‘Ripples of joy quickly became a sea of jubilation. Boro’s Yugoslavian forward Bosco Jankovic, they’d learned, had levelled matters at Ayresome Park. The dream that had seemed vanquished was back on again.’
You’d be hard pushed to name a more bizarre afternoon in the history of Aston Villa football club than the one that fell on May 2nd 1981.
The afternoon started off with Aston Villa fans booing the most famous player in the world, Brazilian football legend Pele, as he was paraded around Highbury as the guest of honour, before the last game of the 1980/81 season kicked off.
The away fans applause was saved for 90 minutes later for a lesser known overseas player, when they cheered the efforts of Bosnian striker Božo Janković on Teeside. While Villa were losing 2-0 against Arsenal and facing losing out on the league title, a brace from the Middlesbrough striker against Ipswich, swung the title back Villa’s way.
In the end, as the full whistle blew at Highbury, the Villa faithful were celebrating a match they had lost, in a more emphatic fashion than if they had won it.
Through a passage from the book The Odd Man Out*, which tells the full story of Ron Saunders reign at Villa Park, we look back at the nervy and tense last 45 minutes of Villa’s successful title-winning 1980-81 campaign…
The Unlikely Villa Hero
It was agonising for those on the terraces. Watching their team give its least effective display in the last game of the season, it appeared as if their worst fears might be realised. In the Villa dressing room at half-time, there was a deathly silence. ‘I lay there feeling I had cost Aston Villa the league,’ Kenny Swain wrote in his autobiography. A disconsolate Jimmy Rimmer felt he himself was at fault for both goals. Saunders, positive and calm, urged his dejected troops to ‘just keep doing all the good things you’ve been doing all season’, but a feeling that glory could be snatched away engulfed the whole side.
In the second half, for all their huffing and puffing, they made little headway. Mortimer was unable to influence matters. Up front, Withe and Shaw were easily stifled by Young and David O’Leary. Withe, David Lacey wrote in his match report, ‘looked as much like England’s next centre-forward as Basil Fawlty’. A superior home side remained in control. Tense Villa supporters, their nerves on edge, craved good news from Teesside. Around the 55th minute they got it. Gary Shaw, set up by Withe, fired hopelessly wide. Suddenly, small pockets of Villa supporters began jumping up and down.Roars erupted. Ripples of joy quickly became a sea of jubilation. Boro’s Yugoslavian forward Bosco Jankovic (Božo Janković), they’d learned, had levelled matters at Ayresome Park. The dream that had seemed vanquished was back on again.
Clutching radios ever closer and clinging to hopes, the fans were almost fully focussed on the drama taking place nearly 250 miles away. In front of them, Gordon Cowans had a powerful 70th-minute 25-yarder tipped over the bar by Jennings. Five minutes later, Shaw saw a shot comfortably held by the Irish keeper. But minds were elsewhere, fearful that a late comeback from Ipswich could still ruin the party.
The game at Highbury was winding down, the hands ticking around on the ground’s imposing timepiece. then came another eruption. With about five minutes remaining at Highbury, those listening to their transistors heard BBC Radio 2 commentator Bryon Butler utter to the start of a line, ‘Let me be the first to congratulate Aston Villa…’ the last part of which was lost in a deafening uproar. It meant only one thing: Aston Villa were Football League champions. Two minutes from the end at Middlesbrough, Jankovic , the forward so anonymous the week before at Villa Park, had netted a second to seal his name into Villa legend and decide the destination of the First Division title.
Božo Janković decided at the end of the 1980-81 season to retire from football to become a lawyer. He then postponed his decision to play in France for FC Metz, before eventually returning to his birthplace of Sarajevo to practice law, until the Bosnian War broke out. He passed away aged just 42 in 1993.
*Thanks to author Graham Denton for permission to print the above segment.