Two years on from the first-round departure in their debut European term, Villa battled the odds to reach the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup, in the 1977/78 season.
UEFA Cup First Round
First Leg 14th September 1977
Villa Park, 30,351
Aston Villa 4-0 Fenerbache
In just their second embarkment into continental football, Villa began their European campaign with a home tie against the runners up in the Turkish league the year before. Of the team that was battered in Belgium two years prior, just four players remained in the Villa team on opening night – John Gidman, Leighton Phillips, Frank Carrodus and Brian Little. All of whom had watched the squad be bolstered up around them. Incomings saw Dennis Mortimer, John Burridge and Andy Gray, just to name a few.
Saunders was delighted. “The side has changed drastically, Everyone connected with the club feels we are much better equipped to cope with the European challenge”, he added.
Within 12 minutes, the manager was proved right as Gray ignited the European goal tally at B6 – scoring in front of a delirious Holte End. A pair of John Deehan headers both sides of the half secured the victory before Brian Little slalomed through the Turkish defence to add a fourth.
Despite the visitors failing to register a single shot on goal, their many fans who made the trip to England (and were dotted around the stadium) remained vocal throughout the match. A taste of what to expect in Istanbul two weeks later…
First Round, Second Leg 28th September 1977
Sukru Saracoglu, 9,637
Fenerbache 0-2 Aston Villa
With a stadium capacity of 50,000, even with an attendance of below 10,000, the Villa players were entering a hostile cauldron. Little to help the matter was the fact that match officials had decided to delay the kick-off for half an hour due to the driving rain.
However, when the Villa players did eventually make their way out onto the playing surface, they were greeted to a barrage of fruit cascading from the stands, lobbed in their direction by the home supporters. For all the crowd’s misbehaviour, the antics didn’t stop there.
As Gordan Cowans remarks, “Fenerbache produced a ball which had clearly been used before, was completely misshaped and played all manner of tricks”. He continued, “It was throwing it down and the conditions were so heavy that the ball became like a medicine ball”.
Regardless of whatever tactics the home side deployed, Villa stuck to their game plan and ran out 2-0 winners on the night, thanks to goals from Deehan and Little respectively.
Second Round, First Leg 19th October 1977
Villa Park, 34,138
Aston Villa 2-0 Gornik Zabrze
Villa faced Polish opposition in the second round and once again were drawn at home in the first leg. In similar fashion to the emphatic triumph against Fenerbache in the first game, the home side scored two goals to almost nullify any threat of a failure to qualify for the next round.
Wearing their away shirt on the night, a brace from Ken McNaught gave Villa the foundations for success in the return fixture, in Eastern Europe.
Second Round, Second Leg 1st November 1977
Ernesta Phola, 9,500
Gornik Zabrze 1-1 Aston Villa
Taking place in the Polish mining region of Silesia, the afternoon kick-off looked to allow the Villa players to return to Birmingham later that night. However, thick fog covering the Communist state disbanded any hopes of returning home that day, meaning Villa were left stranded overnight.
As opposed to the pilot of the grounded chartered jet, the visiting players had little concerns for the most part of the game. Although, five minutes before the interval the two-goal advantage Villa brought into the game had been halved as the poles fought back.
On the resumption of the match though, Andy Gray quashed any hopes of a comeback through converting a Carrodus cross with a header at the front post. Another team conquered; Villa marched into the third round as Spanish opposition awaited them.
Third Round, First Leg 23rd November 1977
Villa Park, 32,973
Aston Villa 2-0 Athletic Club
On a night where the Evening Mail described conditions as “the approximate equivalent of playing with a shower turned full-on”, the men from Bilbao struggled to adapt to fairly alien conditions, as Villa fought to a hard-earned victory.
On the half-hour mark, Brian Little struck a sublime volley past the experienced Spaniard in goal, only for the finish to be disallowed by the finest of margins for offside – an unruly decision VAR would be proud of today!
If the home side were out of luck on that instance, justice was already brewing. Goalkeeper Jose Angel Iribar, who had previously played at Villa Park for Spain during the 1966 World Cup, failed to read a corner in the 34th minute as he punched the ball into the back of his own net to give Villa the lead.
Villa left it late but did eventually double their lead, as John Deehan headed home a freekick with little over ten minutes to play – upholding the continuing theme of Villa winning comfortably at home, before making the trip away.
Third Round, Second Leg 7th December 1977
San Mames, 39,713
Athletic Club 1-1 Aston Villa
In an approach replicated by head coach today, Dean Smith, Saunders Villa headed to the Basque region with the aim of scoring more goals, rather than defending the two they already had.
Despite the opposition only having lost on away goals in the previous years final, Villa played the best football of their season and were rewarded in the final minute of the first half. Dennis Mortimer headed the Villans in front as Villa were able to control the game from that moment onwards. Nevertheless, the home side did score little more than a consolation with five minutes to go.
However, with the game effectively over as a contest anyway, the Spanish fans found themselves applauding the Villa players as they exited the pitch following their 3-1 aggregate win.
Quarter-final first leg 1st March 1978
Villa Park, 49,619
Aston Villa 2-2 Barcelona
One of the greatest night Villa park has ever witnessed. A crowd of almost 50,000 bundled into Villa Park to watch one of the world’s most famous clubs, along with Dutch legend, Johan Cruyff (who was also making his final appearance in England).
The fact that it was Villa’s first-ever European Quarter-Final was certainly overshadowed by the arrival of the Catalonian giants. On the pitch, Villa fell behind on the 20th minute, as the aforementioned Cruyff fired a shot from all of 25 yards into the bottom corner of Jimmy Rimmer’s net. This was followed up precisely an hour of football later, as Rafael Zuviria looked to have ended the contest, with a second for Barcelona.
In the following minutes, Cruyff was substituted off the field and received a standing ovation from all corners of Villa Park. Many thought that was that, the evening over, now that the man everybody had come to see had departed the field. If anything, only the opposite was true.
One of Villa Park’s greatest nights was about to receive lift-off. Ken McNaught scored a diving header following a freekick on the 87th minute, and as time ticked away for Villa to complete the unlikeliest of comebacks, John Deehan scored a goal that gifted those inside Villa Park, memories they will never forget. “As the ball came into the penalty area, I challenged their keeper and he spilt it to John Deehan, who put it in the net from a few yards” recalled Allan Evans, who went on to describe the atmosphere that night as “electric”.
Quarter-Final Second Leg 15th March 1978
Camp Nou, 90,000
Barcelona 2-1 Aston Villa
Heading into the match as understandable underdogs, Ron Saunders knew a famous victory was possible for his side on the night. For a while, it looked like it may happen.
Even as John Gidman saw red for lashing out after an elbow in the face before half an hour had been played. However, an undeterred Villa side battled against the man-up Barca side, and eventually found a breakthrough!
Merely ten minutes into the second half, Brian Little opened the scoring, although, with a goal to hang onto, a man less, and against one of the best players to ever live, Villa conceded two within ten minutes.
Shortly after the hour mark, the European adventure was finished for another year. A great European campaign it had been though, and as Saunders had stated at the beginning of the season, the team clearly was better equipped to compete in Europe.
Perhaps, Saunders was assembling a European force to be reckoned with? Additions of some more improved quality to see them over the line, and this new Villa team looked ready to step up to the demands of winning European silverware…
Shortly after the hour mark, the European adventure was finished for another year.
A great European campaign it had been though, and as Saunders had stated at the beginning of the season, the team clearly was better equipped to compete in Europe. Perhaps, Saunders was assembling a European force to be reckoned with? Additions of some more improved quality to see them over the line, and this new Villa team looked ready to step up to the demands of winning European silverware…