"A strange, surreal experience" - Club legend Tony Morley on the last time Aston Villa played behind closed doors

Tony Morley is struggling to find the right words to sum it up.

Villa’s Tony Morley (centre) celebrates with the trophy after winning the European Cup final against Bayern Munich in 1982. The defence of their title began in front of an empty Villa Park
Villa’s Tony Morley (centre) celebrates with the trophy after winning the European Cup final against Bayern Munich in 1982. The defence of their title began in front of an empty Villa Park

“I guess you would say strange, certainly surreal,” he says. “But I’m not sure even those really do it justice.”

Villa legend Morley has been recounting his memories from a European Cup fixture in 1982, though not the one most famously associated with the club, competition and year.

Less than four months on from their final victory over Bayern Munich in Rotterdam, Villa’s defence of the cup began in very different, much less vibrant surroundings.

Where the stands of Villa Park had been packed a season previously, this time they lay empty, the turnstiles locked under orders from UEFA as punishment for the crowd trouble which had marred the semi-final win over Anderlecht in Brussels.

Wing ace Morley was on the scoresheet as Tony Barton’s team defeated Besiktas 3-1 in a first round, first leg tie played on a mid-afternoon in September and watched by an official crowd of 167 – the lowest ever recorded for a first-team game at Villa Park.

“The season before for the European matches it had been a struggle just to get to the players’ entrance, you’d get stuck in the crowds outside. There was a buzz around the place,” recalls Morley. “On that day there was nothing. It was almost like a glorified Central League match.

“There were one or two die-hard supporters outside and for once you actually had time to stop and speak to them. You could wind your window down and have a bit of a laugh.

“There were actually a few Besiktas fans around. I remember speaking to them too. It was strange because ultimately it was a European Cup match, the premier club competition. But there was no sense of occasion.”

The relaxed setting led to some unusual moments. Morley recalls a pre-match exchange with groundsman Steve Blakeman over how the pitch had been cut.

“The ball wasn’t running the way I expected and I remember yelling at him to ask what he had done to the pitch,” he says. “He shot back: ‘You’ve never been able to run with the ball anyway, you’d better wear my wellies!’

“That sticks in my mind because otherwise, the ground was empty and quiet.”

The eerie atmosphere did not distract Villa from the task in hand. They were already a goal to the good through Peter Withe before Morley doubled the lead with a left-footed shot in the ninth minute.

Dennis Mortimer would make it 3-0 before the break, with Mehmet Eksi pulling one back for the visitors in the second half.

“It wasn’t a hard game for us, from what I remember,” says Morley. “I guess the big thing was you could hear people shouting.

“There’s a lot more verbal that goes on during a match than many people realise and I think one or two who worked behind the scenes at Villa were a bit shocked by what they heard.

“When there are 40,000 in the ground you don’t hear the players, but on this occasion they could hear everything, including a few naughty words.

“I remember a few people remarking on it afterwards, but all you could really do was shrug your shoulders. To us it was just normal.

“We were professional as a team and we knew what we had to do to get a result. But it was very strange and surreal. It is not an experience I ever wanted to repeat.”

Fortunately for Morley, he didn’t have to. Never again did Villa face another fixture behind closed doors – until now.

For the current Villa team, playing without fans is going to be an unavoidable fact of life for the next six weeks as they battle to keep the club in the Premier League.

Six of their final 10 fixtures are at Villa Park, starting with Wednesday’s visit of Sheffield United.

Under normal circumstances that could only be seen as a big plus for Dean Smith’s men. Yet evidence from Germany, where away teams have won almost half the matches since the Bundesliga returned a month ago, suggests there may no longer be much of a home advantage. For a team who have largely depended on their Villa Park form this season, such statistics do not augur particularly well.

“Is there going to be that much of a home advantage if they don’t have a crowd behind them? It is a worry,” admits Morley. “The Holte End is as good as any in the country when they get going. I played when there were 25,000 in there and it does make hell of a difference.

“The players have got to get their professional heads on. The stadium might be empty but you are still playing for 40,000 supporters, more in fact.

“They are desperate to stay in the Premier League. If they want the ground to be one of the best in the business again when fans are allowed back, they’ve got to deliver.

“This is our game in hand so they should not need any more motivation. Just imagine there are 40,000 there.

“It will be a bit different, no question about that, but the players have got to look at the big prize.”

Villa were on a run of five straight defeats prior to the league’s suspension and Morley, like every other supporter, is hoping John McGinn’s return to fitness can prove the catalyst for a late dash to safety.

Victory over the Blades would take Villa out of the relegation zone and provide confidence for the weeks ahead.

“Every game is big but the first one has a bit more incentive,” said Morley. “Let’s be honest, Sheffield United are no easy team. Chris Wilder has done a fantastic job there. They have proved you can go into the league and compete.

“It’s a huge few weeks. We don’t know what the long-term financial impact of the pandemic will be and if you get relegated now, there isn’t going to be as much money about. Football is going to take a hit like everything else.”

Over the past few weeks Morley has been doing his bit to try and make the impact of lockdown a little easier for several of Villa’s most vulnerable supporters.

The 65-year-old has been among a group of former players – which includes several of his European Cup-winning team-mates – making phone calls to check-in with elderly supporters.

There are now plans to expand the scheme, set up by the Former Players Association in conjunction with the Villa Foundation, to include Zoom calls in the coming weeks.

“We have just been asking these people if they needed any help or anything like that because at the moment you can’t go round and see them,” said Morley. “There have been a few I called who didn’t believe it was me and put the phone down. Some wanted to chat for ages.

“I see it is a duty, really. It is a natural thing to do, to give something back. Sometimes you have to remember how lucky you are.”

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