The Villans of Birmingham
Birmingham based Aston Villa are one of British football’s most renowned clubs, boasting a long history in the game that dates back to their foundation in 1874 at the Villa Cross chapel when a group of cricketers decided to try their hand at a different sport. Aston Villa traditionally play in claret and blue colours and enjoy an intense and long-held local rivalry with Birmingham’s other large football club, Birmingham City F.C., in a match that has become known as the Second City Derby, one of England’s most historic local grudge matches. The fixture has led to a number of dramatic and eventful clashes over the years and despite several figures such as Alex Macleish and Steve Bruce occupying the dugouts of both Birmingham clubs during their careers, the rivalry continues to be one of the Midlands’ most combative encounters. Although silverware has been in short supply at Villa Park for some time now, the club do have a number of historic accomplishments filling up their trophy cabinet, including a Champions League win (then known as the European Cup), seven First Division trophies, seven F.A. Cup victories and five League Cups.
Founders of the Football League
Aston Villa’s first trophy came in 1880 before the days of the Football League in the shape of the Birmingham Senior Cup, the final being a 3-1 victory over Saltley College and the club’s first F.A. Cup would follow seven years later. As the amount of football teams in the country grew, however, leaving clubs to their own devices in terms of booking matches became more problematic. Villa’s status as one of England’s first association football clubs meant that they played an integral role in setting up the country’s league structure that is still in use today. The notion of an organised football league system was first instigated by Aston Villa’s Scottish chairman William McGregor. McGregor wrote to several other English clubs to propose his suggestion and this eventually led to the establishment of the professional Football League in England. Villa would once again prove influential in the organisation of English football in 1992 when they played a part in the foundation of the modern Premier League. With the Football League now officially underway, Aston Villa found immediate success and by the turn of the century, had amassed five League wins and three F.A. Cups and the club’s Nineteenth Century success culminated with winning the League and F.A.Cup double in 1897, a year that also saw The Villans move from Wellington Road to their current home, Villa Park. Sadly, Villa’s third F.A. Cup trophy would go on to be stolen whilst on display in a local shop window. Having established themselves as one of English football’s most dominant forces, the early 20th Century saw Villa on a downward trend and after lifting the F.A. Cup in 1920, a decline in defensive form and the emergence of other sides such as Arsenal led to eventual relegation for Aston Villa on the eve of World War II.
Mixed Fortunes in the Post-War Era
As football once again resumed after the conclusion of the Second World War, Aston Villa would experience both success and misfortune as they entered an era of inconsistency and manager Alex Massie attempted to reconstruct a team that had formerly been one of the country’s foremost footballing success stories. Villa’s hunt for a trophy would continue until 1957 when, 37 years after their last taste of silverware, manager Eric Houghton led the club to an F.A. Cup victory over the famous Busby Babes of Manchester United. Sadly however, The Villans’ success would not last and the 1958/59 season saw the club relegated. The club’s rollercoaster fortunes continued with new manager Joe Mercer successfully returning Aston Villa to the First Division on the first attempt and the Birmingham club once again making history by becoming the first club to claim the League Cup, only to be relegated once again in 1967. This fall from grace incensed the club’s loyal and passionate fan base and the Villa faithful pushed for a change in ownership – assigning part of the relegation blame on the club’s increasing debts. The demands from the terraces were met but the changes in the boardroom failed to prevent the club’s relegation to the Third Division in 1970 – the lowest point in Aston Villa’s history.
Coming Back Stronger
Spending two seasons at their lowest ebb in Division Three, Aston Villa eventually bossed the 1971/72 season under the command of former player Vic Crowe to gain promotion but it would be Ron Saunders that would manage the club to the upper echelons of English football once again. Saunders was an old school manager who built a strong and disciplined team with no frills and he not only propelled the club back into the First Division in their centenary year but also into European competition, winning yet another League Cup along the way. The manager continued his reign by delivering Aston Villa’s most recent First Division title in the 1980/81 season; however all was not well behind the scenes. Saunders and club chairman, Doug Ellis, fell out spectacularly and despite leading Villa to arguably even greater heights than in their glory days at the turn of the century, the manager vacated his position. Fortunately, despite losing their influential leader mid-way through the campaign, The Villans rallied and managed to lift the European Cup, overcoming German giants Bayern Munich in the final. Aston Villa consolidated their European glory by going on to win the UEFA Super Cup, besting a talented Barcelona side in extra-time of the tie’s second leg. As the eighties continued, relegation beckoned once again, however in typical Villa fashion, the club swiftly returned to the top flight and immediately began challenging for League title honours once again. With the introduction of the Premier League, Aston Villa found a level of mid-table consistency, neither challenging for titles nor having to suffer the embarrassment of further relegation, and the club continued with a string of various short-lived managers until Villa’s ownership changed hands, with Ellis selling up to American Randy Lerner. During this time, young and exciting players such as Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor would go on to define a strong and vibrant Villa side. In the late 2000s, the English Premier League was dominated by ‘the big four’, the collective term for Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Out of all the remaining clubs, Aston Villa looked most likely to break that quartet’s monopoly on England’s Champions League spots and spearheaded by manager Martin O’Neill, the club set their sights on qualification for Europe’s foremost club tournament. What followed was a series of solid runs in cup competition and improved league positions that led to a feeling amongst fans that Villa were on the road to glory once more.
Unfortunately, disagreements between manager and owner would once again stunt Aston Villa’s period of growth and shortly before the 2010/11 season, the departure of Martin O’Neill was announced. O’Neill’s dismissal would spark a period of decline for Aston Villa, as well as a merry go round of managers and a feeling of instability at boardroom level. The troubles on the pitch were worsened by financial difficulties that left managers unable to fund significant new signings for the team and subsequently, Randy Lerner put Aston Villa up for sale, although it would take him four years to find a buyer. After several narrowly won battles with relegation, The Villans were finally ejected from the Premiere League in 2016 and after finding themselves in the Championship, the club struggled to find rhythm under newly appointed manager Roberto Di Matteo. Consequently, former Birmingham City boss Steve Bruce was appointed as a replacement midway through the 2016/17 season.