In 1981, Aston Villa had still won more domestic honours than any other club. In 1982, the club won the European Cup and throughout the 1990s was a leading club in the top-flight of English football. It is one of only three clubs to be founder-members of both the Football League (1888-89) and the Premiership (1992-93). On both occasions Villa were league runners-up - a unique record. Also winners of the inaugural Football League Cup (1960-61) and from 1896-97 until 1960-61 were one of only two teams to have won the championship and F.A. cup in one season - the famous 'Double'.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that over the long period of its existence, Aston Villa has proved itself to be the Midlands' only consistently achieving club.
But, more than that, the club was the main standard by which football as we know it stabilised and grew as a spectator sport. In 1913, The Evening News stated:
"Aston Villa is the biggest news on the football canvas.
"The League" - the Football
League - had, in fact, been created by the work of William McGregor (an officer of Aston Villa), supported by other members of Aston Villa. By 1915 the club was world famous and was the first club entitled to be called a 'Superclub' after dominating football for over 20 years.
It is, in fact, a household word - one of the few the game has produced.
At the start of the League - Aston Villa.
After 25 seasons - [still] Aston Villa."
The club's successes continued, though spasmodically, but even when not winning trophies the club has been a foremost challenger for major honours during nearly all of the competitive history of the game - since before professional football was legalised (1885) in fact. Aston Villa is statistically among the top English clubs since the start of the Premier League in 1992, and until very recently had provided more players to the England team than any other club, the first being in 1882.
The club's ground, Villa Park
, stands on what was once called 'Aston Lower Grounds' - the left (western) side of which was called "the magnificent meadow", where the Villa
played a number of matches from the 1870s before Villa Park was opened in 1897.
Across the road from Villa Park (in Trinity Road) is Aston Park, the exact
location of where Villa played some of their first matches from 1874. This Park
forms the grounds of the nearby Aston Hall which was built in the 1600s by the Holte family. The Holte name is still remembered in the famous 'Holte End' - traditionally the end of Villa Park where the most vociferous of the club's supporters are situated.
Origin of the 'Aston Villa' name (click)
There was no specific founder of the club. The football club has its origins in The Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel Cricket Club, which had been started two years previously (1872), and from the chapel's bible class 15 of its members began the soccer team.
It's unclear when Aston
Villa played their first football game. One of the original members,
, stated many, many years later that Villa did play in March 1874, but other evidence suggests that it was the autumn of 1874. On record is what is popularly perceived to be their first game, against Aston Brook St. Mary's Rugby Club, who only agreed to the game if they could play rugby for the first 45 minutes and "association football" (abbreviated to form the word 'soccer', to differentiate this football game from rugby) for the second. Both sides fielded fifteen men and the Villa side held out for a 0-0 draw during the first half. Villa won the game with the only goal scored by Jack Hughes, of the second half playing the now very extinct 3-4-7 formation. This match is now known not to have been the first they played but the first that they won!
George Burrell Ramsay
walked through Aston Park at the same moment that Aston Villa were holding a practice match. The Scotsman arrived in Birmingham in around 1871 to work as a clerk in a brass foundry. He was 21 years old when he came across that Villa practice match deep in the winter of 1875-76. He asked to play a game after noticing that one side was a man short. Despite his small build he dazzled the other players with his dribbling skills and ball control. Such were the skills of the small Scotsman that he was immediately appointed captain, taught the Wesleyans how to play, led them to their first trophy win, the Birmingham Senior Cup in 1880, and their first run in the F.A. Cup the same year. By 1886 he was Club Secretary and steered Villa to their greatest triumphs until he retired in 1926. Then he became a vice-president and served the club that way until his death in late 1935, about 60 years since he became a 'Villan'. Remarkably, Villa were relegated for the first time at the end of the season in which Ramsay died.
became Villa's first real playing legend and was club captain for a number of years from the 1870s and into the first years of the Football League. Tragically, Archie Hunter suffered a heart attack while playing for Villa against Everton in 1890 and never fully recovered, dying four years later. Hunter's headstone on his grave reads, 'This monument is erected in loving memory of Archie Hunter, the famous captain of Aston Villa, by his football comrades and the club as a lasting tribute to his ability on the field and his sterling worth as a man'.
The influx of great
architects at Villa did not stop with Ramsay and Hunter. Another Scotsman,
came to work in Birmingham in 1870 and not only organisationally served Villa well from 1877 until his death in 1911 (saving the club from bankruptcy in 1886), but also became the founder and first Chairman of the Football League in 1888. In the early 1890s,
- a member of the club since 1881 - made a
great impact in pushing through a reform of the club that heralded a wonderful
period of Villa success. Rinder became Chairman in 1898 (until 1925). Rinder's
rise to fame was soon followed by the Trainer, Joe Grierson
who coached the first team through all their glory years until 1915.
1891 also saw the arrival of John Devey
, the man who would captain two Cup winning teams and five League Champions in eight years at the helm. In 1897, Devey also became the first of a pair of chairmen of the fledgling PFA, and later became assistant to Grierson before becoming a Villa club director.
Other remarkable players
during this time were Howard Spencer
("Prince of Full Backs") who took
over the captaincy from John Devey and who also
captained England, followed by Joe Bache
as Villa captain. Joe
Bache's career mirrored that of 'Appy Harry Hampton
, a remarkable goalscorer. Before the First World War came upon the world, Sam Hardy
joined Villa - he is reputed to have been one of the greatest-ever goalkeepers. Sam and Clem Stephenson
, who left Villa to lead Huddersfield to marvellous triumphs in the mid-1920s, are listed amongst the greatest 100 British players, in common with other Villa greats Archie Hunter and (the much later) Danny Blanchflower and Paul McGrath.
With the passing of World War One, two more of the greatest
Villa players appeared on the scene: Frank Moss (snr)
. Both of these were to captain England and in
Billy Walker's case he shattered the records for number of club and England
appearances and remains Villa's highest career goalscorer even though he
switched from being a striker to playmaker mid-way through his long career.
Amongst other highly notable players from ca. 1928 were Jimmy Gibson,
and Eric Houghton
. Villa had extremely good seasons in 1930-31 and 1932-33 (league runners-up both times, and in 1930-31 Villa set a top-flight season's scoring record with 128 goals).
The mid-1930s saw a decline
in the club's fortunes and the club's first relegation at the end of the 1935-36
season. George Cummings
joined the club and ultimately became
one of Villa's greatest full-backs and captain, and is famed for generally getting
the better over Stanley Matthews. The then famed Jimmy Hogan
became Villa's manager during this time, and planned Villa's rise back to the top by the start of World War Two. He developed Frank Broome's skills and fashioned a good footballing side. Hogan came back to coach Villa's youngsters in the early 1950s. Another fine player was Alex Massie
, who went on to become Villa's team manager 1945 to 1949.
The years immediately following World War Two were not remarkable and Villa had ceased to win
trophies since 1920. There were a number of highly entertaining players, though, including George Edwards
and Frank Moss jnr and Harry Parkes
were fine and very long-serving players.
There were a few great players such as
and Danny Blanchflower
, and also
, who had a long Villa career and led the '57 cup
triumph under the management of old Villa star Eric Houghton. It was Eric
Houghton who introduced a young hard-shooting left-winger like himself,
, who starred for Villa until the early 60s. He
also signed one of Villa's greatest ever goalkeepers, Nigel Sims
, and after the
'57 cup win, the marvellous striker, Gerry Hitchens
replaced Eric Houghton as manager in the middle of the 1958-59 season, but relegation was not to be avoided. However, there was a good cup run to the semi-finals, when Villa were beaten by Billy Walker's Notts Forest. Villa obtained immediate promotion in 1959-60, during which there had been some marvellous matches, in particular the 11-1 win over Charlton Athletic, followed by two 5-0 wins. 21 goals were scored in three matches, with Hitchens scoring 10 of them, and another cup run to the semi-finals. Hitchens went on to score 29 league goals (and 42 overall) in the next season back in First Division. This record led to the first of his England caps before his transfer to Inter-Milan of Italy.
retirement of Johnny Dixon and the departure of Hitchens (followed not long
after by McParland), there was a break-up and re-building of the Villa side
using young players, and these became known as Mercer's Minors. The most notable
of these were Charlie Aitken
(who holds the record for the most
club appearances), Alan Deakin, John Sleeuwenhoek
. However, they were joined by the seasoned and
talented midfielder Phil Woosnam,
and then young goalscorer
, who both had very successful seasons until their departure at the start
of the 1966-67 season, the season that led to relegation and ultimately to
further relegation to the Third Division.
In 1968 the club came very
close to formal bankruptcy, but towards the end of the year, a consortium
retrieved the situation and a certain Doug Ellis
long executive career with the club! During this time, Bruce
provided his very useful midfield and shooting skills before
transfer to then high-flying Derby County, and there were marvellous times
during the period of return to the top-flight, accomplished in 1975. Ray
was another noteworthy stalwart, as were Andy
Lochhead, John Robson, Ian Ross
, with the evergreen Charlie Aitken still playing his part. 'Chico' Hamilton was another popular player who remained with Villa from their nadir to their return to the top-flight.
See a popup of an article from The Times, February, 1972.
There was a
plus-side to Villa being in the lower reaches in the early 70s. Wherever Villa
went there were record crowds, and the Villa faithful were ever-confident that
return to the top-flight was but a matter of time. Which it was! Ron
appointment as manager in 1974 had proved to be a master-stroke!
period immediately prior to the return to the First Division also saw the influx
of marvellous young players from the youth ranks, initially John
and Brian Little
, followed by Gordon
Cowans, John Deehan, Gary Williams
and Gary Shaw
After arriving in the First Division, there were also some great signings such
as Andy Gray
and Dennis Mortimer
, and some
exuberant matches including the 5-goal demolition of both Arsenal and Liverpool
in 1976-77 in the process of finishing in fourth place in the league, as well as
winning the League Cup. Ron Saunders was keen to make improvements, and though
Andy Gray and others left, in came other momentous signings such as
Allan Evans, Ken McNaught, Des Bremner, Tony
and goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer
. In 1980, the final
chink was in place with the signing of striker Peter Withe
, and Villa ended 1980-81 with the league championship for the first time in 71 years. This was accomplished with the use of just 14 players.
The following season
(1981-82) saw Villa playing in the European Cup for the first time (though they
had played in the UEFA Cup since 1975), and not only playing in but winning it
(against Bayern Munich)! Although the final was more of a rearguard action (and
with young 'keeper Nigel Spink
needed to come in to replace
Jimmy Rimmer only minutes into the game. Spink played a hero's role!), Villa's
play in some of the earlier rounds was highly spectacular. What was more
astonishing, however, was that Ron Saunders left his job before Villa had got to
the final, and the remaining steps were achieved under Tony
s control. This great triumph was followed the following year by winning on aggregate the 2-leg Super Cup against Barcelona.
By now, Doug Ellis had strengthened his position and had
become Chairman, a post he still held over 20 years later. His control
seemed only to put Villa into reverse for a few years, culminating with
relegation following 1986-87. Graham Taylor
came into the
manager's job and was instrumental in getting Villa back somewhere close to
their proper position by 1989-90, when the club were runners-up to Liverpool in
the league. His marvellous signings included Paul McGrath
(who went on to exceed Billy Walker's long-standing record of England caps), and also the re-signing of Gordon Cowans following his sojourn in Italy.
left for the England manager's post in 1990 and, following the coming and going
of Dr. Venglos,
old Villan Ron Atkinson
the Villa post and motivated his re-built Villa team into runners-up spot in the
first season of the Premiership (1992-93), behind Manchester United. During his
tenure, Atkinson brought in several fine players, and the strike partnership of
Dean Saunders and Dalian Atkinson (his namesake!) was often spectacular. Spoilt
for choice, Spink and Mark Bosnich
were in strong competition for the 'keeper's post. In 1994, Villa had a fine League Cup trophy win over Manchester United, led by the very experienced skipper Kevin Richardson
. Another Atkinson signing was Steve Staunton
from Liverpool, and though Staunton returned to Liverpool in the late 90s, he came back to Villa and celebrated over 100 Irish caps in the 2002 World Cup Finals, during which he captained his country. In the mid-90s, Villa had McGrath, Staunton, Houghton and Townsend all representing Villa for the successful Irish team.
Doug Ellis' ruthlessness was
in evidence again when the team started slipping, and the fine old Villan Brian
Little took up the managerial reins. With Paul McGrath nearing the end of his
days, Little performed a miraculous purchase and conversion of midfielder
into a centre-back. Southgate overtook Platt's
recent new record and became Villa's most capped England international with 42
caps. Further, Dwight Yorke
(brought from Trinidad as a youngster by Graham Taylor) was made into a specialist striker, and was so successful that Manchester United eventually bought him, and the fee for that sale in 1998 remained a Villa record for more than 10 years. Ian Taylor
is to-day remembered as a hero from that period, not only for his whole-hearted play, but because he was brought up a Villa fan and cheered on his team from the terraces. Andy Townsend
was a worthy captain during Little's time, which saw another League Cup triumph in 1996 against Leeds United.
Little's reign was replaced by that of yet another old
Villan, John Gregory
, in early 1998. Initially, Gregory
favoured a home-nations approach to the extent that his 1998-99 team selection
was often all-English, and former youth players Lee Hendrie, Gareth
and Darius Vassell made their mark. Popular and skilful signings
included Dion Dublin
and Paul Merson
however, foreign players were targeted by Gregory, including record signing
Juan Pablo Angel.
Also George Boeteng
, being the best of the other signings.
Gregory left in early 2002
to be followed by the return of Graham Taylor. Taylor enjoyed a one-year sojourn
and was replaced by David O'Leary in 2003. This mercurial Irishman was shown the
door after another inconsequential period in the summer of 2006, to be followed
by Martin O'Neill
, and also by the acquisition of the club by
American Randy Lerner
, ending Doug Ellis' long spell in charge.
Martin O'Neill continued with star defenders Martin Laursen
and Wilfred Bouma
who had been bought by O'Leary, but otherwise made many changes in the Villa's ranks. Mellberg stayed
to the end of the 2007-08 season, but in the following season, both Laursen and Bouma sustained serious injuries. Laursen had to retire at the end of the season. Bouma also had to retire in 2010.
O'Neill brought Gareth Barry's talents to the fore to the extent that he regained his England position, but
this time as a midfielder, and gradually brought in new players - sometimes at a considerable investment -
to bring his team up to the required quality. In both seasons 2007-08 and 2008-09, sixth position was obtained
in the League, and indications were that the Club would grow to better things despite Barry being sold
to Manchester City in the summer of 2009 for a fee about equivalent to Dwight Yorke's fee in 1998.
2009-10 saw another sixth-place finish, but much better progression in the two domestic cups. Villa were defeated in the final of the League Cup and then were put out in the semi-final of the FA Cup. Thus Villa reached Wembley in both competitions. Another star player - James Milner
- was transferred to Gareth Barry's new club (Manchester City) for a package deal which involved Stephen Ireland coming to Villa.
Season 2010-11 began with the surprise departure of Martin O'Neill and a difficult season followed. In 2011, Ashley Young and Stuart Downing were both transferred for big fees after Villa had bought striker Darren Bent for a club-record fee in January.
With the departure of manager Gerard Houllier through ill-health after the 2010-11 season, Villa escalated their re-structuring process to meet new financial criteria.
For events since 2011, please refer to these season-by-season accounts.
For Club Honours and other records, click here.
John Lerwill is author of Aston Villa - The First Superclub (history 1874-2012)
The Aston Villa Chronicles (1874-1924) and After
and (with Peter Lupson) The Inspirational William McGregor
For details of these and other forthcoming publications,
please click here.