Ups and Downs: The History of Aston Villa Football Club

Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. It won’t come as much of a surprise that these six sides have featured in every Premier League season since its creation in 1992. However, until recently there was a seventh, somewhat less predictable side on the list.

Aston Villa’s fall from grace has been coming for a number of years. If anything, it’s incredible that the club have lasted this long in the top flight, after battling against the drop in every Premier League campaign since 2011/12. However, the 2015/16 campaign proved too much for the struggling club, as a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United confirmed their fate with four matches still to play, meaning The Villains were relegated to the Championship.

The arrival of Randy Lerner back in 2006 produced plenty of optimism around Villa Park, with the club’s fans hoping that the Cleveland Browns owner would pump funds into the mid-table club in a bid to push them up the table. However, his spell at the top of the Villa hierarchy went downhill, with Lerner seemingly bored of the club and refusing to invest the money that it so dearly needed.

While these are tough times for the club, there have been plenty of high points too, from numerous league titles to a European trophy. Here’s a look back at Aston Villa’s 140 year history.

Formed: 1874

Jack Hughes, Frederick Matthews, Walter Price and Williams Scattergood – four members of the Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel cricket team, who came together to found Aston Villa Football Club in March 1874. In need of a sport to keep themselves fit during the winter months, the quarter turned to football, a game that had been steadily growing in popularity following the formation of the Football Association and the introduction of the FA Rules.

The Villains soon after made their club debut, turning out against Aston Brook St Mary’s in a match that was contested by 45 minute of action played using the rugby rulebook, followed by 45 minutes of the association football game. Villa started off their footballing journey with a win, courtesy of a goal from Hughes in the second-half.

By 1876 Aston Villa had moved into their first home, Wellington Road, splashing out a massive £7 a year in rent. However, by moving into a gated ground, the club were able to capitalise on their success by charging fans to watch the match, and with Villa rapidly making a name for themselves as the biggest club in Birmingham, the fans were more than happy to pay.

Aston Villa squad pictures in 1879 with the Birmingham Senior Cup.
Aston Villa squad pictures in 1879 with the Birmingham Senior Cup.

The fans were soon rewarded by the club when they claimed the 1879/80 Birmingham Senior Cup with a 3-1 victory over Saltley College – a competition that they would go on to win another eight times in the next 11 years. The club’s first major honour came in 1887, when captain Archie Hunter, who quickly became one of the Victorian era’s biggest names, lifted the FA Cup. Their road to the final included a 13-0 victory over Wednesbury Old Athletic, a record which still stands as the club’s biggest ever win. The trophy win confirmed Aston Villa’s place among the best clubs in world football, but there was still plenty more to come.

Despite taking Villa to the top of the game, club director William McGregor was unhappy with the lack of top level football on offer and proceeded to create a professional football league, in the hope that it would enhance competitiveness and increase attendance figures by eradicating the one-sided, meaningless friendly matches that had until then dominated the game.

McGregor contacted 11 of England’s biggest clubs to float the idea, and representatives from Aston Villa, Accrington, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Derby County, Everton, Notts County, Preston North End, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers met on March 23 1888 to finalise plans for the creation of ‘The Football League’, a name suggested by Preston North End’s William Sudell. Just six months later McGregor’s dream of weekly competitive football was a reality, as Aston Villa kicked off the inaugural Football League campaign with a 1-1 draw against Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The Football League would continue to grow and expand over the next few years, as did Aston Villa Football Club. By 1894 the club had lifted their first league title – the first of many in a spell of sheer dominance over the next decade.

Success brought even bigger crowds, to the extent that the Wellington Road ground struggled to cope with the number of spectators travelling to watch Aston Villa play, with a recorded average figure in the region of 25,000 fans attending the club’s home matches. Likewise, the quality of the playing surface was becoming unsuitable for the level that the club was operating at, prompting a switch to the Aston Lower Grounds, which would eventually become known as Villa Park. Originally rented for a fee of £300 per year, Villa would later splash out £11,750 to purchase the ground and surrounding area.

With some of the best facilities in the world, Villa would blow away their competition over the next few years, winning another four titles before the turn of the century, including the first ever league and cup double in 1896/97. However, their sixth title win in 1909/10 would be their last.

Entering the 20th century

The start of the 20th century was up and down for Villa, and by the time the First World War brought a halt to the sport in 1915, the club’s dominance had been well and truly broken. Despite winning their sixth FA Cup at the end of the 1919/20 season, Villa would struggle to pick up any more silverware in the years that followed. Despite splashing out big money to sign some of the best players on the market, the club would fail to compete with the likes of emerging sides Liverpool, Huddersfield Town and Arsenal.

The early 1930s saw Aston Villa’s fortunes begin to pick up, as they finished closely behind Arsenal in both the 1930/31 and 1932/33 seasons, largely thanks to goalscoring phenomenon Tom Waring, best known for netting a record 49 goals in a single league campaign. However, Waring’s exit to Barnsley in 1935 would prompt a sudden downturn, as Villa were relegated from the top flight for the first time in their history. Although, rather than a lack of goals, their downfall was a result of their defensive frailties, as they conceded a massive 110 goals throughout the 1935/36 season.

Although, their spell in the Second Division wasn’t a long one, and by the time the Second World War brought a halt to the action in 1939, Villa were back in the top flight. Following the conclusion of the war, English football set about rebuilding following a number of casualties. Despite their best efforts, Villa struggled to pull themselves above a mid-table finish throughout the remainder of the 1940s and 1950s.

Aside from a shock victory over Matt Busby’s famed Manchester United side in the 1957 FA Cup final, Aston Villa’s performances were lacklustre at best, which ultimately saw them succumb to relegation once again at the end of the 1958/59 season. Despite their inconsistencies, they made a name for themselves as a cup side, reaching the FA Cup semi-finals in 1958/59 and 1959/60, as well as winning the inaugural 1960/61 League Cup.

However, that would soon change as Aston Villa entered yet another period of struggle throughout the 1960s, narrowly avoiding relegation in each season until they eventually succumbed to defeat in the 1967.

After a poor showing in the second flight it appeared that a big overhaul was needed at Villa. Following pressure from the fans, the board agreed to sell the club to businessman Pat Matthews just in time for incoming manager Tommy Docherty to save Villa from the drop. However, they could only stall further decline for so long, as the 1969/70 season saw the club drop down to the third tier.

Manager Tony Barton and captain Dennis Mortimer with the European Cup.
Manager Tony Barton and captain Dennis Mortimer lift the European Cup.

It looked increasingly likely that the club would spend its 100th anniversary in the lower reaches of the game. However, two promotions in three seasons eventually saw the club celebrate its centennial birthday with promotion back into the top flight and victory in the 1975 League Cup final – a feat that they would repeat again two years later.

The next few years would see Villa build on their success, gradually climbing up the league table, which eventually culminated in their first league title in more than 70 years in the 1980/81 season. However, their biggest achievement would come in the European Cup, where they claimed a historic victory after beating Valur, Dynamo Berlin, Dynamo Kiev and Bayern Munich to lift the trophy, which was followed up with a victory over Barcelona in the UEFA Super Cup.

Having resurrected themselves, it was time for Aston Villa to suffer yet another slump, as they once again fell away in the top flight, eventually falling through the trapdoor in the 1986/87 season. Luckily for Villa, it would be 29 years before they suffered a similar fate.

Premier League forefathers

The next few years would be up and down for the historic club, but having returned to the top flight, Aston Villa were just in time to partake in the newly formed Premier League – a campaign that would see them finish as runners-up to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. However, they would never build on their strong finish in their first Premier League season, with the 1996 League Cup still their last major honour to date.

The next decade would see Aston Villa sit comfortably in the top half of the Premier League table, with very little challenge made to the top teams, but also very little fear of relegation. However, the 2002/03 season saw the club flirt dangerously with the drop, and despite a good showing in 2003/04, the following season would once again saw them slumped near the foot of the table.

A number of high profile figures without the club placed the blame on club chairman Doug Ellis, who they felt hadn’t done enough, in terms of both monetary investment and ambition, to push the club on to bigger and better things. Unsurprisingly, with the fans calling for his head, Ellis sold his majority stake in the club just months later, with the entrepreneur citing poor health as the reason behind his decision.

The incoming chairman was one Randy Lerner, whose deep pockets, the fans hoped, would prompt another golden era for the Midlands club. While the first few years were promising, with the club continuing to finish in the top half of the table, things quickly went downhill for The Villains following a string of managerial changes.

Andy Lerner has fallen out of favour with the Villa Park crowd.
Andy Lerner has fallen out of favour with the Villa Park crowd.

By 2012 Aston Villa were ultimately a club in crisis. 2011/12 saw the club finish up in 16th place in what was the first season to foreshadow what would eventual happen in 2016. The club’s finances were in a dire state and Lerner had seemingly lost interest, failing to invest in replacing the standout players that were departing the club. Lerner was viewed as a saviour when he took over the reigns back in 2006, but, just a decade later, he is now a figure of hate at Villa Park.

Luckily for Aston Villa, if the past is anything to go by, they are likely to recover from their slump, as they have done so often in the past. They might not be the best team in England at the moment, but they are a club with a long history, and they will certainly continue to add to it in the coming years.

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