Above Image: rarrarorro, Bigstock Photo
At the time of writing, as we approach the run-in of the Premier League season, Aston Villa are playing brilliantly and are pushing for European qualification. Despite being more likely to be fighting against relegation in recent years (or indeed playing the in Championship as they did from 2016/17 to 2018/19), Villa have turned on the style in the second half of this season. But however well they finish, it will be far from their greatest season ever.
Younger football fans might find this hard to believe, but Villa are arguably the sixth-best side in English football. With seven top-flight titles and seven FA Cup triumphs, they are sixth on both lists. They are also one of only five English sides to have landed the European Cup/Champions League after winning the European title in 1982 (which, at the time of writing, is one more than Man City, Arsenal and Spurs combined!). So, let’s help Villa fans relive past glories and check out the best seasons Aston Villa have ever had.
1896/97 Season – Double Winners
- Division 1 Title Winners
- FA Cup Winners (vs Everton)
We have to go way back for most of Villa’s best seasons and arguably their best ever was the 1896/97 campaign when they became only the second club to win the Double (after Preston North End). A founding member of the Football League, the Villans had already won two league titles and two FA Cups (the first back in 1886/87, before the Football League had even started!). But it was this season that saw Villa really prove themselves to be the best team in the land.
In the FA Cup they posted wins over Newcastle, Notts County and, in the third round proper, required a replay to overcome Preston. Then they beat Liverpool 3-0 in the semis before overcoming the other side of Merseyside, Everton, 3-2 in the final at Crystal Palace. In the league, Villa won the title by quite a margin and finished 11 points clear of runners-up Sheffield United.
Villa were managed at the time by club legend George Ramsay, an innovative Scotsman who masterminded the club’s Golden Age which included six league titles and six FA Cups.
1995/95 Season – A Fifth League Cup
- 4th in Premier League (UEFA Cup Qualification)
- FA Cup Semi-Finalists (vs Liverpool)
- League Cup Winners (vs Leeds United)
Jumping forwards almost a century, Villa’s fourth-place finish, decent FA Cup, and League Cup victory might not really compare to the league and cup double. But, in the context of the Premier League era, it was really quite some achievement for the club. It was actually Villa’s second League Cup in the 1990s, having won it under Ron Atkinson’s stewardship in 1994 when they beat Man United 3-1 in the final. This time around, Brian Little was at the helm and Villa were up against a talented Leeds United side that included the likes of Gary Speed, Lucas Radebe, Tony Yeboah and Gary McAllister.
Villa had plenty of top-class players of their own, however, with Dwight Yorke scoring for fun that season, and players including Andy Townsend, Paul McGrath and Gareth Southgate adding experience and guile. Villa won the League Cup final 3-0 and that cup remains Villa’s most recent domestic silverware. They went on to finish fourth in the Premier League behind winners Man United, runners-up Newcastle and third-placed Liverpool. They lost 3-0 in the FA Cup semis to Liverpool, but all in all, this was a very good season for the Villans.
1980/81 Season – Villa’s Last Title
- Division 1 Title Winners
The 1980/81 season was the last time Aston Villa won the top-flight (then Division 1) title. And unless they “do a Leicester”, it could be the last they win for many years to come. It had been more than 70 years since they were last crowned English champions, and this team – managed by Ron Saunders – did the business thanks to the goals of Peter Withe and Gary Shaw, with Tony Morley also chipping in regularly.
It wasn’t what you might call an emphatic triumph given that Villa won only 26 of their 42 games, drawing eight and losing eight. But it was enough to win the league by four points from Ipswich Town, with Arsenal and West Brom in third and fourth. The league win enabled Villa to qualify for the European Cup… which is our next stop.
1981/82 Season – Kings of Europe
- European Cup Winners (vs Bayern Munich)
The next season Villa maintained the ambition and quality they’d shown in the previous campaign and kicked things off by drawing with a star-studded Tottenham Hotspur in the Charity Shield at Wembley. They weren’t so effective in the league, but Villa fans were enjoying their side’s European adventures. The Villans began their European Cup campaign with an emphatic 7-0 aggregate victory over Valur from Iceland, but had to rely on the away goals rules to get the better of Berlin side BFC Dynamo in the Round of 16.
Prior to the quarter finals, title-winning manager Ron Saunders resigned after a dispute with the Villa board (and he subsequently took the manager’s job at rival club Birmingham City). His replacement was Saunders’ former assistant, Tony Barton, who helped Villa make relatively light work of Dynamo Kyiv in the quarters. They won 2-0 on aggregate to set up a semi-final clash with Anderlecht of Belgium. In a cagey tie, a single goal from Tony Morley proved decisive as Villa booked their ticket to Rotterdam to face the always-intimidating Bayern Munich.
Despite Bayern having scored seven goals over two legs in their semi-final tie against CSKA Sofia, Barton’s pragmatic style enabled Villa to restrict the Germans, and the West Midlands club ran out 1-0 victors thanks to a goal from Peter Withe. The victory made Villa just the fourth team from England (after Manchester United, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest) to win the European Cup and as things stand there are still only five English sides who’ve achieved it (Chelsea have since won the Champions League twice). They went on to win the European Super Cup the following season, beating Barcelona 3-1 on aggregate.
1909/10 Season – George Ramsey’s Final League Title
- Division 1 Title Winners
Finally, we’ll head back to the last time Villa won the Division 1 title under the legendary George Ramsey. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the difference Ramsey made to the club, but given that the vast majority of their silverware came under his tenure, he’s held in very esteem to say the least. And what a tenure it was… it lasted more than 40 years!
Although Alex Ferguson is out there as the best of all time (having won 13 league titles), Ramsey certainly has a strong case for being the best of the rest. He won as many titles as Liverpool’s Bob Paisley, but Paisley never landed the FA Cup (which Ramsey won six times). Although Paisley and Man United’s Matt Busby also won European trophies, there were none to win in Ramsey’s time, and if there were, we expect he’d have cleaned up.
Anyway, back to the 1909/10 campaign though, and Ramsey’s men already held the record as the only side to have won the title five times. But here they surpassed the record with their sixth Division 1 title, a record that would stand until Arsenal equalled it in 1947/48 and finally surpassed it in 1952/53. The Villans got the better of Liverpool in what turned into something of a two-horse race. The West Midlands side eventually ran out winners by five points, with Blackburn, Newcastle and Manchester United further back.