The Football League was the brainchild of William McGregor the pioneer. It was one William McGregor the fan would exult 22 years after its 1888 inception. For the club at which he directed and followed religiously had, by then, won the English top flight a record six times.

It would take 71 years for Aston Villa to recapture the First Division crown, but that unforeseen conquest proved the gateway to their zenith: an against-all-odds defeat of Bayern Munich in the European Cup final. delivers the tale of the oldest existing club in the world’s oldest league.

Birth of an institution
Aston Villa Football Club was founded by Jack Hughes, Frederick Matthews, Walter Price and William Scattergood in March 1874, and won their first trophy six years later by beating Saltley College 3-1 in the Birmingham Senior Cup final; a success indebted to the menacing dribbles and defence-piercing passes of George Ramsay. The Glaswegian assumed the Villa reins thereafter and, with fellow Scot Archie Hunter an irrepressible figure in his attack, masterminded their FA Cup final victory over West Bromwich Albion in 1987, which cemented the neighbours as bitter foes. The Aston outfit also established a rivalry with Birmingham City in their infancy, and to this day the Baggies and the Blues remain the Villans’ two fiercest enemies. With McGregor as the Football League’s architect, Villa were naturally founding members and finished its maiden campaign second, albeit 11 points shy of Preston North End, in 1888/89.

The making of a legend
After back-to-back fourth-placed finishes in 1891/92 and 1892/93, Aston Villa, who had begun attracting era-belying crowds of 25,000-plus, finally emerged as the kings of England. Indeed, spearheaded by the brilliant John Devey, they won five First Divisions and three FA Cups between 1894 and 1900. The Villans also established two enduring records within this period: Bob Chatt’s solitary, 30-second goal against West Brom in 1895 remained the fastest goal in the history of the FA Cup final until Everton’s Louis Saha struck after just 25 seconds in 2009, while their 1897 domestic double was not repeated until Tottenham Hotspur's 1961 heroics.

Villa became the first club to adopt the now-popular claret-and-blue jerseys before the turn of the 20th century, and won their sixth top-tier title in 1910 thanks to the cute invention of Joe Bache and goals of Harry Hampton. The honours dried up after they seized their sixth FA Cup in 1920, but that did not stop the Villa faithful revelling in the genius of a throng of terrace icons: Tom ‘Pongo’ Waring, a mercurial striker who trained at his own choosing, hit 49 league goals to help Villa finish second in 1930/31 [only Dixie Dean, who managed 60 in 1927/28, has scored more in an English top-flight season], midfielder Eric Houghton wooed fans with his vicious shots from distance from 1929 to 1947, and Trevor Ford also dazzled in the late-1940s.

Villa got back on the trophy trail in the 1957 FA Cup final, when a Peter McParland double secured a surprise 2-1 defeat of a Manchester United side featuring Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton, and they also won the inaugural League Cup in 1961.

Fast-forward 20 years and Villa ended a 71-year wait for the First Division prize. Arsenal, Ipswich Town, Liverpool, Manchester United and Nottingham Forest began the campaign in a seemingly exclusive battle for gold, but Ron Saunders’ team, who utilised just 14 players over the course of 42 games, gatecrashed their party. Captain Dennis Mortimer, midfielder Gordon Cowans, youngster Gary Shaw and his striker partner Peter Withe made abundant contributions to that success, and the quartet also performed critical functions in the club’s unlikely meridian the following year.

With Villa mid-table in the First Division, Saunders quit in the January and was replaced by his assistant, the unpractised Tony Barton. However, despite struggling domestically – they eventually limped home in 12th – they eliminated Dinamo Kiev and Anderlecht to reach the European Cup decider, which they entered as significant underdogs against a Bayern Munich side featuring Paul Breitner, Dieter Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.

Villa’s odds shortened after ten minutes, when experienced goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer was forced off injured. His replacement was Nigel Spink, who had just one professional game under his belt. The rookie repeatedly repelled Bayern, nevertheless, and on 67 minutes the Midlands team produced the game’s only goal when Tony Morley deceived his marker down the left and crossed for Withe to fire home from close range. Villa followed up that victory by outlasting Barcelona 3-1 on aggregate to lift the European Super Cup eight months later.

Relegated from the elite in 1987, Villa returned at the first attempt and, propelled by Cowans and two emerging youngsters, namely prolific midfielder David Platt and jet-heeled winger Tony Daley, ran home as First Division runners-up in 1990. It was a final position the Villans repeated in the Premier League’s inaugural season in 1992/93.

The remainder of the decade proved largely unfruitful for AVFC, although they did claim temporary solace from two League Cup triumphs and adopt heroes such as Paul McGrath, Dean Saunders, Dalian Atkinson and Dwight Yorke.

The present
The first six years of the past decade were largely forgettable for Aston Villa, but that has changed since the appointment of Martin O’Neill in 2006. Indeed, after a mid-table finish in the Irishman’s first term at the controls, they ended up sixth in each of the past three seasons and also reached the League Cup final earlier this year, losing 2-1 to Manchester United. Moreover, they have dominated Birmingham in the ‘Second City Derby’. As of today, only Everton have appeared in more top-flight campaigns than Villa, who have produced more England internationals than any other side.

The stadium
After brief stays at Aston Park and Perry Barr during the club’s infancy, the Midlands giants made Villa Park their home in 1897. It became the first English stadium to host international football in three different centuries and has staged an unmatched number of FA Cup semi-finals. Villa Park’s highest all-time attendance was the 76,588 that watched a 4-3 loss to Derby Country in the first leg of their FA Cup quarter-final in 1946, but the ground’s capacity is now just under 43,000.