The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is not known if it was the French writer and critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr or Aston Villa defender Kenny Swain who coined the phrase, but it rather neatly sums up life at Aston Villa for much of the Premier League era. Amid Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign of glory at Manchester United and the likes or Manchester City and Chelsea becoming domestic bullies, Villa has plodded on, rarely troubling the top six, almost never getting sucked into a relegation dog fight.
Until recently, that is. Villa has flirted perilously with the drop over the last three seasons, and now, with former Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner squirming uncomfortably in the chairman’s hot seat, manager Paul Lambert seemingly unable to turn the club’s fortunes around and the team winless in the league since early December, this season is fast turning into another harrowing affair.
The shadows and obscurity of the mid-table netherworld is a far cry from Villa’s finest hour, when the mighty Bayern Munich was humbled in the 1982 European Cup final in Rotterdam. Today the club is a more modest outfit, in some ways a fitting reflection of the unprepossessing urban landscape that surrounds it. Birmingham is popularly known as England’s second city, yet in culture and sport at least, seems perennially overshadowed not just by London but also Liverpool and Manchester – its cockier, mouthier neighbors to the northwest.
It was not always thus, however. And one does not need to go back as far as the early 1980s to find a time when Villa challenged for honors. In the 1989-90 season, managed by Graham Taylor and led by players such as brilliant yet troubled Irish defender Paul McGrath and England international David Platt, Villa finished runners-up behind eventual champions Liverpool.
When Taylor left to take over the English national side/vegetable garden at the end of the season, Villa became the first English top flight club to appoint a foreign manager, Josef Venglos, who had just led the Czech Republic to the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup. But this was still six years before Arsène Wenger would begin a Gallic revolution at Arsenal, and English soccer was not entirely ready for a foreign coach. Venglos lasted just a year at Villa Park as the team struggled against relegation.
Sheffield Wednesday boss Ron Atkinson was his replacement, and took a Villa side featuring Irish midfielder Ray Houghton and flying strikers Dean Saunders and Dwight Yorke to the brink of the title. That year, the inaugural season of the Premier League, Atkinson’s side led the division with just six games to go until a late collapse allowed Manchester United to clinch the league with points to spare. Villa would go on to win the League Cup the following season, but from then on, other than another League Cup final win in 1996 and a brief spell of optimism under Martin O’Neill between 2006 and 2010, it has been a familiar yet humdrum treadmill – sometimes up, sometimes down, but never going very far in either direction.
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Given the club’s history, today’s realities represent a considerable fall from grace. Villa was a founding member of the Football League, and has the fourth highest total of major honors of any English club, including seven First Division titles (the last coming in the 1980–81 season), seven FA Cups, five League Cups, and one UEFA Super Cup, after Barcelona was beaten in 1982.
And then there was that unforgettable night in Rotterdam when, like another Midlands club two years earlier, Aston Villa became kings of Europe by beating a Bayern Munich side featuring Teutonic immortals such as Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Dieter Hoeneß and Paul Brietner.
The only goal, scored by Peter Withe after a vibrant move featuring feints and shimmies from mercurial attackers Gary Shaw and Tony Morley, came in the 67th minute, but the contribution of young goalkeeper Nigel Spink, who had previously made only one appearance for the club, was just as important. Spink, who came on for injured first choice Jimmy Rimmer after just 10 minutes, made a number of important saves to defy Bayern and would go on to play over 400 times for Villa. Nor was Rimmer the only telling absence that day – the team’s taciturn manager, Ron Saunders, who had led Villa to the First Division title the previous year, had quit four months before the final over a contract dispute, and it was his replacement Tony Barton that took Villa to European glory.
As with other clubs featured in the When They Mattered series, such as Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and the Everton of the mid-80s, Villa’s golden years seem today irrevocably linked to a time and a place – the homely yet somewhat gloomy urban sprawl of Birmingham in the 1980s. Amid the bleak midwinter of the Margaret Thatcher era, the dismantling of heavy industry in Britain had resulted in mass unemployment, and the country was riven by strikes and, from Brixton in London to Toxteth in Liverpool, urban unrest. Already scarred from the 1974 IRA pub bombings when 21 people were killed, Birmingham was no exception, with the Handsworth area the scene of major rioting in 1981. The atmosphere in a troubled nation at the time when Villa took on the best of Europe was perhaps best summed up by the song Ghost Town by The Specials, from the neighboring town of Coventry.
“The country was falling apart,” the band’s keyboardist, Jerry Dammers, told the Guardian in 2002. “You travelled from town to town and what was happening was terrible. In Liverpool, all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down. Margaret Thatcher had apparently gone mad, she was closing down all the industries, throwing millions of people on the dole. We could actually see it by touring around. You could see that frustration and anger in the audience … It was clear that something was very, very wrong.”
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While Birmingham is a more vibrant, prosperous place today than at the time when Withe, Shaw, Morley and co. were kings of Europe, Villa’s place in soccer’s pecking order has sunk. For the fans, the decline started with the man at the top – controversial owner Doug Ellis. “Deadly Doug” (the nickname came from his penchant for hiring and firing managers) was chairman and majority shareholder from 1968 to 1975, but was removed from the board in 1979, before returning as chairman in 1982 to sell off many of the heroes of Rotterdam.
In an era in English soccer when chairmen, more often than not local businessmen made good, treated their clubs like a mixture of private fiefdom and back street fish and chip shop, many Villa supporters had begun to question Ellis’s decisions, and the level of financial backing he was willing or able to provide, long before he sold the club to Randy Lerner in 2006.
“The club is on its knees. Doug Ellis has turned Villa into a joke and the only people not laughing are the fans and shareholders,” Jonathan Fear, a supporters’ group spokesman, told the BBC in 2006. “There is a cycle at Villa Park. We get a new manager and the promise of better times ahead. The first season is usually relatively good, but then by the third season everybody wants the manager out – and the only common denominator in all of this is the chairman.”
Unfortunately for Villa the losing run has continued or perhaps worsened under Lerner, whose experiences at Villa Park represent a cautionary tale. In more innocent times, the estimated £250 million he has pumped into Villa’s coffers since buying the club would have been enough to transform the Premier League balance of power. Today, however, Lerner’s sizeable investment looks like small change compared to the spectacular largesse of rival owners. With Villa creeping closer and closer to the relegation zone each year and mired in a miserable run of form, recent home games have seen a mutinous mood growing among the fans, and Lerner is now seeking to cut his losses and sell the club. Meanwhile, the gray clouds over Villa Park grow thicker and darker by the day.