It is almost unthinkable that a team could win English football’s biggest prize by using just 14 players, but back in 1981, that’s just what Aston Villa did.
Of those 14; seven were ever-presents in a league season which was comprised of 42 games as Ron Saunders’ side clinched the club’s first championship in 71 years.
Des Bremner, Jimmy Rimmer, Ken McNaught, Dennis Mortimer, Tony Morley, Gordon Cowans and Kenny Swain played every match that season, while Gary Shaw missed only two games, Allan Evans sat out three and Peter Withe six.
Going into the opening game of the season Saunders addressed his players and told them: “The fans will back you and with 110 percent effort, you can win every game, go out and prove everyone wrong, you are title contenders.”
And his words must have had a profound effect as Villa won three and drew the other in their opening four games.
But despite this fine form, which included a 12-game unbeaten run throughout the autumn, Villa raised few eyebrows with pundits and opposition fans alike, who refused to see them as genuine title challengers.
Villa had found a starting XI that worked and was effective, and Saunders knew this was the team’s biggest strength.
He was keen that his players continued to play, regardless of injuries or illness, willing them to soldier on for the good of the side as a collective unit and the team spirit that had been created.
Despite a couple of defeats around Christmas time, Villa were still in the thick of things come the New Year; and a 2-0 win over Liverpool on January 10th made their rivals finally sit up and take notice.
Perhaps as surprising as Villa’s assault on the title was, it was only matched by the form of Ipswich Town that season under the guidance of future England manager Bobby Robson.
Like Villa, they were very much an unfancied outfit who generated results through a combination of hard work, team spirit and tactical know-how.
Incredibly, by April, the title contest had become something of a shoot-out between the two as Liverpool and Arsenal fell by the wayside.
In an epic encounter between the two, it was Ipswich who eventually ran out 2-1 winners, leading many to believe that Villa’s chance had gone.
However, the never-say-die attitude Saunders had instilled saw his side go on to win two of their next three games, while drawing the other.
Ipswich, meanwhile, had hit the buffers. An FA Cup campaign, in which they progressed to the semi-finals; and a successful run in the UEFA Cup; not to mention some key injuries, had taken its toll on the team from Suffolk.
Robson’s men had games in hand but did not have as many points as Villa, and were unable to capitalise.
Ipswich lost their next two matches while Villa beat Nottingham Forest and drew with Stoke City to reclaim the initiative.
Before the final weekend of the season, Ipswich still had a game in hand but lost against Manchester City – their third loss in four games – to ensure the title would eventually go to Villa Park for the first time since 1910.
Villa were to lose at Arsenal on their final game of the 1980/81 season but it didn’t stop thousands of fans from the West Midlands spilling on to the pitch to celebrate the club’s first league title since the early part of the 20th century.
Ron Saunders had built a team that had got on a roll from mid-September and ridden the wave through until May and the vastly experienced manager knew that stability was a huge asset.
They had done the unthinkable and won the league, something they had not done since the early part of the 20th century.
But what made the achievement even more remarkable was that they’d done so by using just 14 players over the entire campaign.
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