In their previous European football experiences, Villa had been knocked out in the first round of the UEFA Cup in 1975, and narrowly beaten by Barcelona in the same competition, three years later. Now, the team that was “full of English promise”, set out to compete in the senior competition in Europe – the infamous European Cup.
Having won the division one title the year before, Ron Saunders led his team onto the greatest stage of them all. Surging with confidence, who knew what this Villa team was capable of achieving…
First Leg: Aston Villa 5-0 Valur
Second Leg: Valur 0-2 Aston Villa
Opening night in the European Cup – the first challenge awaited Villa in their debut European season – at the highest level.
Despite the excitement, a crowd of only 20,100 bustled through the turnstiles on a cold September night to watch their team take on the Icelandic table toppers of the season before.
Perhaps it wasn’t quite the visit of Cruyff and his Barcelona team that had made the journey three years prior. However, Saunders warned that his team were not to take this game lightly.
Those that did attend the match were treated to a 5-star masterclass from the home side. In reality, the game itself was almost too small a stumbling block to cause any problems, as Villa cruised to a 5-0 victory.
Despite this, reserve striker Terry Donovan (standing in for the injured Gary Shaw) was guilty of some glaring misses – as was Peter Withe who acknowledged, “We both came off the pitch feeling we should have scored hat-tricks”. Donovan repeated this in a later interview, “It was great to score two, but it should have been at least three”, “Peter and I both missed easy chances”
In the second leg, Villa made the trip to the Icelandic capital. Upon touchdown at the Icelandic US military post, the Villa players were left in astonishment at the landscape they were setting foot in. Gary Shaw describes the moment he stepped out of the plane’s cabin, “When we arrived, it was like landing on the moon. The place was covered in rocks and dust, I’d never seen anything like it!”
Not only was the terrain a world away from the Midlands, but the freezing temperatures and 40-mile an hour winds that swept the most northerly football pitch in the world were also a far cry from winters in Solihull.
Nevertheless, two goals courtesy of Shaw capped off a successful ‘warmup’ in the European Cup.
First Leg: Dynamo Berlin 1-2 Aston Villa
Second Leg: Aston Villa 0-1 Dynamo Berlin
Just yards away from the Berlin Wall, the Jahn-Sportpark stadium was the destination for Villa’s second-round tie against East German opposition – Dynamo Berlin.
In training before the match, Tony Morley described the “grim and depressing” circumstances Villa were under. “We could hear guard dogs barking in the distance” he recalled.
Against one of the best teams in the competition, Villa took the lead inside five minutes – silencing the dogs. Morley himself was on the end of a slick counter-attacking move from the visitors that turned out to be crucial in their crusade to the third round.
However, just as Villa had sprung an early surprise from the kick-off, shortly after emerging from the changing rooms for the second-half the formidable Hans-Jurgen Riediger equalized following a cross into the box that the Villa defence had been unable to deal with.
With the match heading towards a stalemate, a defining moment in Villa’s European history was about to unfold.
Gary Williams slid in to challenge Wolf-Rudiger Netz and looked to have won the ball fairly. However, Austrian referee Franz Wohrer pointed to the spot without a moment’s hesitation and suddenly Villa’s European hopes were on the line.
Up stepped Artur Ullrich, who sent Jimmy Rimmer the wrong way – but watched on to see the ball crash against the post! Ullrich’s blushes looked to have been spared though as the ball rebounded straight into his path. Unbelievably, with an almost open goal to aim at, he fired the second attempt into the trailing leg of Rimmer before seeing the ball rise high into the night sky and loop over the crossbar.
For Morley, that was the moment he knew Villa had what it takes to win the competition. “I’m a great believer in fate when Jimmy kept out the rebound I felt we had a hand on the cup – even though it was only the second round”.
Morley’s dreams were buoyed again late into the game. Starting a run in his own half, he took the game away from the East Germans (who were pushing for a winner) with a run finished off beautifully with a low shot into the corner of the net. That saw Villa clinch the first-leg advantage – heading back to B6 2-1 up on aggregate.
In the subsequent game in Birmingham, Villa fell behind early. Intricate play down the right-wing saw Frank Terletzki fire past Rimmer, levelling the tie 2-2.
For the next nail-biting 75 minutes, Villa saw several efforts of their own denied by the inform Bodo Rudwaleit in goal, as Dynamo continued mounting attacks on the Villa backline at will.
As the game headed into the final few minutes, Villa had to avoid conceding to certify their spot in the next round.
“We are fully aware that we were living dangerously at the end. Jimmy made a great save and Berlin hit the upright as well. If either of those two had gone it would have been curtains for us there and then” stated Gary Shaw.
Whether it be Morley’s fated vision, or luck being on the side of Rimmer in goal, Villa held on in the tie and despite losing by a goal to nil on the night, they were the victors courtesy of the away goals rule.
Third Round (Quarter-Final)
First leg: Dynamo Kyiv 0-0 Aston Villa
Second Leg: Aston Villa 2-0 Dynamo Kyiv
The Quarter-Final draw paired Villa (who were now led by former assistant manager Tony Barton after Saunders’ resignation three weeks prior) with USSR opponents Dynamo Kyiv.
Despite being drawn away for the first leg, the game was not to be played in the now known country of Ukraine. Due to the freezing temperatures endured in Eastern Europe over the winter months, by the time the game was meant to be played (in March) the pitch had already been deemed unplayable.
After months of waiting to be informed about the whereabouts of the game, Villa secretary Steve Stride lodged a complaint with UEFA about how long it was taking his teams opponents to find a suitable venue for the tie. Being handed a four-day deadline to find a ground kicked the opposition into action and Kyiv decided on the Crimean capital of Simferopol, some 300 miles away from the home ground of the hosts.
Two days before the match, Villa flew out to Eastern Europe, on board a chartered aircraft loaded with 150 steaks and 21 dozen eggs to name a few of the culinary delights Villa took with them. The club was concerned about kitchen hygiene causing an issue and decided on stocking an armoury of food to make the journey with them.
Upon the third attempt at landing (due to low cloud cover), Villa, alongside their newly established in-house catering firm, landed in the Soviet Union.
On matchday, a crowd of almost 20,000 turned up to watch the action unfold. An Aston Villa side, who were beginning to get to grips with the growing reality of a strong chance at winning the competition, against a resolute Dynamo team, consisting of 1975’s European footballer of the year, Dynamo legend – Oleg Blokhin (who has since managed the team).
In a 0-0 affair, Villa were happy to keep a clean sheet and return to Villa Park as the favourites. They would have won the match in fact, if it hadn’t have been for a magnificent save from Kyiv keeper, Victor Chanov following a Morley shot.
Later that month, in the return fixture, Kyiv arrived at yet more controversy regarding the playing surface. A harsh English winter had left the B6 pitch in an almost unplayable state itself and Kyiv were forceful in their attempts to have the location rearranged.
For all their efforts, the game went ahead as planned and as it turned out, Villa Park played host to a classic encounter.
“The crowd were more intense than in any other home tie” said David Geddis, an unselected striker who was sat in the stands that night.
Mirroring the intensity off the pitch, barely four minutes had elapsed before Gary Shaw shot past Chanov at his near post to put Villa in control.
Sealing the win, on the stroke of half-time Ken McNaught headed the ball past the helpless Chanov again to give Villa a two-goal lead – meaning that Kyiv needed two for themselves with no reply to get ahead.
The half that followed saw Villa see out a comfortable victory, sending them through to the last four of Europe’s finest competition.
In the next article of the ‘Escapades on the continent – Villa in Europe’ series, we look at the semi-final and beyond of Villa’s 1981-82 season in the UEFA European Cup.
As Geddis stated, “You sensed that people were starting to believe we could win the European Cup”…