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Six British clubs have won the European Cup, but public discourse about Aston Villa’s class of 1982 – commemorated in BT Sport documentary Super Villans – feels incommensurate to the gravity of the achievement.
The Lisbon Lions, all born within 30 miles of Celtic Park, were the first to do it in 1967. Then came Busby’s Manchester United, Paisley’s Liverpool and Clough’s Nottingham Forest. Chelsea completed the set in 2012.
But how did Villa, spearheaded by their own force of nature in the inimitable Ron Saunders, knock the dynastic Liverpool side off their perch to win the title - and conquer Europe the following season?
To mark 40 years since the greatest night in the club’s history, BT Sport will premiere Super Villans, the definitive story of how Villa became the envy of Europe.
The unmissable documentary is fronted by actor Mark Williams and documents Villa’s championship-winning 1980-81 campaign and a European journey that took them to the edge of Arctic Circle and behind the Iron Curtain.
With contributions from some of the key figures of the day it reveals a scarcely believable story that deserves all the adulation afforded to the great British sides in Europe.
Birmingham was on the brink in the 1970s. The engine room of the UK was sputtering after the sudden collapse of the industrial economy.
200,000 jobs vanished between 1971 and 1981, with losses concentrated in manufacturing. Unemployment soared and social unrest was palpable. The city was also rocked by the pub bombings of 1974 at the hands of the IRA.
Attendances at Villa Park were impacted, but the arrival of Ron Saunders as manager in 1974 set in motion a golden period that no one could have foreseen.
He guided them to the First Division in his first season and masterminded a League Cup triumph a year later, beating rivals Norwich at Wembley.
Another League Cup followed in 1977, but the crowning glory came in 1980-81 when Villa broke Liverpool’s stranglehold on English football to win their first league title since 1910.
Only 14 players were used throughout the campaign, with seven of them – Gordon Cowans, Des Bremner, Tony Morley, Ken McNaught, Dennis Mortimer, Jimmy Rimmer and Kenny Swain – ever present.
In the summer of 1981, Birmingham witnessed the Handsworth riots, Bucks Fizz won Eurovision and Villa fans were relishing a European adventure of their own.
Part-time Icelandic outfit Valur Reykjavik presented frail opposition in the first round, with Villa running out 7-0 aggregate winners. The return leg was remembered, by certain contributors, for a chance encounter with Miss World at a Reykjavik nightclub.
Goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer was the hero in the next round against Dynamo Berlin, when he pulled off an incredulous late save that has gone down in Villa folklore. They walked the precipice but held on and progressed on away goals.
Saunders was on his way to becoming one of the great English managers, but his fractious relationship with the board became untenable and he sensationally resigned in February 1982 with Villa preparing for a historic European Cup quarter-final against Dynamo Kiev.
“If I’m employed to run a football club, then I’m not an office boy,” he complained. “I’m absolutely shattered. I can’t believe that” said Ipswich Town manager Bobby Robson.
The best manager the club had ever was gone and he shockingly joined arch-rivals Birmingham City days later.
The greatest moment in the history of Aston Villa
- Tony Barton
Chief scout Tony Barton was chosen to step-in on an interim basis and was presented with a last-eight tie against a Dynamo Kiev side who would provide the USSR with eight players in the 1982 World Cup.
The first leg was moved 300 miles south to the Crimean city of Simferopol where they had to deal with repulsive living conditions. Midfielder Cowans infamously opened a bread roll to find a dead cockroach inside in the team hotel.
A resolute goalless draw was followed up with a comfortable 2-0 home win which set up a meeting with Belgian giants Anderlecht, a tie blighted by crowd disturbances that temporarily halted the game and threatened Villa with expulsion – a fate that was mercifully avoided.
Yet another hurdle had been jumped, but Villa faced the ultimate challenge in the final in Rotterdam: a highly-talented Bayern Munich side complete with two-times European Footballer of the Year Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
Inspired by a sense of destiny, unorthodox preparation and stand-in goalkeeper Nigel Spink, Villa scored through Peter Withe, a goal immortalised on a banner at Villa Park’s North Stand, before gallanty surviving a Bayern onslaught and eventually holding out to secure the club’s greatest ever win.
“This is the greatest moment in the history of Aston Villa,” said Villa’s reluctant hero Barton.
Villa are hinting at a return to former glories after years of stagnation and the beguiling Super Villans is a compelling and long-overdue look at how one of British football’s big beasts shocked the world, an achievement that has too often been pushed to the margins.
Sally Brown, executive producer of BT Sport Films, said: “We are proud to present Super Villans as the latest instalment in the BT Sport Films series which pays homage to Aston Villa’s meteoric rise to double Championship glory, forty years on from the greatest night in the club’s history.
“The film is a joyful celebration of a team of underdogs who went on to conquer England and Europe, uncovering some of the barely believable tales along the way from those who lived it.
“The club’s remarkable journey from the Third Division to being crowned champions of Europe is one of the greatest stories ever seen in English football and we are delighted to bring this inspiring feat to life on screen. We’d like to thank all of those working with us to help make this documentary happen.”
Watch Super Villans on Wednesday 18 May at 11pm on BT Sport 1 or catch up on the BT Sport app or btsport.com.