Cast your minds back to the 1974-75 season. Villa are in Division Two, having achieved promotion from the third tier a couple of years earlier.
The first season in Division Two was a good one, Villa finishing just outside the promotion places. We were 11 points behind a QPR side that would almost become League Champions two years later.
In 1973-74, Villa stumbled to a lowly 14th place in a season expected to be a promotion season.
Chairman Doug Ellis reacted by sacking manager Vic Crowe. A club legend, he’d overseen great progress from the depths, but seemed unable to make that final leap. His replacement was the man who’d left top-flight strugglers Man City the season before:
Saunders had a reputation for wanting things done his way. He’d made his name at Norwich, achieving promotion and survival in the top flight. His team had a great League Cup run in 1973, beating Chelsea and Arsenal before losing to Spurs in the final. Leaving after a row with the board, he resurfaced at Man City, where he argued with the board and senior players, leading to his departure.
Whatever subsequently happened between them, Doug Ellis could have had few doubts regarding the sort of man his new manager was. On the flip side, Ron was under no illusions about what Doug Ellis expected at Villa.
It was a case of promotion or else.
So, starting 1974-75, we geared up for another crack at the big time. This season, we’d have an unexpected companion in our quest.
Manchester United. Red Devils in Asia and North America will recoil in horror, but their beloved United were once a big dud. They’d been steeply declining since the glory days of the late ’60s, with the 1971 League Cup semi-final defeat to Third Division Villa highlighting their fall from grace. Ex-Villa manager Tommy Docherty was in charge but had taken over with United already in deep trouble, so he wasn’t blamed for their predicament. Their nightmare 1973-74 season ended with Red Devils legend Denis Law backheeling a winner for neighbours City at Old Trafford, condemning United to relegation.
You’d be hard to find a more bitter pill to swallow anywhere in football history. A bit like Jack Grealish scoring the winner for Blues at Villa Park, sending us down. Luckily it happened to them, not us.
Anyway, the 1974-5 season began with Villa making a familiarly unspectacular start; a 1-1 draw at the first ever Second Division game at York City’s Bootham Crescent. Then two more 1-1 draws against Hull and Norwich. After seven games we’d won just two, drawn three and lost two.
Not good enough.
Then came a League Cup tie against top-flight Everton. We’d drawn the first game 1-1 at Villa Park. Everton had made a shaky start themselves but were a good team who would eventually finish 4th. Few fans gave Villa much chance in the replay at Goodison.
We won 3-0. This galvanised the team, we began a run of 7 wins in 10 games, conceding just 2 league goals. Villa soared up the table and were well in contention by the start of November.
As expected, United had begun like a freight train. They won 7 out of the first 9 games, scoring 18 and conceding just 4. They were not short of leaders, with future managers Lou Macari and Stewart Houston in their ranks.
It looked like a battle for second place.
The meeting of Division Two’s giants took place a few weeks later, on November 16th. Villa had wobbled after our good run, losing at Fulham (as usual) and at home against Notts County. United had lost 1-0 at Bristol City before a 3-2 league cup win over top flight Burnley.
55,000 turned up at Old Trafford to see Chico Hamilton put Villa 1-0 up before Gerry Daly equalised, then grabbed a winner from the penalty spot.
First blood to United.
Villa remained inconsistent following the United game. Christmas brought defeat at Albion, then wins against York and Bristol Rovers. After a 3-1 reverse at Cardiff on 28th December, Villa sat some way behind the promotion contenders. United sat atop the Second Division and looked strong. With playoffs not a part of the league at the time, Villa had to scramble for 2nd or 3rd place if promotion remained on the agenda.
It wasn’t looking good.
Form picked up, winning the next four games, scoring 11 and conceding 3. Then a draw with Fulham (them again) before a 3-2 win against Portsmouth at Fratton Park. Villa were up to 5th, scoring freely and playing well.
Then came United at Villa Park.
Despite topping the table, the Red Devils had been a tad inconsistent since Christmas. They’d reached the League Cup semi-finals but were defeated by Norwich, who’d face Villa in the final. They’d also suffered a 3-2 reverse in the FA Cup at Walsall. In the league, defeats at Oldham and at home against Bristol City were interspersed with wins v Sheffield Wednesday and Hull.
It’s fair to say building fanbases worldwide was not a priority at Old Trafford just yet.
Following hooliganism at United away games, extra police were present to protect us (stifles laugh) from the pesky Mancs. Alas, the game was anticlimactic. Villa ran out comfortable 2-0 winners thanks to goals from Ray Graydon and a rare Charlie Aitken header. United were poor, second-best on the day. A week later Villa beat Norwich at Wembley to lift the League Cup.
The feel good factor had truly returned to Villa Park.
Our league run continued, a draw against Bolton then wins over Forest and Southampton keeping us in the hunt. We were now second, unbeaten in 8. Villa looked to be charging headlong back to the top flight.
Then came Leyton Orient. On a March mudbath at Brisbane Road, both teams played out an entertaining encounter. Five minutes from time, a defensive header from Ian Ross dropped to Orient striker Ricky Hepollette who fired low past Jim Coombes to put the home side ahead. Villa rallied, and Walley cleared Chris Nicholl’s shot off the line in the last minute, but we couldn’t force an equaliser.
An unlikely end to our unbeaten run.
Now down to fourth, Villa needed to get back to winning ways immediately. Unfortunately the next fixture was not a kind one.
West Bromwich Albion.
Any jitters on the Holte End were heightened by half time, with Villa 1-0 down after Coombes parried Tony Brown’s shot into the net. After a likely roasting from the manager, Villa stormed back in the second half with goals from Chico Hamilton and two from Keith Leonard sealing a vital 3-1 win.
From there, nothing stopped us. We won our last 8 games, scoring 26 and conceding just 3.
Promotion was sealed on 23rd April with a 4-0 win at Sheffield Wednesday. There were reputedly 12,000 Villa fans present and many invaded the Hillsborough pitch at full time.
After 8 years, a boardroom takeover, and some unforgettable moments. The Villa were back.
United? The defeat at Villa Park seemed to galvanise our Mancunian friends. They won 9 out of their final 11 games to seal a swift return to the top flight, where they have remained ever since. They finished 3 points clear of Villa at the top of the division.
The contrast between Villa and United fans couldn’t have been greater. For Red Devils fans, relegation had been an embarrassment, promotion a hollow achievement.
For us, it was the start of something special.
Villa’s promotion was a tremendous achievement by Ron Saunders, in his first full season at Villa. Our run since Christmas 1974 was truly remarkable. Between 4th January and 30th April 1975 we won 15 out of 18 games, losing once. We also won the League Cup. I’ll say it quietly, but I think this run surpasses our 10 match streak last season. We were back where we belonged, and one thing was clear.
The era of Ron Saunders, the greatest in Villa history, had kicked off.