Aston Villa won the League Championship at Highbury in 1981 and the European Cup in Rotterdam in 1982. Arguably their finest performance at Villa Park, however, came 30 years ago when they thrashed champions and table-toppers Liverpool 5-1 after a first-half blitz in 1976. Hyder Jawad talks to some of the characters of that evening.
December 15, 1976. Liverpool, the reigning League champions and Uefa Cup holders, were at the top of the table and six points clear of Aston Villa, but had played a match more. Villa had previously scored five goals against Ipswich Town and Arsenal. Liverpool had not conceded five goals in one match since 1966.
THE PLAYERS: Andy Gray was Villa's best striker. John Deehan was his equally talented, if less well-known, partner up front. Dennis Mortimer performed a pivotal role in the Villa midfield, as did Alex Cropley. For Liverpool, such players as Kevin Keegan, Phil Thompson, Emlyn Hughes, Ray Kennedy and Terry McDermott formed part of the best team in Europe. Joey Jones was their left back.
DENNIS MORTIMER: I'd grown up as a Liverpool fan and I had idolised some of these players. As a kid, I would watch in awe at how good Ian Callaghan was on the wing. Well, here I was playing against him. Amazing. But I was always keen to do well against Liverpool, as if to say 'serves you right for not signing me on'.
ALEX CROPLEY: I remember that Liverpool team. It was full of players with big reputations but we didn't fear them because we had a talented team ourselves. At Villa in those days, we felt as if we were on the verge of something great. We had Dennis Mortimer in midfield, Andy Gray up front with Dixie Deehan and there was Brian Little, who was a perfect foil for Andy.
DENNIS MORTIMER: The first half was a bit of a blur but I remember we seemed to go four goals up very quickly. I do know there were Liverpool fans who had turned up late, because of the traffic and they wondered what was going on. I had to check my programmes to remember that Andy Gray gave us the lead, John Deehan scored twice and then Brian Little scored our fourth.
ALEX CROPLEY: It was a blitz, really. Andy Gray opened the scoring with a typical header, something he seemed to be doing all season. That gave us confidence. After that, everything we touched seemed to go in. It was a brilliant first half. We kept the momentum up, even after Ray Kennedy scored to pull a goal back for Liverpool just before half-time. We simply went to the other end of the pitch — the Holte End, I think — and scored again through Andy Gray. Five-one at half-time. And still 45 minutes left.
JOEY JONES: We trooped off the pitch and there was Bob Paisley [Liverpool manager] waiting for us, along with Joe Fagan, Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans [three Liverpool coaches]. Each of them delivered a rollicking in his own particular way. Joe lost his cool, to say the least. When he did that, we all sat up. Then Bob, Ronnie and Roy gave their verdicts. No matter how big the name, we all caught it in the neck. I had never known anything like it.
ALEX CROPLEY: We had the makings of a great team but there was no strength in depth. I think we only had about 13 players, which did not help our cause.
DENNIS MORTIMER: It never bothered me when I won against Liverpool, even though I had supported them. Actually, I think I must have tried harder against them.
ALEX CROPLEY: I don't remember the second half. Does anybody?
DENNIS MORTIMER: I know we had chances in the second half so you could say that we let Liverpool off lightly. We dominated that match from midfield, which enabled us to produce a performance that was full of attacking enterprise. This result was no fluke; 5-1 summed up our superiority.
ANDY GRAY: It saddens me that the match was never shown on television. I have seen the goals but the footage is grainy and not good. Had a match like that, a performance like that, taken place now, it would be shown all the time.
ALEX CROPLEY: The day after, I heard stories that there were Liverpool fans in Australia who thought that there had been some mistake. They questioned the scoreline, as if Liverpool never conceded five goals in one match.
DENNIS MORTIMER: I am sure we would have had a good chance of winning the League that year, but we got bogged down with the League Cup. We won that competition after playing three matches against Everton. Maybe if we had been knocked out at the first stage, we would have won the League, instead of finishing six points behind Liverpool. Well, they ended up winning the European Cup.
ALEX CROPLEY: To think, after scoring five against Liverpool in the first half, they still ended up with the best defensive record in the First Division. Even to this day, when I drive around Edinburgh, people ask me about that match.
DENNIS MORTIMER: I notice from photos of that match that I have a thick beard. That was a competition I had with John Robson, who also played that night. That was to stave off the winter cold. I shaved it off when it got warmer.
Villa, managed by Ron Saunders, finished fourth in the First Division and won the League Cup; Liverpool won the League, lost the FA Cup final, but won the European Cup.
Andy Gray became a television pundit. Alex Cropley is a taxi driver in Edinburgh. Dennis Mortimer coaches in the Birmingham area. Joey Jones went on to coach Wrexham.
* What do you remember about that amazing match? Let us know at the messageboard.