When Aston Villa became Champions of England in 1981, having used just 14 players all season, few could have dreamed that the feat could ever be bettered; yet 12 months later, pretty much the same group of players would conquer Europe under the guidance of the relatively unknown manager – Tony Barton.
Villa’s title triumph in 1981 was their first league championship for 71 years and would mean for the first time in the club’s history they would play in the European Cup against the continent’s elite.
Victories over Icelandic outfit Valur, Dynamo Berlin, Dynamo Kiev and Belgian club Anderlecht would see them reach the final of the competition in their first attempt - despite the surprise departure of their manager, Ron Saunders, midway through the campaign which could have derailed their entire season.
Saunders shocked Aston Villa fans when he resigned as manager on 9 February 1982 following a disagreement with the board over his contract. – less than a year after guiding them to the title and just three weeks before Villa faced Dynamo Kiev in the European Cup quarter-final.
Stepping into the breach would be Saunders’ number two, Tony Barton, a somewhat unknown character who would eventually stand alongside footballing immortals such as Jock Stein, Matt Busby, Bob Paisley and Brian Clough as a British European Cup-winning manager.
Barton had begun his playing career at Fulham before moving on to Nottingham Forest and then Portsmouth where he ended his career after 130 games and 34 goals before taking a role as a coach at Fratton Park.
He subsequently joined the coaching staff at Aston Villa, becoming assistant manager to Ron Saunders in 1980, before helping to guide Villa to their first championship since 1910 and was seen as the natural successor following Saunders’ untimely departure.
Injuries and too many draws had resulted in a poor title defence in 1982, something not helped by the fact that the club had only added one player – Andy Blair - to the squad that had lifted the title a year earlier, while a 4-1 defeat at Manchester United left Villa languishing 15th in the First Division
But in the European Cup, Villa and their new boss went from strength to strength, defeating Dynamo Kiev in the quarter-final before overcoming Anderlecht to book their place against Bayern Munich in the final.
In Rotterdam’s Feyenoord Stadium, one of the giants of European football awaited them with the German champions boasting a team of household names such as Klaus Augenthaler, Paul Breitner and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
And things couldn’t have started any worse for Barton’s men when goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer was forced to come off the field after just eight minutes following the recurrence of a neck injury, to be replaced by teenager Nigel Spink - who only had one appearance to his name.
Spink was called into action a number of times in the first half, foiling Bernd Durnberger and pulling off a fine stop to deny the dangerous Rummenigge and, though Villa had been on the back foot for the most part, just about managed to keep Bayern at arm’s length by the break.
The second half followed a similar course as Bayern relentlessly bashed on the door, surging forward seemingly at will to give Villa and their supporters several anxious moments, though Spink continued to shine when needed, pulling off another fine stop to thwart Durnberger and, even when he was beaten, Evans cleared off the line.
Then, after 67 minutes, following a ball down Villa’s left by Gary Shaw, Tony Morley smartly turned Hans Weiner before crossing to leave Peter Withe with a simple tap-in just three yards from goal; but the ball bobbled up on the muddy surface, with the centre-forward’s effort eventually creeping in off the post.
At the final whistle, Villa’s players rushed to the massed ranks of their fans behind the goal to celebrate while Dennis Mortimer - so desperate to get his hands on the European Cup - stood by the presentation area patiently waiting for his team-mates to join him.
After only 56 days in charge of Aston Villa; Tony Barton had joined an illustrious group of managers with a European Cup triumph on their CV, but that glorious night in May of 1982 would be as good as it got for the stand-in boss and the club as a whole.
A quarter-final defeat to Juventus the following season saw Villa’s grip on the European Cup loosened, and although they did lift the Super Cup, the gradual break-up of the team over the next few years proved costly and by 1984 Tony Barton had left the club with Villa eventually relegated from the top-flight in 1987 - just five years after being crowned kings of Europe.
But for those who witnessed it, the night of May 26th, 1982 will always be regarded as the greatest night in the history of Aston Villa Football Club, so much so that Brian Moore’s commentary of Peter Withe’s goal is now immortalised on a banner on the North Stand at Villa Park.
“Shaw, Williams, prepared to venture down the left. There’s a good ball played in for Tony Morley. Oh, it must be! And it is! Peter Withe!”