

The 1977/78 season saw Saunders address the issue of Villa’s leaky defence. Allan Evans and Ken McNaught – who ironically played against Villa in the 1977 League Cup final – were recruited and would both feature for the team in that famous night in 1982. Pat Jennings’ move from Tottenham to Arsenal that year meant that Jimmy Rimmer was no longer required at Highbury, and moved north to Birmingham for just £65,000. Rimmer – who is widely acknowledged as Villa’s greatest ever goalkeeper – would go on to play a famous role in Villa’s successful night in Rotterdam.

Saunders’ new recruits helped solidify Villa’s defence, but despite Gray’s 29-goal haul, Villa dropped four places to eighth. Gray was voted both PFA Player and Young Player of the Year in 1978 (a feat only shared with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale). At the same time, a young Gordan Cowans was beginning to establish himself in the Villa team aged just 19.

Despite a relatively disappointing season domestically, Villa managed the first European run in the club’s history. Again competing in the UEFA Cup, the claret and blue side overcame Fenerbahçe, Górnik Zabrze and Athletic Bilbao, before a Johan Cruyff-inspired Barcelona bested Villa.

Villa managed to finish eighth again the subsequent year, in a relatively average season during the Saunders era. Villa added another two future European Cup winners to their side in 1978/79. Striker Kenny Swain moved from Chelsea for £100,000 and Saunders, in his own unique style, managed to convert him into an attacking right-back. Saunders also continued to promote Villa’s youth side and gave a debut that season to a young Gary Shaw. Cowans had previously exhibited the effectiveness of the youth side and was now a first team regular.

The 1979/80 season saw instrumental midfielder John Gregory leave the club and was replaced by Des Bremner, who signed from Hibernian for £275,000. Villa also lost the iconic Andy Gray in the same year as the striker moved to Wolves for a British record £1.5m.

Saunders also allowed first choice right-back John Gidman to leave for Everton due to a disagreement regarding a new contract. Rather than searching elsewhere for a replacement, Saunders once again turned to his youth side and promoted Gary Williams to the first team. The defender had previously been out on loan with Walsall.

With so many key players moving on, many anticipated that Villa would slip down the table, but they clearly underestimated the acumen and intellect of the Villa boss. Now in his sixth year as manager, Saunders knew exactly which players were needed at the club. Tony Morley moved to Villa Park from Burnley that summer and would prove to be a fan favourite over the forthcoming years.

Villa managed a seventh place finish with a young, hard-working side and made the quarter-final of the FA Cup. Saunders had established Villa once again as a First Division side, which could now look to expand and possibly begin to climb the table. Yet Villa fans had no idea what was to come.




Ahead of the 1980-81 season, Brian Little announced he was retiring due to a serious knee injury. Having lost Gray the previous year, Saunders knew he needed an experienced striker to partner Gary Shaw. The man chosen would ultimately score the most important goal in Aston Villa history.

Peter Withe joined from Newcastle United on the eve of the season. The Liverpool-born striker had been part of Brian Clough’s famous Nottingham Forest side that tasted league glory in 1978. Withe would prove to be the final piece of the puzzle for Saunders, who now believed he had a side capable of challenging England’s elite.

Villa enjoyed a promising start to the season, winning three of their opening four matches before two successive losses to Ipswich and Everton. Villa, however, followed this up by winning eight of their next nine with many starting to wonder whether they could mount a serious title challenge. Those who believed Villa lacked the required quality and experience appeared to be proved correct over November and December, as the side lost three out of five, but a 2-0 victory against Liverpool in January confirmed to many that Villa were well and truly in the title race.

That started a run of eight wins, which pushed Villa into first with ten matches left. In mid-April, Villa met title chasers Ipswich Town, who were managed by Bobby Robson. On the day, goals from Alan Brazil and Eric Yates gave the Norfolk side the victory and the advantage in the title race with only a handful of games remaining. Yet Ipswich simply crumbled, losing two of their next three to put Villa in the driving seat come the final day of the season.

Villa started the day four points ahead of Ipswich, but Robson’s men had played one game less and could still win the title if Villa lost. At half-time, things did not look promising for the claret and blue side as they trailed Arsenal 2-0, while Ipswich were winning against Middlesbrough. There were no more goals at Highbury, yet thankfully for Villa, Middlesbrough came back to beat Ipswich, confirming Aston Villa as league champions for the first time in 71 years.

Villa’s success was evidence that a team full of superstars and internationals was not a requisite for a title-winning side. Instead, Saunders’ team contained 11 resolute and industrious individuals who operated as a single unit. The Villa boss allowed no room for egotism or ostentation in his side. Incredibly, Saunders only used 14 players during the season – far from the ‘necessary’ rotation needed in the modern game. In fact, during the 42-game league campaign, tenplayers had played 36 times or more, with seven players – Rimmer, Swain, McNaught, Mortimer, Bremner, Cowans and Morley – being omnipresent throughout.

From his appointment in 1974, Saunders had built a side that was defensively staunch and coordinated, yet contained the essential flair players to supply goals at the other end. “We have character, we have heart, we have bravery, we have aggression, we have pace,” Saunders nicely summed it up after winning the title.

Villa’s achievement was even more outstanding, considering none of the side were seasoned internationals. In fact, players such as Swain, McNaught, Williams, Mortimer and Shaw would never gain any senior international caps throughout their careers. Remarkably Villa’s most successful team would only ever register 33 international caps between them.

Cowans notably played ten times for England and was only ousted by Withe as the highest caps holder in the side. The striker registered just one more appearance than his teammate, and would be the only Villa player who would go to the 1982 World Cup, despite the side being reigning European champions.


 Villa’s greatest team 


By signing Withe at the beginning of the 1980/81 season, Saunders had procured the final link in the chain. Alongside Shaw, he would create a classic big-man little-man strikeforce. Withe – a strong and experienced target-man – finished the season as joint top goalscorer with 20 strikes in 36 games. Shaw, who was voted PFA Young Player of the Year that season, was a classic poacher; small, nippy and always playing on the last defender. And as the only Birmingham-born player in the starting line-up, Shaw still holds a fond spot with Villa fans to this day, not forgetting the crucial 18 goals he registered in 1980/81.

Supplying the front two,were the skilful and inexorable Gordon Cowans and Tony Morley. Cowans was the playmaker of the side and threaded countless passes into attacking areas for his team-mates. He rose up through the Villa youth ranks and would ultimately become the club’s third-highest appearance holder (506). Voted as Villa’s greatest ever player, Cowan’s accuracy and quality of pass were second to none in that era.

On the left side of midfield, Morley was the flair player in the side; a typical old-fashioned, attacking winger, who loved to dribble at the opposition. He offered Withe numerous headed chances from his superb crossing ability and also delighted Villa fans by regularly cutting inside to shoot on his favoured right foot. His solo effort against Everton was voted goal of the season in Villa’s title-winning year.

Yet for all the attacking flair, Saunders balanced it out with the gritty, rugged central midfielders that are rarely produced in the modern era. Des Bremner acted as the holding midfielder (a role that was a rarity and somewhat underappreciated in that era). Saunders once described him as “the most underrated footballer I ever purchased”. The Scot often sat deepest, allowing his fellow midfielders to join the attack and offered constant and effective protection for the defence.

Alongside Bremner was the captain and leader, Dennis Mortimer. The longest-serving player in the Villa team, Saunders had selected him as the lynchpin of his team. Adept at attacking and defending, the skipper was the archetypal box-to-box midfielder. “Some of his runs and link-up work with the forwards meant he was one of very few midfielder players who could get beyond the strikers,” Ken McNaught remarked years later.

McNaught formed a solid and unwavering partnership with Allan Evans at the heart of Villa’s defence. Evans was the leader at the back, rarely missing a tackle or header. As a former centre-forward, he was also handy at the other end of the field, registering seven goals over the campaign. McNaught, in similar fashion to Evans, was resolute and strong, and refused to give opposition strikers a moments peace.

In the full-back positions, Saunders was arguably years ahead of his time and encouraged his wide defenders to bypass the midfielders. Swain, in particular, would invariably overlap Cowans on several occasions during a game and cross for an ever-anticipating Withe. Williams on the other flank was often rotated with Colin Gibson, also a Villa youth graduate). Williams was athletic and defensively-sound, as well as possessing the ability to join attacks when needed. 

Finally, Jimmy Rimmer was colossal for Saunders’ side. Rarely at fault for goals, the former Arsenal goalkeeper kept 15 clean sheets in Villa’s title-winning season. Always cool and composed, he brought a level of experience and calmness needed during the side’s high-pressure periods.


 Ron Saunders: a forgotten genius 


Rimmer was the only player in the triumphant side that was older than 30. Saunders built a youthful, hungry team that relied on their high levels of fitness. He was ahead of his time in terms of how Villa closed down and pressed the ball. “We developed this high-pressure game of closing down teams,” Bremner once recalled. “Now Pep Guardiola is getting the credit for introducing this pressing style into football and a lot of teams do it now. But Ron Saunders had us playing like that 30-odd years ago.”

Saunders promoted four players – Williams, Gibson, Cowans and Shaw – from the youth ranks in the years leading up to 1980, but Saunders also knew when to sign a player, and invariably which individual would fit smoothly into his well-oiled machine. Rather than searching for skilful, stylish and technical players, the Villa manager opted for characteristics such as work rate and fitness, as well as players who focused on team performance above their own.

Without searching for superstars, Saunders created a team who beat superstars. In 1980-81, Villa overthrew Bob Paisley’s Liverpool as well as fighting off the pursuing pack of Bobby Robson’s Ipswich – who won the UEFA Cup that year – Clough’s Nottingham Forest and a superb Arsenal side who ultimately finished third. Saunders, however, rarely gets the plaudits received by those aforementioned managers. While Paisley has his own gates, Clough a stand and Robson a statue, Villa’s greatest ever boss has been largely forgotten about.

Much like his fellow managers at the time, Saunders was a hard, military-style boss, who expected nothing less than perfection from his side. An incredible man-manager, he knew how to motivate players and maintain their work rate. “Me and Ron had a problem. I thought I was a good player and he thought I was useless,” Morely would joke in 2003. Yet his hard-line style got results out of players, they would have most likely not achieved.

“He’d go on at me and Gary Shaw about how many tackles we made, and have the apprentices on the bench assigned to counting them,” Morely reminisced. “At half time you may have scored the goal of the season, but he’d say, ‘You only made six tackles’.” Despite being harsh on the surface, Saunders knew he could coax a reaction out of Morley and Shaw, who invariably upped their defensive work rate for the benefit of the team.

Saunders was also a visionary who refused to accept the status-quo. He turned Kenny Swain from a striker into a European Cup-winning full-back, and coached the likes of Evans, Williams and Gibson into becoming high-quality defenders. In fact, Ken McNaught once revealed: “He (Saunders) didn’t just put players into positions, he actually worked on it and tried it on the training ground. Kenny Swain didn’t automatically become a full-back, Colin Gibson was a winger and Gary Williams was a centre-back.”




It was with renewed vigour and hope that Villa began the most famous season in the club’s history, but two defeats to Notts County and Sunderland in the opening two matches represented a poor start to the campaign. Things did not improve quickly either, and after nine matches Villa had only won a single league game. Despite successful cup runs, Saunders’ men couldn’t reproduce the magic they had shown the year before, and in February, with the club sitting in 17th, the unthinkable happened – Saunders quit.

To this day it remains a largely unanswered questioned at Villa Park why the greatest manager in their history walked away from a side he had built from scratch. Contract disputes and the return of former chairman Doug Ellis are two of the most common rumours cited regarding his exit, but Saunders has been withdrawn on the matter for over three decades.

Ellis, who was chairman between 1968 and 1975, had appointed Saunders as manager and, after being ousted from the board in 1979, returned in 1982, coincidentally just months before Saunders resignation.  It is also claimed that the Villa boss wanted a one-year rolling contract, which the club reportedly refused.

Saunders was replaced by his assistant Tony Barton. Even more incredibly, Saunders was to take up the reins at local rivals Birmingham City just days after leaving Villa. To complete the madness, his first game in charge was against his old side. A solitary goal from Withe would give Barton his first win as Villa boss, in a highly emotional game. Tactically, Barton changed little in a Villa side that had won the title just nine months previously. “He didn’t change anything. He knew the system we were playing and he just let it roll on,” Morley admitted.

Given the upheaval at the club, Villa unsurprisingly crashed out of the FA Cup just four days after Saunders’ departure. Having lost in the quarter-final of the League Cup against West Brom in January, Villa only had one more chance of silverware that year. Pressingly for Barton, he had to transform the club’s league form, with Villa now being touted as possible relegation candidates. Thankfully for those at Villa Park, Barton won seven of his first 12, steering Villa away from the bottom three places and meaning that they could fully focus on their European adventures.

Villa ultimately finished a disappointing 11th in what is deemed the most successful year in the club’s history.


 The European Cup run 


Villa began their European Cup run against Icelandic side Valur. After coasting to an easy 5-0 victory in the first leg at Villa Park, the Midlands side won the return leg 2-0 thanks to a double from Gary Shaw. Experienced European sides Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Juventus awaited Villa in the next round, but luckily the Birmingham side avoided them all and drew Dynamo Berlin.

The first leg took place in East Germany, just a stone’s throw from the Berlin Wall. Tony Morley was Villa’s hero on the night, scoring a superb volley in the first half and a sublime individual goal in the second to win the game after Dynamo had previously equalised. However, it could have been all so different for Villa had Rimmer not saved a penalty just minutes before, which prevented Dynamo going 2-1 up. 

In the return leg two weeks later, Villa conceded an early goal, meaning the tie was level on aggregate. The home team were to see the ball cleared off the line twice by Berlin players, from two separate headers from Withe. The final 15 minutes were to be nervewracking for Villa, with the East German side hitting the post late on, before Rimmer made a smart save to ensure Villa progressed into the quarter-finals on away goals.

By the time Villa returned to European action in March, they had a new manager and looked like a club whose season was on the verge of imploding. Barton’s side were drawn against Dynamo Kyiv, a team that contained many players from the Soviet Union side who would compete in the 1982 World Cup. As a result, the Eastern Europeans were heavily fancied.

Villa offered a dogged performance in Simferopol (the game was moved from Kiev due to icy conditions) and held on for a 0-0 draw. The Soviet side dominated much of the play, hitting the post in the first half and having a goal disallowed in the second period. Despite that, Villa had arguably the best chance of the match when Shaw’s shot hit the goalkeeper from point-blank range, after a trademark dinking run and cross from Morley. 

In the return leg, Villa made surprisingly easy work of the Ukrainians. Shaw opened the scoring after five minutes with a superb solo goal, as he battled off two defenders and knocked the ball through the keeper’s legs from a narrow angle. And the reigning English champions were two up by half time after McNaught easily dispatched a header from a corner. The Soviet side offered little in attack and Villa held on to face Belgian side Anderlecht in the semi-finals.

The first leg took place at Villa Park and was a tight game, with both sides not keen on committing too many players forward. Yet Villa did find the only goal of the contest in the 27th minute after Morley drilled the ball from the left corner of the box and into the Anderlecht goal. The Belgian side were considered to be amongst the best in Europe at the time and proved their worth after previously knocking Juventus out of the competition, but they couldn’t find their way past a Villa defence who were still benefiting from Saunders’ organisational discipline. 

Villa were to need another solid performance in Belgium two weeks later, on a night that would unfortunately typify English exploits in Europe during the 1980s. Fan violence preceded the match and continued in the terraces during the game, which at one stage forced the game to be halted for seven minutes after a fan toppled over onto the field. It would overshadow Villa’s greatest away day in European history as a scoreless draw saw the English team progress to the final.

The events in the stands must have impacted what was a dull game with few chances, the best of which fell to Withe. The striker was somewhat controversially flagged offside after he tapped the ball into the Anderlecht goal. Barton didn’t care; Villa had reached the European Cup final in the club’s first year competing in the tournament. This was in spite of an unsuccessful appeal from Anderlecht to get the Midlands side thrown out of the tournament following the ugly scenes in Belgium. 


 The final 


If Villa had been underdogs in the previous rounds it was nothing compared to the final, where they would face the mighty Bayern Munich. The German side included Klaus Augenthaler and Paul Breitner. Yet the star of the show was undoubtedly Karl Heinz-Rumminigge, who was the holder of the Ballon d’Or. In many ways, Rumminigge exemplified the differences between the sides. Throughout his career, the German would win 95 international caps, nearly three times that of the Aston Villa team combined. 

Bayern were consistent competitors in Europe’s elite tournament having played in the competition seven of the last 10 seasons, winning it three years in a row between 1974 and 1976. Villa, on the other hand, were in their maiden season in the European Cup. But this meant little on the pitch when the sides met in Rotterdam on 26 May 1982. 

Villa’s dramatic season was to take one final turn just nine minutes into the final, as goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer pulled up injured with a neck problem. Incredibly, Rimmer had only missed one league game for Villa in five years but had to be replaced by substitute Nigel Spink. Spink – another youth graduate – had previously only played one senior match for Villa yet was thrown into the biggest club game in world football. However, the occasion didn’t seem to overawe the 23-year-old, who pulled off a number of superb saves, including a first-half shot from Rumminigge, although he was to stand motionless as a bicycle kick from the German top scorer at that year’s World Cup flew past his left-hand post.

The second half began in a similar vein, with Bayern penning Villa into their own half. Spink made arguably his greatest save of the game to deny Bernd Dürnberger. The Birmingham-born keeper was forced to dive sharply as the ball shot past his right-hand side, yet somehow he emerged clutching the ball. Not long after, Allan Evans cleared a shot off the line as it looked like only a matter of time before Bayern broke through the Villa ranks. 

However, when the goal finally came it was a rare Villa attack that produced such fruitful rewards. Gary Shaw received the ball on the left flank around 30 yards from goal and played a defence-splitting pass into Morley who swivelled one way then the next before crossing the ball into a waiting Withe. The big centre-forward coolly tapped the ball in with his weaker foot, as it bobbled up just before he struck it. “I’m convinced that if I’d struck it properly, the ‘keeper would have saved it,” Withe would claim years later. Brian Moore’s famous commentary, “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,” has been preserved forever in the club’s history by adorning a banner at Villa Park.

The German side seemed perplexed and dumbfounded that, after all their dominance, they were now a goal down. Bayern struggled to create meaningful attacks in the last 20 minutes against a Villa side who were now firmly camped in their own half. There was to be one final scare, as Dieter Hoeness knocked the ball into the back of Spink’s net, only to find the linesman flag rightly raised. The final whistle went soon after and Aston Villa were European champions

They would return to a jubilant Birmingham, where they would present the trophy to a group of cheering fans during a civic reception in the city centre. Unbelievably, Barton had been in charge just 56 days when he tasted the type of success that eluded the likes of Bill Shankly, Sir Bobby Robson and even José Mourinho in English football.

It was the final chapter of a remarkable story for Aston Villa Football Club, which began 10 years earlier in the third tier of English football. Two promotions, two League Cups and one First Division title later, Villa were now champions of Europe.


 The rest is history 


Sadly, the Villa bubble was about to burst. Despite winning the 1982 European Super Cup against Barcelona, Barton struggled to create the cohesion and durability that Saunders had instilled in his players. The 1982/83 season saw them finish sixth and knocked out of the European Cup at the quarter-final stage by Juventus.

The following season would be Barton’s last at the club after finishing 10th. The same finish a year later would confirm that Villa truly were a mid-table side. The successful title-winning side of 1981 was beginning to split up as Villa plummeted to 16th in 1985/86, and the following year – just half a decade after being crowned kings of Europe – Villa were relegated.

Villa’s struggles after Saunders’ departure were to prove that he truly had been the mastermind behind the success. Referred to as the “Godfather of Aston Villa” by Spink, his ability to produce a European Cup-winning side from a mediocre group of players is something that is largely forgotten about in the football archives. Due to his controversial departure and subsequent appointment at Birmingham City, even some Villa fans have forgotten the only man to win a league title in over a hundred years.

In 2006, at the request of new chairman Randy Lerner, Saunders was to return to Villa Park for only the second time since 1984. The man who oversaw Villa’s last league triumph received a standing ovation from all ends of the ground, including the Doug Elllis Stand, which Dennis Mortimer has previously suggested should be renamed the Ron Saunders Stand.

Had Ellis not return to Villa Park in 1982, Saunders may well have never quit, and according to Morley, could have created a dynasty: “I believe if this club would have given him a five-year contract at his peak you would have seen a lot more silverware at Aston Villa.” Sadly for Villa fans, trophies have been hard to come by, with just two League Cup triumphs since 1982. Villa’s success in the early 1980s remains just a fascinating blip on the footballing radar.

By Michael Plant @MichaelPlant82

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