Aston Villa's start to the 2015/16 season has brought back a few unwanted memories for any Villa supporter old enough to recall the unfortunate events of 1986/87. A campaign that saw the club relegated just five years after being kings of Europe, during a soul destroying nine months, involving two managers and just eight league wins. How had it come to this?
The glory years
The start of the 1980s had been a glorious time for anyone associated with Aston Villa. Led by Ron Saunders, Villa were crowned League champions in 1980/81, during the famous "transistor match" at Highbury, the club using only 14 players during the 42-match season - Jimmy Rimmer, Kenny Swain, Ken McNaught, Dennis Mortimer, Des Bremner, Gordon Cowans, Tony Morley, Gary Shaw, Allan Evans, Peter Withe, Gary Williams, Colin Gibson, David Geddis, and Eamonn Deacy, since you didn't ask. There was more to come the following year, during a memorable season for many reasons.
Saunders resigned in February after a row with the board over his contract, his assistant Tony Barton taking over and helping the club reach the European Cup final. In Rotterdam, Villa, aided by a fine goalkeeping performance from young substitute Nigel Spink, defeated Bayern Munich after a Peter Withe strike. Changing their manager during the season, winning a European Cup after being outplayed by Bayern Munich, with their big centre forward delivering the decisive blow; such a successful template that Chelsea decided to follow it thirty years later.
Villa then went on to beat Barcelona and win the European Super Cup in 1983, but that was as good as it got. Yet as many Villa fans seemed determined to tell me at the 2015 FA Cup final, "at least we've won the f**king European Cup".
Doug Ellis returns
It isn't perhaps surprising that there was a lot of resistance to the reign of chairman Doug Ellis during his time at Aston Villa. The controversial figure was axed from the Villa board in 1979, but returned in December 1982, coincidentally absent from the club during their period of success. Inheriting a club a reported £1.6 million in debt, and with attendances in decline, it was inevitable that books had to be balanced. Some point the finger of blame at Ellis for the gradual break-up of the 1981/82 side, yet others recognise that both the age of the squad and finances had caught up with the club.
Rimmer, Swain, McNaught, Morley and Geddis all departed in 1983, followed by Bremner and Deacy in 1984, and Mortimer, Cowans, Gibson and Withe a year later. Only Evans, Williams and Shaw remained at the start of 1986/87, but the latter had suffered a serious knee injury at Nottingham Forest in September 1983, and would require six operations in four years before his sad departure from the club in 1988. Another terrible blow to the club had been the broken leg suffered by Cowans before the 83/84 season, an incident that did little to help the cause of Barton.
Under Barton, Villa had achieved a respectable 6th place finish in 1982/83, yet when the club dropped to 11th place in 83/84, speculation grew that Villa's European Cup winning manager was in trouble. Sadly the rumours were true; in June 1984 the Villa board agreed unanimously to sack Barton and his assistant Roy McLaren, Ellis adamant that the situation had to improve: "Last season's results were simply not good enough for a big club like Villa. We need to be in Europe, yet failed to qualify".
Ellis turns to Turner
Many were linked to the vacancy, including Keith Burkinshaw, Terry Neill, Ron Wylie, David Pleat, John Toshack, Gordon Lee, and even Manchester United's Ron Atkinson. But to the general surprise of everyone, Ellis opted to go for the 36-year-old player manager of Shrewsbury, Graham Turner. In his time at Shrewsbury, Turner had taken the club from the Third Division and turned them into to a solid Second Division outfit, but his appointment was certainly unexpected.
"We are delighted to have Graham," Ellis said after the announcement. "We have a magnificent stadium, a superb squad of players and a fine administration team. We have now completed the jigsaw". For his part, Turner recognised that he had a huge job on his hands. "I realise this is a big step for me as I have no First Division experience. I always felt I would eventually manage a top club, although this is a bit earlier than I expected." Turner was also fully aware that to purchase any players he would have to sell first. There would be interesting times ahead.
The 1984/85 season saw no discernible improvement; by December the team had dropped as low as 18th, but a strong second half of the campaign saw Turner match Barton's previous 10th place finish. However, Turner's tenure was looking decidedly rocky during the 1985/86 season. Despite reaching the League Cup semi-final - where they lost 4-3 on aggregate to eventual winners Oxford United - with just five games remaining in the campaign, Villa were languishing in the relegation zone, and in real danger of following their city rivals Birmingham through the trapdoor. Three wins from their final five matches saved the club from the drop, yet Turner must have known he would need a strong start to the following season in order to prove the doubters wrong.
Oh dear. What followed was a horror show for Turner and Villa fans. The first six matches of the 1986/87 season provided clear evidence that both manager and club were in deep trouble. If the bricks of Villa's 1981/82 successes had gradually been removed, then August and September 1986 saw the new foundations laid on a surface of sand. If you are a Villa fan that is easily upset, then look away now.
On the face of it, Turner's squad had potential, and many of the players went on to enjoy fine careers involving League titles and England caps. However, it would become painfully apparent that the 1986/87 season would be a little too early for many of Turner's youngsters. Nigel Spink was relatively experienced, the 28-year-old keeper backed up by Kevin Poole (23), yet Evans and Williams apart, the team was inexperienced defensively. Martin Keown (20) had joined Villa after a contract row with George Graham at Arsenal, with Tony Dorigo (20), Paul Elliott (22) and Dave Norton (21) also featuring heavily. Someone famously said after a match at Villa Park that you don't win anything with kids, but sometimes you can lose a lot.
In midfield there was again a lot of talent on paper. Steve Hodge had broken into the England side and had enjoyed a good World Cup (we'll ignore his part in Diego Maradona's hand of God goal), although he was unsettled at Villa and would become the fifth member of David Pleat's Tottenham midfield in December. Mark Walters and Neale Cooper would endure an injury hit season, with the bulk of work in midfield falling on the shoulders of an 18-year-old Tony Daley, the experienced Steve Hunt, and Paul Birch, a player who had been at Villa since 1978 and seen the highs and was about to unfortunately witness the low of relegation.
Up front did not seem a problem for Villa, with the experienced trio of Garry Thompson, Andy Gray and Simon Stainrod in the squad. But all three would under perform for various reasons. Thompson's £450,000 move from Sheffield Wednesday looked good business, but only seven League goals was a disappointing return. Gray's second spell at the club was dogged by injury. And Stainrod's second season at Villa Park was a lot less enjoyable than his first, the fact that he ended up the club's top scorer with just 8 League goals an indication of the hideous season Villa endured.
The end for Turner
"A team that should improve with three newcomers - Neale Cooper, Gary Thompson and Keown. After Mexico, Steve Hodge should be a more commanding player and Villa could shock a few". The pre-season verdict of Jimmy Armfield did seem to provide some optimism for any Villa fans reading the Daily Express on the opening day of the 86/87 season, but come 4.45pm there were clear signs that all was not well.
Clive Allen's hat-trick in Tottenham's 3-0 win at Villa Park was a microcosm of the season ahead; the striker scoring for fun in a campaign that saw him find the back of the net 49 times, and a Villa team leaking goals at an alarming rate, conceding two or more goals in a match on 23 occasions in the league. "It looks a disaster but there's no need to panic," Turner protested afterwards. Arrival at Panic Central Station was just three weeks away, though.
The sending off of Gary Williams at newly promoted Wimbledon did not help matters, Villa losing 3-2 in a scrappy affair. Turner adopted a continental sweeper system at Loftus Road, and although Villa were tighter at the back, a defensive mix-up involving new signing Martin Keown led to the only goal of the match, and Villa's third loss of the season.
The only ray of light came when Luton were beaten 2-1 at Villa Park, a win that saw Turner's side climb from the bottom of the table. Yet even that was a struggle; Luton played the last half hour with 10 men due to injuries, Villa grateful that transfer-listed 22-year-old Paul Kerr scored twice as they held on for a vital win. But there was trouble ahead. Just ten days later, Graham Turner's position was untenable.
A dreaded vote of confidence from Ellis was probably the last thing Turner wanted, but after a 2-1 home defeat to Oxford, the Villa chairman spoke out in defence of his manager. "We are going through a difficult time, but I support Graham. He has been without at least three key players because of injuries," Ellis stated, his words accurate in Cooper, Walters, Andy Blair, Evans and Hunt were unavailable at the time. Injuries or not, Ellis simply had to act after an embarrassing trip to Nottingham forced his hand.
The humiliating 6-0 defeat at the City Ground was the final straw, the point of no return for Turner. "It is with regret that we have terminated Graham Turner's contract," Ellis informed the media, 24 hours after the Forest debacle. "It has been extremely difficult for the board, and me in particular, because of his qualities as a man".
McNeill takes control
Ron Wylie took temporary control of the team, but Villa's 4-1 home defeat to Norwich hardly boosted his hopes of holding on to the reins. Again a number of managers were linked to the vacant post - Don Howe, John Toshack, Dave Bassett, and the under-fire Manchester United boss Ron Atkinson - but eventually Ellis agreed to pay Manchester City £100,000 compensation for the services of Billy McNeill.
"Sometimes a bad start can be a good thing because you can get the rubbish out of the way early," McNeill announced as he arrived at Villa Park. "On paper I have inherited a stronger squad than the one I left". Whether that was true or not is debatable, yet come the end of the season, both Aston Villa and Manchester City would be relegated.
One of McNeill's first tasks was to try and talk Steve Hodge out of leaving the club, the midfielder eager to leave what he probably saw as a sinking ship. The new boss was obviously keen on keeping the England international, yet come December Hodge would move to Tottenham, and by this time McNeill probably started to realise the size of the job ahead of him.
At first though, it appeared as if the new manager was working some magic. A brilliant 3-3 draw against Liverpool at Anfield saw the reigning champions fall behind on three separate occasions. "This Villa team have been accused of packing in and folding up," McNeill stated after the fine draw. "They certainly didn't today and with these players and Mark Walters, Andy Gray and Neale Cooper to return from injury, we can start marching forward".
Four wins from the next five League matches backed up the words of McNeill, pushing Villa up to the giddy heights of 16th, and for a short space of time it looked as if the future was bright. Yet the 2-0 win over Leicester on November 1 was the end of the honeymoon for McNeill and Villa. The messy part of his relationship with Villa would begin at Maine Road of all places for McNeill.
On a slippery slope
The 3-1 defeat at the hands of McNeill's old club was the start of a wretched run for Villa, a shocking sequence of matches that saw Villa take just twelve points from a possible 60, as well as exiting three Cup competitions. At first there didn't seem to be much of a problem; after a 1-1 draw at West Ham, Allan Evans praised McNeill for relaxing the players, McNeill also complimenting his squad for their response after a cruel 2-1 defeat at Southampton in the Littlewoods Cup, a match that had seen a Garry Thompson effort not given even though it looked a foot over the line. And Steve Curry, writing in the Daily Express, stated that "Villa are destined to continue a steady climb up the table," an understandable comment after the initial impact McNeill had made.
The first sign that all was not well came in the shape of table toppers Arsenal, who crushed Villa 4-0 at Villa Park, Martin Keown scoring an own goal against his former club, "looking every inch the sad teenager who knew he'd left Arsenal's adolescent piss-up at the soft drinks stage", to quote Jon Spurling in All Guns Blazing. "McNeill has made a big improvement since he took over two months ago but accepts there is still a lot to do," wrote Dave Horridge in the Daily Mirror. Far too much to do as it would transpire.
A defeat at Second Division Ipswich in the Full Members Cup may not have been earth shattering, but the fact that Villa were outclassed was slightly concerning. There was a brief respite over Christmas, a three match unbeaten run stopping the rot slightly, and the 2-0 Boxing Day win over Charlton at least got Villa out of the relegation zone, yet this Paul Birch inspired victory would be the last until March 28. There would be some awful displays in the next three months for Villa fans to stand/sit through.
The 4-1 defeat against fellow strugglers Chelsea was abysmal, the Daily Mirror's Nigel Clarke noting that Villa were a "side high on skill but low on guts and aggression," and McNeill was equally as concerned. "We may have to do something drastic. We've got to seal the back door because we've let in 47 League goals [in 22 games] and we can't continue like that". However, a 3-0 defeat at eventual champions Everton followed, and after an FA Cup extra-time replay loss against Chelsea, another 3-0 hammering at Tottenham, complete with two painful goals from old boy Hodge, left Villa firmly in the bottom three.
"I have confidence that we will comfortably get out of trouble," McNeill stated before the defeat at Tottenham, but as the weeks passed the situation showed little signs of improving. A loss against fellow strugglers QPR at Villa Park and on the plastic pitch at Luton left Villa in 21st place, and desperately in need of some inspiration to arrest their slide and save their season.
McNeill chances his arm
During the slump speculation grew that McNeill was about to dip into the transfer market, with Birmingham City's Wayne Clarke linked, and a swap deal with Chelsea involving David Speedie and Tony Dorigo also discussed. Eventually McNeill did bring in another body, but the £300,000 spent on 19-year-old Everton striker Warren Aspinall was seen as a gamble.
Aspinall had made only a few appearances at Everton, but his form for the reserves - 21 goals in 23 matches - attracted McNeill. Throwing an untried youngster into the cut and thrust of a First Division survival battle seemed a strange decision though, and if McNeill was hoping to get lucky then he would be sorely disappointed. Three draws against Liverpool, Norwich and Wimbledon boosted hopes, but with crucial matches ahead involving relegation rivals Newcastle and Southampton, McNeill needed a break or two.
The omens didn't look good though. In the Norwich match, midfielder Neale Cooper who had only played seven matches due to injury, picked up a booking that saw him suspended for two matches to complete a miserable month for the player; Cooper had his car broken into and also had to fork out £6,000 for repairs to his house due to a fractured water pipe. The midfielder was understandably tetchy, and commented that relegation for Villa would cap his poor year. Oh no.
The final nails in the coffin
A 2-1 defeat at Newcastle proved the start of something good for the home team - they would lose only one of their next eleven matches - and perhaps the beginning of the end for Villa, although it would be the trip to The Dell that possibly saw the nadir reached. The 5-0 hammering left McNeill fuming, his team 4-0 down at half-time, and seemingly helpless to prevent the momentum carrying them towards the Second Division. "Our defending was disgusting," McNeill admitted. "I've never been so embarrassed in all my managerial career".
Despite the Southampton nightmare, Villa then went on a four match unbeaten run to give themselves a bit of late hope. A 1-0 win over Coventry pushed Villa up to 19th, completing a double over the Sky Blues, although their Midlands neighbours would have a small consolation of picking up the FA Cup in May. Yet crucially the three clubs below Villa in the table were all just a point behind McNeill's team as squeaky bum time neared, and draws against relegation rivals Manchester City and Leicester did little to help the cause. With six games remaining, Villa all of a sudden needed snookers.
The 1-0 home defeat against soon to be crowned champions Everton was hardly unexpected, but it would be the pitiful effort at Selhurst Park that truly rubber stamped Villa's fate. Charlton's 3-0 win boosted their own survival hopes, and basically condemned Villa to Second Division football, with Charlton manager Lennie Lawrence staggered at how easy the win had been, and McNeill sounding like a beaten man. "It was just a matter of getting off without being thoroughly, totally and completed embarrassed," McNeill stated, although it is debatable as to whether Villa achieved the goal of their manager.
Seven points behind the relegation play-off spot and with only four games remaining, McNeill talked about the "almost impossible task" of staying up, and few disagreed with him. There would be one last hurrah. Warren Aspinall scored twice in a 4-0 win over West Ham in front of just 13,584 at Villa Park which briefly gave rise to the hope that a great escape could take place. But it was merely delaying the inevitable. Defeat at Highbury put Villa bottom, the trip to North London far less enjoyable than the same day exactly six years earlier. Two days later, the end of the road was reached.
Just five years after being crowned European champions, Villa dropped out of Division One after a 2-1 home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, a match that concluded with police and stewards lining the pitch to try and prevent an invasion of the dissatisfied masses. Naturally the post-mortem kicked off immediately, with the positions of McNeill and Ellis questioned, but in truth there was only ever going to be one man who would pay the price for Villa's plight. Just four days later, McNeill was sacked - youth manager Frank Upton taking charge for the 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford - and Ellis was now looking for his fourth manager in three years.
Another manager search for Ellis led many journalists to the obvious conclusion that Ron Atkinson was the certainty for the job, but once again nothing came of the very hot rumours. Eventually Ellis turned to Graham Taylor who had left Watford at the end of the season, and it would prove to be the start of a journey that saw Villa promoted at the first attempt, survive on their return, finish second in Liverpool's last title winning season, and led to Taylor succeeding Bobby Robson in the England hot seat.
Many of the players that had played in the relegation season helped to restore Villa to the top flight, including Spink, Keown, Evans, Daley, Birch, and the fine partnership of Aspinall and Thompson. These players, along with the likes of Bernhard Gallacher, David Platt, Kevin Gage and Alan McInally, put smiles back on the faces of Villa supporters. The 1987/88 season would definitely prove to be the sunshine after the rain.