Highbury certainly saw its fair share of title triumphs in the 93 years or so that it was home to the Arsenal – even allowing for those glorious occasions when the League was won at the likes of White Hart Lane, Old Trafford and Anfield. However, on this day 36 years ago the Home of Football witnessed an altogether different kind of championship history. Aston Villa arrived in the capital, desperate for the point that would see them crowned Kings of England for the first time since 1910.
Terry Neill’s Gunners lay in 3rd place before the game, and were full of confidence having won 6 of their last 7 league matches. Not only that, but the side were unbeaten at home all season – were it not for their ropey form on the road, the Arsenal would have been genuine contenders for Division One themselves. As it was, their 8 away defeats – 5 of them before Christmas – put paid to such ambitions (via Statto).
The Villans were 4 points clear at the top of the table going into this, their final match of the season. Nonetheless, they must have felt lucky to have the chance to win the league at all. Just a few weeks earlier, Ron Saunders had watched his team crumble at home to title rivals Ipswich – a result which left the East Anglians 1 point behind Villa with a game in hand. Yet as they ran out in front of 57,472 fans in North London, Aston Villa knew that a draw would be enough to secure the title (via 11v11).
For a couple of the Arsenal’s FA Cup winners of 1979, this was to be a final bow; fullback Sammy Nelson and striker Frank Stapleton pulled on the famous red and white before their transfers to Brighton and Manchester United, respectively. Stapleton started the match, while Nelson would make his appearance as substitute, replacing Brian Talbot. Before the game began, the footballing legend that is Pelé was introduced to the crowd, with many in the stadium chanting ‘Sign him up, sign him up, sign him up…’ (via The Arsenal History).
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Willie Young put the Gunners in front after 12 minutes and, just before half time, a long hoofed clearance from Pat Jennings sent Brian McDermott racing away at a badly exposed Villa defence; he coolly beat two defenders before slotting home. Thereafter most Villa fans were more concerned with Ipswich’s fortunes than what was happening before their eyes. Ears glued to their radios, the travelling contingent in the Clock End let out roars of relief as it became apparent that their fellow contenders were dropping points at Middlesbrough.
The Arsenal comfortably saw out the second half, qualifying for Europe in the process, but to Aston Villa it scarcely mattered; they were champions. “On the pitch, on the pitch, on the pitch…” chanted the North Bank, eager to help their opponents celebrate a long-awaited league triumph. Sure enough, at the final whistle both sets of fans invaded the pitch, delighted with the outcome (via The Arsenal History).
So it was that Aston Villa became the first, and only, away side to win the league at Highbury.