Saunders’ champions – Aston Villa 1981

SEVENTY-PLUS years had passed since Aston Villa had last won the Football League Championship, their six title triumphs ended in 1910. In the intervening decades, Villa had known despair at times, spending  two years in Division Three at the start of the 1970s. In 1975, under the ultra-disciplinarian, Ron Saunders, Villa returned to the top flight, also winning the Football League Cup in 1974-75.

Villa made good progress in Division One and in 1976-77 finished fourth and won the League Cup again. Much of their success was dependent on two talented forwards,  Andy Gray and Brian Little. By 1980, neither player featured in the Villa line-up – Gray had been sold for a huge fee and Little was a victim of injury.

But Saunders built a strong team that had the solid foundations that he always demanded of his sides but also benefitted from considerable flair. Villa, after finishing seventh in 1979-80, became title contenders in 1980-81. Saunders had added Peter Withe to his squad, a journeyman striker who had won the League with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in 1978. He paired this tall target man with a promising and spritely youngster, Gary Shaw, to form a partnership that immediately paid dividends.

Consistency was the key for Villa – they used just 14 players all season with seven of their squad playing all 42 league games. This continuity was vital as Saunders’ team went head-to-head with Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town for the title.

Villa started the season well but lost their first game at Ipswich at the start of September. After a second defeat a few days later at Everton, they went on a 12 game unbeaten run that ended at Liverpool on November 22. By this time, Villa were top of the table, two points ahead of Ipswich who had two games in hand. Most of the pundits expected Ipswich to be champions in 1980-81, but the Suffolk side suffered from fixture congestion and a lack of strength in depth in their squad.

As 1980 ended, Liverpool were also in contention but like Villa they had played more games than Ipswich. Villa came out of an indifferent period and in January hit form again, but the title had started to evolve into a two-horse race. Ipswich were top at the end of January, but they had distractions in both the FA Cup and UEFA Cup. They had knocked Villa out of the FA Cup at the third round stage.

While Ipswich struggled to fight on three fronts, Villa only had the Football League title to focus on. But as February ended, Ipswich were two points ahead at the top and both teams had played 31 games. The smart money was still on Ipswich.

Villa went on another long unbeaten run that took them to mid-March. It ended on March 21 at Tottenham, but Ipswich spurned the chance to take advantage of their rivals’ slip-up and were beaten at Manchester United. They stayed one point ahead of Villa and were now a game behind.

At the end of March, Ipswich appeared to implode and lost two key games, at Leeds and West Bromwich. At the start of April, Villa were top with 53 points from 36 games, Ipswich second with 52 from 36.

When the two sides met at Villa Park on April 14, Villa had a three point advantage but Ipswich had six games still to play to Villa’s five. Ipswich won the big clash in front of more than 47,000 people by 2-1, Shaw scoring very late on for the home side. It looked as though Ipswich now had the initiative.

But four days later, Villa beat Nottingham Forest while Ipswich slipped again, this time at home to Arsenal. Villa had gone three points clear and Ipswich were running out of games. On April 20, both contenders seemed to be getting tired – Villa drew 1-1 at Stoke and Ipswich were beaten in the East Anglian derby with Norwich. Saunders’ men now had a four-point margin. Five days later, the title looked to be secure as both sides won. Ipswich had to win both of their remaining games to be champions and hope for Villa to falter. On May 2 at half-time, the issue was still open as Villa were losing at Arsenal and Ipswich were winning at Middlesbrough. By full-time, both challengers had lost, so the trophy went to the Midlands.

There was widespread sympathy for Ipswich, who for a long time had promised to win the title, but few people denied Villa their first championship in several generations. Their usual team was: Rimmer; Swain, Gibson, Williams, Evans, McNaught; Cowans, Mortimer, Bremner, Morley; Withe, Shaw.

Aston Villa’s captain Dennis Mortimer shows the trophy to a crowd of thousands outside the Birmingham Town Hall. Aston Villa won the league championship for the first time since 1910.

Jimmy Rimmer (33): Experienced goalkeeper who joined Villa in 1977 from Arsenal, but also spent some time with Manchester United earlier in his career. Won one England cap when he was with Arsenal.

Kenny Swain (29): A versatile player who started out as a forward at Chelsea, his first professional club. Swain was converted to full back by Ron Saunders and was an immediate success. He had cost Villa £ 100,000 when he joined them halfway through the 1978-79 season. Went on to have a notable coaching career.

Colin Gibson (21): Left-back or midfielder who was an England under-21 international. Played for Villa until 1985 when he joined Manchester United.

Gary Williams (20): Full back who played for Villa between 1978 and 1987 before moving to Leeds United.

Ken McNaught (26): Scottish central defender who joined Villa from Everton in 1977. A rugged centre back who later played for West Bromwich Albion.

Allan Evans (24): Scottish international (4 caps) who was signed from Dunfermline Athletic in 1977. A marvellously consistent central defender who formed a dependable partnership with McNaught at the heart of the Villa back-line.

Gordon Cowans (22): County Durham-born midfielder who won plaudits for his exciting performances. Became an England international, winning 10 caps before leaving Villa in 1985 to join Bari in Italy. His career was blighted by injury and he rarely scaled the heights of his early years.

Dennis Mortimer (29): Liverpool-born midfielder and captain who was considered to be one of the best players never to be capped by England. Signed by Villa in 1975 from Coventry City and stayed with the club for a decade before signing for Brighton.

Des Bremner (28): Villa paid Hibernian £ 275,000 to sign Bremner in 1979. Capped once by Scotland, he spent more than five years with the club before joining Birmingham City.

Peter Withe (29): A much travelled and frequently under-rated centre forward who had already won the title with Nottingham Forest in 1978. His aerial power complemented Gary Shaw’s style and the duo netted 38 league goals between them. Was also the match-winner in the 1981-82 European Cup final.

Gary Shaw (20): A richly-talented forward whose career was stymied by crippling injuries. A local lad, he won England Under-21 caps and was tipped to add full caps to that haul. He was named PFA Player of the Year in 1980-81.

Tony Morley (26): A fast and tricky winger who also knew how to score spectacular goals. Morley joined the club from Burnley in 1979, costing Villa £ 200,000. He was capped six times by England. Moved to West Bromwich in 1983.

Football League Appearances

Bremner, D 42 Gibson, C 19+2   Shaw, G 40
Cowans, G 42 McNaught, K 42   Swain, K     42
Deacy, E 5+4 Morley, T 42   Williams, G 21+1
Evans, A 39 Mortimer, D 42   Withe, P 36
Geddis, D 8+1 Rimmer, J 42

Goalscorers:  Withe 20, Shaw 18, Morley 10, Evans 7, Cowans 5, Geddis 4, Mortimer 4, Bremner 2, Own Goals 2 Total: 72

Football League Results

Aug 16 Leeds United Away W 2-1 Morley, Shaw 23,401
Aug 20 Norwich City Home W 1-0 Shaw 25,970
Aug 23 Manchester City Away D 2-2 Withe 2 30,017
Aug 30 Coventry City Home W 1-0 Shaw 26,050
Sept 6 Ipswich Town Away L 0-1 23,192
Sept 13 Everton Home L 0-2 25,673
Sept 20 Wolverhampton W Home W 2-1 Own Goal, Geddis 26,181
Sept 27 Crystal Palace Away W 1-0 Shaw 18,398
Oct 4 Sunderland Home W 4-0 Evans 2, Morley, Shaw 26,914
Oct 8 Manchester United Away D 3-3 Withe, Cowans (pen), Shaw 38,831
Oct 11 Birmingham City Away W 2-1 Cowans (pen), Evans 33,879
Oct 18 Tottenham Hotspur Home W 2-0 Morley 2, Withe 30,940
Oct 22 Brighton & Hove A Home W 4-1 Mortimer, Withe, Bremner, Shaw 27,367
Oct 25 Southampton Away W 2-1 Morley, Withe 21,249
Nov 1 Leicester City Home W 2-0 Shaw, Cowans 29,953
Nov 8 West Bromwich A Away D 0-0 34,195
Nov 12 Norwich City Away W 3-1 Shaw 2, Evans 17,050
Nov 15 Leeds United Home D 1-1 Shaw 29,106
Nov 22 Liverpool Away L 1-2 Evans 48,114
Nov 29 Arsenal Home D 1-1 Morley 30,140
Dec 6 Middlesbrough Away L 1-2 Shaw 15,597
Dec 13 Birmingham City Home W 3-0 Geddis 2, Shaw 41,101
Dec 20 Brighton & Hove A Away L 0-1 16,425
Dec 26 Stoke City Home W 1-0 Withe 34,658
Dec 27 Nottingham Forest Away D 2-2 Own Goal, Shaw 33,930
Jan 10 Liverpool Home W 2-0 Withe, Mortimer 47,960
Jan 17 Coventry City Away W 2-1 Morley, Withe 27,020
Jan 31 Manchester City Home W 1-0 Shaw 33,682
Feb 7 Everton Away W 3-1 Morley, Mortimer, Cowans (pen) 31,434
Feb 21 Crystal Palace Home W 2-1 Withe 2 27,203
Feb 28 Wolverhampton W Away W 1-0 Withe 34,693
Mar 7 Sunderland Away W 2-1 Evans, Mortimer 27,278
Mar 14 Manchester United Home D 3-3 Withe 2, Shaw 42,182
Mar 21 Tottenham Hotspur Away L 0-2 35,091
Mar 23 Southamptom Home W 2-1 Morley, Geddis 32.467
Apr 4 Leicester City Away W 4-2 Withe 2, Bremner, Morley 26,032
Apr 8 West Bromwich A Home W 1-0 Withe 47,998
Apr 14 Ipswich Town Home L 1-2 Shaw 47,495
Apr 18 Nottingham Forest Home W 2-0 Cowans (pen), Withe 34,707
Apr 20 Stoke City Away D 1-1 Withe 23,511
Apr 25 Middlesbrough Home W 3-0 Shaw, Withe, Evans 38,018
May 2 Arsenal Away L 0-2 57,472

FA Cup: Round Three
Football League Cup: Round Two
Average home attendance: 34,117

Pos   P W D L F A Pts
1 Aston Villa 42 26 8 8 72 40 60
2 Ipswich Town 42 23 10 9 77 43 56
3 Arsenal 42 19 15 8 61 45 53


 Photos: PA


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