It was a weird situation. It was March 1983, Aston Villa were the European Cup holders and a month before had beaten Barcelona to lift the European Super Cup, yet they were given pretty much no chance when they were drawn against Juventus in a two-leg European Cup quarter-final.
Personally, I’ve never been so pessimistic going into a Villa game. The year before, in 1982, I’d been conscious of my first World Cup in Spain, and fallen in love with the Brazil team of Zico, Socrates, Eder and co. I mention that Brazil team, because they were pretty much the only star performers from the 1982 World Cup that weren’t in the Juventus team that faced Villa over two legs…
For starters, the Italian champions had the main men of Italy’s World Cup winning team. The captain Dino Zoff in goal, hard man Gentile, World Cup final scorer Tardelli and the tournament’s top scorer Paulo Rossi; who infamously shot down favourites Brazil with a hat-trick. Rossi then scored a brace in the 2-0 semi-final win against Poland, but how different would that game have been if the Pole’s mercurial talisman Zbigniew Boniek had not been suspended. Like Rossi, Boniek had also bagged a hat-trick in the World Cup (against Belgium). His reward for almost single-handedly taking Poland to the semi-finals was to be snapped up by Juventus from Widzew Lódz.
Juventus also brought the best player of the other losing semi-finalist France in the shape of St-Etienne’s Michel Platini. The French midfield maestro would a year later lead France to win the European Championship and be widely regarded as the best player in the world.
In short, Juventus were a turbo-charged improved version of the World Cup winning Italian team. It was a tall, tall order for Villa to overcome, especially when you consider Peter Withe was the only member of the 1982 European Champion’s deemed good enough for the England squad in the World Cup – and Withe was a mere bench warmer.
It was uphill task from the first minute of the first leg at Villa Park when Paolo Rossi gave Juventus the lead in the opening minute. While Villa got back into the tie with a second half goal by Gordon Cowans, Boniek’s late winner pretty much sealed the tie’s fate.
Villa were two-nil down in the return leg in Italy, with not even half-an-hour played, before going on to lose 3-1 and 5-2 on aggregate. With Liverpool also going out at the quarter-final stages to Widzew Lódz, it would be the first time an English team wouldn’t lift the European Cup since 1976.
Ironically, despite being favourites in the final against Hamburg, Juventus were beaten 1-0. Certainly with their final experience from the previous year, Villa’s best chance against Juve would have been a one-off game.
The holy grail for Villa since 1983 has to be to return to the top table of European football. Since the heady days of the early 1980’s, Villa’s European trips have been limited to short-lived ventures in the UEFA Cup. In the current format of the top four in the Premiership qualifying for the Champion’s League, Villa would have qualified twice, if the format had been implemented back in the 1990’s. When Randy Lerner took over from Doug Ellis as the chairman, his number one goal was Champion’s League qualification, and despite backing Martin O’Neil in the transfer market, the club ultimately came up short. What now looks to have been a gamble on high-waged players to achieve the goal is largely responsible for the plight the club has found itself in the past three seasons. There’s certainly been a lowering in gung-ho ambition by Lerner, with the chairman seemingly now content to balance the books and tick by as a business with on-field aspirations seemingly a secondary concern.
With the money-motivated modern day game and the seeming cartel of the ‘Sky 4’ on English Champion’s League qualification, the question is whether the chapter is closed on Villa’s involvement in a tournament they were once proud winners of? Most will say yes, but there is hope…
Aston Villa’s academy has kept the name of the club in the conscious of European football with their impressive displays in the NextGen series, which is essentially the Youth Champion’s League. If some of those players come through and provide a supply line for Paul Lambert’s long-term plan of building a hungry competitive team, then with a few quality additions, once Villa break back into the top half again (as soon as next season, hopefully), then they can have another stab.
The most important thing as supporters is to never give up. That night in Rotterdam in 1982 has given us the credentials and the right to dream. Look on the bright side, at least we got our revenge against Juventus for 1983 by beating them in the final of the Peace Cup in 2oo9!
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