In these days of squad rotation it's almost beyond belief that a side could win the League title using just 14 players. But that's exactly what Ron Saunders' Aston Villa side did in 1981 and then topped that achievement by lifting the European Cup the following season. Built around a remarkable team ethic, Saunders' side was a triumph of the collective over the individual.
Saunders had been at Villa Park since 1974 but it wasn't until the dawn of the 1980s that everything clicked into place. His well-drilled, disciplined team were suddenly serious challengers to the dominance of the great Liverpool side of the era. But this was not just a victory for graft over skill. In Gordon Cowans they had a precociously gifted young midfielder, Tony Morley had the speed and trickery to terrorise defences from the left wing, Dennis Mortimer marshalled the centre of the park and in Peter Withe and Gary Shaw, Villa had a strike partnership the envy of most teams in the league.
The defining moment of their 1980/81 campaign came when Liverpool visited Villa Park. Even the Champions could not cope with Villa and when Mortimer waltzed through the Reds' defence to slot the ball past Ray Clemence there was a feeling of the title changing hands already. As it turned out Ipswich were Villa's main rivals but in a two-horse finish it was the Birmingham side who triumphed.
The side were kept together for the next season and managed possibly the greatest achievement in the club's long and illustrious history – winning the European Cup. Sadly for Saunders he wasn't in charge to witness the team he built's finest hour against Bayern Munich. After a contract row with the chairman Saunders stepped down in the build-up to the European Cup quarter-final. It was left to Saunders' assistant, Tony Barton to lead Villa to European glory.
Sadly, the team was broken up after the 1982 European Cup win but the memory of their achievements lives on. Dennis Mortimer summed it up best when he said of the players he captained: "We were a side of nobodies who became somebodies."
A team steeped in history, Villa had won the FA Cup a staggering six times before 1920 as well as five First Division championships in the same period. The early 1980s represented a second golden era for the Villains after many years of waiting. Since the European Cup winning year, the Villa Park club have mainly been characterised as sleeping giants. League Cup wins in 1994 and 1996 have proved to fans that Villa are still a club capable of going all the way and under the leadership of Paul Lambert, Aston Villa are beginning to once more looking like a side worthy of their glorious history.