1981 - The Year Of Last Ever First Eleven? - Aston Villa Win The League Using Just 14 Players
May 1981 saw Aston Villa win the League Championship for the first time in 71 years. Un-fancied and labelled no-hopers, they confounded all the critics. But it is not the fact Villa won the title against the odds which makes this feat amazing, it is the fact they won it using just 14 players. Just 14 players and of those 14, 7 played in all their league games. Next Goal Wins takes a look back at the season where we may have last seen the first eleven.
Back in August 1980 not even the most optimistic of Aston Villa fans believed their club were serious title challengers capable of winning the First Division title for the first time in 71 years. Despite improvements in their form over recent seasons, which included the league cup in 1978, the title was expected to be decided by likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. Pundits had labelled Villa 'no-hopers' and certain areas of the local press had written them off as 'lacking ambition' having sold off club hero and tallisman Andy Gray the the previous season.
But during that pre-season something special was being created at Villa Park by manager Ron Saunders. He recognised the players within his squad were not as individually talented, gifted, or experienced as other top flight players however, as a unit, playing a certain way, they were a force against any of their rivals. He instilled maximum commitment into the squad and their fitness levels were the highest of any top flight sides. Within the dressing room there was a real all for one, one for all mentality growing. They did not have a squad as big as their rivals but they had belief, a belief they could win every game they took part in.
Before the season kicked off, Saunders suffered a set back when Brian Little was effectively ruled out for the season with a reoccurance of a knee injury which would end his career. He was forced to promote Gary Shaw from the reserves but this unwanted decision turned out to be a stroke of luck as quickly Shaw was starting to form an impressive and fruitful partnership with new signing Peter Withe. Saunders had brought Withe in from Nottingham Forest to replace Andy Gray and his experience (he had previously won the title with Forest) coupled with the Shaw's youth was to reap rewards throughout the season.
Flying winger Tony Morley who had failed to sparkle in his first season with Villa was working himself into the ground to ensure his most potent weapon, his speed, was ready to be unleashed on opposition defenders. Saunders had a simple vision, a solid defence, speed down the wings, hard working midfield unit and a potent front line. Pulling the strings in the middle of this eleven was the gifted Gordon Cowans. Whilst captain Dennis Mortimer was the midfield legs, the box to box general, Cowans linked most passages of play with his extravagantly skillful range of passes. Saunders said to the players before the season opener against Leeds, "the fans will back you and with 110% effort, you can win every game, go out and prove everyone wrong, you are title contenders"
Throughout the season, Villa remained under the radar. Pundits refused to see them as real genuine title challengers. Time after time, having seen his players ignored for international call-ups, Saunders used this to motivate and spur his team on. They thrilled fans with their high tempo, expansive passing game, creating space where seemingly none existed. And all of this was being achieved with minimal change to the starting line up. Saunders knew his first eleven and whenever he could, he fielded them. Even when players were carrying knocks, he would urge them on and urge their team mates to encourage them, building on the ever growing team spirit.
It was in January when Mortimer finally started to believe it could be Villa's year. They beat Liverpool at home and having scored an impressive goal himself, he just felt everything was coming together. "The team was always built on spirit, but that day, the way we beat Liverpool, it was done with a certain level of skill, it was there for everyone to see, we could beat anyone" Despite a few injuries, Saunders was able to retain the nucleus of the side game after game after game and it was this which saw them home during a nervy title run in.
The title had turned into a two horse race come April with Ipswich Town matching Villa's form and when the two met at Villa Park with only 5 games remaining it was seen as a real title decider. Town ran out 2-1 winners and most thought Villa's chance had gone but the never say die attitude Saunders had created saw them go onto win two of their next three games, drawing the other, putting real pressure back on Ipswich, who whilst having games in hand, did not have as many points as Villa. In the end, despite losing their final league game to Arsenal, Ipswich's failure to win either of their last two games mean the title was Villa's. A momentous achievement for the West Midland's club and even more so considering the use of only 14 players.
Seven of them, Jimmy Rimmer, Kenny Swain, Ken McNaught, Dennis Mortimer, Des Bremner, Gordan Cowans and Tony Morley played in all of the 42 league games. In addition to the ever presents, Gary Shaw was not far behind making 40 appearances. Defender Alan Evans appeared in 39 with Peter Withe not far behind on 36. Gary Williams and Colin Gibson made all notched 20 odd games each making it fairly easy to see how the bedrock of the success was made. Saunders acknowledged before the season started that individually, his players were not the best but as a unit, they would be a match for anyone. Familiarity between players bred victory and the title secured by Saunders and Villa having used only 14 players.
Compare this with Manchester United, last years title winners, who used 25 players. Whilst Villa did not have European football as a distraction, what does this say about squad rotation? Saunders knew who his best players were and wanted them out there performing week after week, winning and maintaining the momentum. Maybe it might not help the long term success of a side, but for a short term success it clearly worked. The European Cup was won the following season as Villa continued English domination by beating Bayern Munich 1-0. However this was achieved without Saunders who had left midway through the season following a bust up with the chairman over an alleged contract dispute.
After such an amazing achievement will we ever see the return of a genuine 1st XI again?
Remember, Next Goal Wins