Aston Villa and Mayday plus one or three

Dave Woodhall looks back at this weekend in Villa’s history.

In the absence of a match on Saturday 2nd May 2020 I might as well report from another game played on an earlier 2nd May. It is, of course, from 1981, when Villa, needing a point to secure the league title, went to Highbury to play Arsenal, themselves only needing to draw to qualify for Europe.

Actually, I don’t have to write anything about the match because it’s ingrained in the memory of everyone who was there. The crowd of 57,266, Pele running round the pitch before the kick-off, the sense of occasion. There was also some fighting on the pitch which delayed kick-off for a couple of minutes. It seemed insignificant at the time, but that delay would lead to another footnote in Villa folklore.

As Kenny Swain put it, “The ground was a cauldron. It was like in the film Gladiator when the crowd are all howling for blood. We were looking at the stands and the walls of people, and it felt as though you were waiting for someone to give you the thumbs down.”

And of course Villa got the thumbs down early on when eleven minutes into the game Arsenal defender Willie Young swung at a loose ball on the edge of the area. If he’d connected properly his shot would likely have likely come down to earth closer to where the Emirates now stands than Highbury but as it was, the ball bobbled along the ground and out of Jimmy Rimmer’s grasp. Then a minute before half-time an Arsenal break saw Brian McDermott evading a last-ditch and thigh-high challenge from Colin Gibson to give the home side a two-goal lead.

Ipswich were winning at Middlesbrough and it seemed as though Villa had saved their worse performance of the season for its biggest game. Kenny Swain agrees; “The day got to us; ninety minutes away from bring champions affected the way we played.”

Ron Saunders might have remained convinced that his side would pull back the deficit but as the second half wore on there was little sign of any change in the state of play at Highbury. 240 miles north, things were different. With half an hour remaining Middlesbrough equalised (and there can’t be a Villa supporter who doesn’t know the name of the scorer) and events on the pitch at Highbury became of little significance. Rarely have so many people paid so little attention to what was happening in front of their eyes.

There were around five minutes to go when Radio Two commentator Bryon Butler uttered the immortal, “Let me be the first to congratulate Aston Villa…”. And the rest is history… Without that delayed kick-off, the words of perhaps the finest radio commentator football will ever know might never have been broadcast.

With little else happening, there was a lot of attention focused on the anniversary on Saturday. I was pleased about that, because winning the title has always been overshadowed by the events of the following May, yet for me it was a greater achievement. It took 42 games, including fourteen Midlands derbies, and as every one of the Magnificent Fourteen would tell you, the hardest part of winning the European Cup was qualifying for it.

By one of those coincidences that make football so fascinating, it was six years to the day that Villa travelled to Highbury again, this time at the bottom of the table and doomed to relegation. There was another defeat, but once more results went Villa’s way, after a fashion, and the drop wasn’t mathematically confirmed for another 48 hours, after a Bank Holiday Monday home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday that saw tears shed for a different reason than in 1981.

Then exactly 52 weeks after that relegation, another Bank Holiday game, also on 2nd May, saw one of the great Villa Park occasions of the era, when fell promotion-chasers Bradford City were beaten by a David Platt goal in front of a crowd that at times reached levels bordering on hysteria.

Whatever form football takes when it comes back, I wonder if we’ll ever feel the same about it as we did on those May afternoons of years gone by?