Dennis Mortimer, who lifted the League championship trophy and the European Cup for Villa in successive seasons in the 1980s, had been at Coventry City when Villa ended an eight-year exile from the top flight. Boss Ron Saunders saw the Liverpool-born midfield player as a vital part of his plan to establish the Birmingham club among the elite and paid £175,000 to bring him along the M6 a few months into the 1975-76 season.
“When I heard about the move, my first thought was ‘I don’t know who Aston Villa are,’ Dennis says “I had been playing for Coventry in the first division and so they weren’t really on my radar even though they were a close neighbour. When I had started at Coventry, Villa were in the third division. All I knew was that the then-manager Tommy Docherty had had astroturf in his office and that Jimmy Brown had been the youngest-ever captain at 16.
“It felt like a step up because a club that had just got promoted wanted me and were prepared to pay a decent amount, which £175,000 was at the time. But it wasn’t until I got there that I realised the potential. Coventry usually drew about 17,000 to Highfield Road and when I made my debut at Villa Park there were 52,000 in the ground. It dawned on me very quickly that it was a big club that had previously fallen on hard times.”
But why was a Scouser and Liverpool fan playing for the Sky Blues and not either of the Merseyside giants? “At the time, there were so many good players in and around Liverpool that they couldn’t take everyone on.
“In fact, we had a Kirkby Boys 50th anniversary reunion the other week because quite a few players from Kirkby went on to play league football. From my team there was me, Kenny Swain and Terry McDermott, who all went on to win the European Cup.
“Phil Thompson was two years younger than me but at the same school. You’d be hard pressed to find another school with two old boys who both lifted the European Cup as captains!
“When I left school a scout from Coventry had spotted me and asked me to go down there, but previous to that a scout from Bury and that’s where Terry McDermott went and started his career. I probably would have gone there too if Coventry hadn’t come in.
“It was a long way from home but I loved it. I’d been away there for three weeks and I was enjoying it so much playing football all day that I hadn’t got in touch with my mother and she phoned the club up to check I was still there.”
As well as Coventry and Villa, Dennis later played for Birmingham City and coached at West Bromwich Albion, so is as well-qualified as anyone to judge Midlands football. Nottingham Forest may have won two European Cups to Villa’s one, and Leicester City may be more recent league champions, but Dennis agrees that Villa are still the top Midlands club.
“I think it’s because of the history and what they have achieved over a long period,” he says. “No other Midlands club has that. Wolves are perhaps the closest, with a history of big crowds, but Villa’s FA Cup record set them apart before the sixties. After that there was a lull and they went through tough times, but even then they were still the biggest club, certainly in Birmingham.”
Was there a tiny part of him that hoped that Leicester would not follow up their title win with the Champions League trophy and take Villa’s record as the last Midlands club to win the top European trophy? “No, and I would never think that. Them winning the league was great and reminded me of the Villa team I played in.
“Leicester were a super team and deserved everything they got. I think the Champions League was beyond them, with the number of games. But I want any English club that is in the Champions League to win it. I was delighted for Liverpool obviously as someone who grew up a fan, but I would have liked Tottenham to win it as well!”
His comparison of Leicester with the Villa side that he skippered to the title in 1981 is apt. Both were tightly-knit units that steered clear of injuries and mixed defensive solidity with attacking threat – for Wes Morgan and Riyad Mahrez, read Allan Evans and Trevor Morley.
But unlike Leicester, who only narrowly avoided relegation the season before their title win, Villa had been a growing force. “In my first full season [1976-77] we won the League Cup and I thought we had the best team in the country, with Andy Gray and Brian Little scoring goals for fun up front, with the rest of us providing the ammunition.
“I felt we were capable of winning the league but the League Cup final against Everton going to two replays and extra time took a lot out of the team. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Ron Saunders had built a team that could even have won the treble.
“It didn’t happen and we lost both Brian and Andy but that was the start and we won the title in 1980-81 and then the European Cup and Ron was there right up to the quarter-final of the European Cup. Brian had to retire through injury the year we won the championship and Andy had moved on to the Wolves in September 1979.
“But Ron developed the team again, bringing in Peter Withe and Gary Shaw - the firepower we needed to bring the success of the Championship and the European cup run. That put Villa back on the map and people started thinking about it as a really big club.”
In the title season, Villa used only 14 players. “Eight of us played every game and we were fortunate that we had very few injuries. We were able to keep a solid base. Peter Withe only missed games through suspension but we made adjustments. There were other players, good footballers, who could have come in but they never got the chance.”
One of the eight games they lost was at The Goldstone just before Christmas, when Michael Robinson seized on a loose backpass from Kenny Swain to round goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer and score the only goal. Graham Moseley pulled off late saves from Gary Shaw and Swain to preserve the two vital points for a struggling Albion side, who were then 18th and would avoid relegation on the final day of the season.
As champions, Villa went into the European Cup and became the sixth English team to win it in as many seasons. But Ron Saunders was no longer there to lead them out, having quit as manager to be replaced by the largely unknown Tony Barton.
“It was a big shock. Ron resigned and there was no contract with him, he didn’t come in and tell us, he was just gone. But Tony stepped up into the breach and just kept everything going. We all knew him, he was Ron’s chief scout who had brought most of us to the club.
“And we were a strong, experienced group of players who didn’t need too much managing – Des Bremner, Allan Evans, Gordon Cowans. But that’s football and you accept it. When I left Coventry, I was at the top of the list to be sold to earn some money for the club and that was just the way it goes. We kept going to the final and the rest is history.
“At that time of course there was only one club from each country. It shouldn’t be called the Champions League because most of the teams in it aren’t champions, as Liverpool weren’t last season, although I’m glad they won it of course. Every team we played were champions of their country.
“We only played nine games but they were tough. We played against two teams from the Eastern Bloc [Dinamo Berlin and Dinamo Kiev] and Eastern European teams in those days were always very fit and physical, for reasons we won’t go into! And the final against Bayern Munich in Rotterdam was the biggest game in Villa’s history and will always remain part of that history and I and my teammates will too.”
They will indeed. Goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer went off injured after only nine minutes to hand Nigel Spink only his second first-team appearance, Peter Withe’s winning goal went in off the post and at the final whistle Dennis stepped up to collect the biggest trophy in club football.
What was going through his mind? “I was a big Liverpool fan and of course, as I’ve said, Phil Thompson from my school had picked it up the previous year. I wanted Aston Villa to emulate the great Liverpool sides and show that we were up there with them, although it was only temporary as it turned out. But we had equalled what they had done.
“The actual presentation was a bit different then. The captain picked the trophy up first and his teammates followed him to collect their medals, not like today when it’s more stage-managed and the captain comes up last and has to pick it up with the chief executive of UEFA and think to himself ‘Who the hell are you?’ We had to go up onto a temporary platform held up by scaffolding and come down some steps onto the pitch for our team photo so I held onto the trophy for quite a long time!”
After almost a decade at Villa Park, Dennis moved on to the Albion in 1985 to link up with manager Chris Cattlin, his old Coventry teammate, for a season. The team reached the FA Cup quarter-finals but only finished mid-table in the second tier, despite a strong-looking squad and a powerful midfield of Dennis, Danny Wilson, Steve Jacobs and Steve Penney.
“We also had Terry Connor, Mike Ferguson, Alan Biley and Justin Fashanu up front, and of course Dean Saunders, who was then a raw recruit. At the back we had Gary O’Reilly, Graham Pearce, Steve Gatting, Eric Young – it was a heck of a squad.
“Dean, Gavin Oliver who was on loan from Sheffield Wednesday, Justin and I all used to stay at the Courtlands Hotel in Hove, we were a really good group. We’d go for walks down on the seafront on a Friday, and I’d give Dean advice about how best to use his pace, because he was quicker than most defenders.”
Dennis stayed at Courtlands because he still lived in the Midlands. “Yes, it was an ideal situation. I had a chat with Chris about it and he wasn’t too concerned about me being at the club for the full week’s training as long as I did my own bit at home so I kept myself fit.
“I played 40 league games [out of 42] that season and enjoyed every one of them. I feel that when you get a bit older you don’t need as much training. I’d always been fit and there weren’t many seasons when I missed more than a few games.
“For home games I would travel down on the Wednesday evening, train on Thursday and Friday and play on Saturday, and stay on if we were at home on the Tuesday. If we were away I’d generally meet the bus on the M6 or the M1. So on the way back I could get in my car and be home in 40 minutes while the coach was still three hours from Brighton – there was no M25 in those days, don’t forget.
“It worked well and there was no problem. If I’d got into management, I’d have looked after older players differently. The important thing was that I was still able to put in performances on the pitch and I think I performed really well for Brighton that season. I thought I added something to the team and didn’t let anybody down.”
Needless to say, he is delighted to see Villa back in the Premier League after three seasons in the Championship that he believes could have been avoided. “They should never have been in that position. They had the means but the club became very loosely managed at the top. I don’t think there was enough strength in the boardroom, because under Randy Lerner [the owner from 2006 to 2016] there was really one guy in charge.
“I thought Randy Lerner did many good things. He was transforming the club in certain aspects but lost his belief in people when Martin O’Neill resigned. He had backed Martin, who was getting into the top six and qualifying for Europe, and I think Martin let the club down. After that Randy lost his way a little and didn’t have enough strong people working for him.
“But since winning the play-off final they have bought well. There was no way they could have stayed up with the team from the Championship. They spent a lot of money, and more than Brighton did, or have done since. But they have gone for it and brought in good players, which is testament to the manager and his scouting system.
“If you know you’re going to get automatic promotion you can make plans but coming through the play-offs puts everything on hold. Well done to Dean Smith for getting the players he has. They have the firepower, a good defence and a decent squad, and the result at Norwich was important just before the break to give them confidence ahead of some tough games. But with Brighton having a great result too, it will probably be a very different game from the one in the Carabao Cup.”