By Steve Pye
The Path to Aston Villa’s League Title
Generally there are always matches that a team will look back on at the end of a title winning season as the moment they knew something special was happening. The belief-affirming victory that convinced players, fans and media alike that this team could last the duration. Think Everton at Anfield in 1984/85; Arsenal at the same ground in 2001/02; Chelsea at Blackburn in 2004/05; Leicester at the Etihad.
In February 1981, Aston Villa travelled to Goodison Park neck and neck in a title race with Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town. A month earlier hopes had been raised in the claret and blue section of the second city that the title could be coming to Villa Park for the first time in 71 years. The 2-0 victory over champions Liverpool was a vital step towards the ultimate goal, and another would come at Everton.
It wasn’t as if Goodison Park was a fortress. Everton had lost twice in their 14 league matches at home, and were firmly ensconsed in mid-table as Villa arrived in Liverpool. But Gordon Lee’s team had recently defeated Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round, and were the only team that season to have left Villa Park with three points, winning 2-0 in September.
Having finished the previous season in 7th place, the 25/1 odds on Aston Villa winning the title seemed justified. But slowly and surely manager Ron Saunders had been building his (small) squad, and when forward Peter Withe arrived in the summer of 1980 the final piece of the jigsaw had arrived.
Famously Saunders would use just 14 players as Villa claimed the Division One crown, and gradually these players would be rewarded with international call-ups. Allan Evans, Gordon Cowans and Withe would represent their countries in the next couple of years, and exciting forward Gary Shaw would surely have been added to the list had it not been for a career changing injury in 1983.
Another player to earn international recognition after the title win was winger Tony Morley. Starting his career at Preston, Morley arrived from Burnley in 1979 for a fee of £200,000, and although he would often clash with Saunders, Morley would enjoy a purple patch in his career that earned him medals and caps that his talent merited.
“You knew where you stood with him,” Morley revealed after Saunders’ death in 2019. “You knew what your job was, and if you didn’t do it well enough, he’d go and get someone who’d do it better.” Despite all his attacking excellence, Saunders insisted that Morley performed defensive duties when needed. I Could Be So Good For You was not only a hit during Villa’s championship winning season; it was an apt description of the Saunders-Morley relationship.
One example of Saunders’ clever man management came prior to the vital win at Everton. Graham Denton, in his excellent The Odd Man Out book on Saunders’ career, describes how Villa’s boss got inside Morley’s head as the crucial fixture neared.
“Tony Morley, from a line of Evertonians and desperate to play against his childhood idols, had been led to believe by Saunders that his place in the side would be taken by Pat Heard, Saunders informing the winger that he thought he’d be showboating before his family and friends.”
“On the day of the match, Saunders told Morley that he’d had a change of heart; Morley would be playing after all. Saunders had no intention of dropping the winger but, as Morley later realised, ‘had done his homework’. Saunders’ ‘great management’ worked a treat. After only three minutes, Morley, ‘like a bottle of pop’, burst into life.”
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Villa’s opening goal was a thing of beauty, with Shaw’s contribution often overlooked. Left back Gary Williams played the ball into the feet of Villa’s 20-year-old forward, who rolled Billy Wright before setting Morley free. Running at Mick Lyons, Morley glided to the edge of the box before unleashing a right-footed drive past Martin Hodge from 20 yards out.
“Here’s Tony Morley,” John Motson commented as the attack developed. “Good running by him. Oh, what a great goal. Four minutes gone and Tony Morley scores a cracker.” The goal would earn Morley the Match of the Day Goal of the Season award come the end of the season. But his celebration at the time would land him in trouble.
Denton explains the immediate aftermath of Morley’s stunning strike. “Clearly still rattled by Saunders’ psychological tactic, Morley gave a two-fingered gesture towards the bench, one that later earned him a fine from the Villa boss. But it was worth every penny.” Crucially, it set Villa on the way to two points that kept them level with Ipswich.
Everton did equalise through a Trevor Ross penalty, after Ken McNaught – who was passed fit after receiving ten stitches in a leg wound in the win over Manchester City – was adjudged to have handled in the box. Goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer was forced into a couple of decent saves, but it was Villa who would show their superiority in the first half.
Both Shaw and Withe hit the crossbar, and Hodge denied Morley, as Villa started to dominate. In the 35th minute, skipper Dennis Mortimer timed his run superbly from midfield – in much the same way as he had against Liverpool the previous month – to hand Villa a deserved lead at half-time.
Villa continued to press forward and were rewarded in the 71st minute after Lyons tugged back Shaw in the box. Gordon Cowans coolly slotted home the resulting penalty, to ease any nerves in the travelling support in a crowd of 31,434. The title race was now turning into a two horse contest.
The win at Everton was the fourth in a seven-match winning streak, and between Boxing Day and the 3-3 draw against Manchester United in March, Saunders’ team took 18 points from a possible 20. But it was worth more than simply two points. If the media and indeed the players doubted Villa were the real deal, then this victory suppressed any doubts.
“And Ron Saunders’ team produce a performance of championship pedigree,” Motson noted at the end of the match. Mortimer was just as positive in his post-match interview. “We’ve got a great belief now at the club that this can be our season.”
Ultimately Villa would be crowned Division One champions come the end of the season. Despite losing twice to Ipswich in the league (and also in the FA Cup), their stronger finish to the season – five wins and a draw in their last eight matches – saw them hold off an Ipswich team that lost six of their final eight as a lengthy season caught up with Robson’s men.
Clinching the championship in a final day defeat at Highbury, Villa would go on to win the European Cup the following campaign, although Saunders had dramatically resigned mid-season due to a contract dispute. The man who set up Peter Withe’s winning goal in the Rotterdam final against Bayern Munich would play a big part in Villa’s European Cup success throughout the competition.
It was hard to ignore the part played by Tony Morley in Villa’s title win and European Cup glory. Finally capped by Ron Greenwood in November 1981, the winger somehow missed out on England’s 1982 World Cup squad, despite his fine displays in Europe. It feels criminal now that he ended up with just six England caps.
However, Villa fans of a certain vintage will know the true value of Morley. The part he played in the history of the club in the early 80s is forever etched in the memory. As is that goal at Goodison Park. Morley may have sent a message loud and clear to his boss that day with a flick of his fingers. Yet with his right foot he highlighted that Villa were on the brink of something special.