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Aston Villa’s blond bombshell: Gary Shaw reminisces about glory years at Villa Park

Gary Shaw will get round to the time he was the only local lad in the Aston Villa team that shocked Bayern Munich to win the European Cup.

He will revel in the night Diego Maradona asked for his shirt, and smile at the memory of being man-marked nearly to the toilets by Claudio Gentile.

He will also talk candidly about the serious health fears he suffered after contracting septicaemia in 2016.

Former Aston Villa striker Gary Shaw poses in his home with a glass copy of the European Cup 

In the Eighties, Shaw had a flash of blond hair, glamour model girlfriends, and played for his boyhood club in Villa's most successful years

In the Eighties, Shaw had a flash of blond hair, glamour model girlfriends, and played for his boyhood club in Villa’s most successful years

But before all that, as he settles down for lunch on a sun-kissed afternoon in Birmingham, he tells the riotous story of the day his boyhood club were crowned English champions.

Needing a point at Highbury to secure the 1981 First Division title ahead of Ipswich on the final Saturday of the season, things did not exactly go according to plan.

‘Our preparation was absolutely s***,’ he says. Tone set. ‘We went down on the morning of the game but didn’t realise there was a rugby league final on at Wembley. The old M6 was chocca. We had to phone up for a police escort and half the journey was down the hard shoulder.

‘We didn’t get to the ground until about half an hour before kick off. And then all sorts of things were going on.

‘Phil Collins was knocking on the dressing room door asking for Tony Morley’s shirt. I was a Genesis fan, I was gutted he didn’t ask me. “Do you want mine instead Phil, and you can sort us a freebie for a concert?” ‘Then when we’re doing our warm up Pele is there jogging in between us waving to the fans. “F*** off Pele we’re trying to concentrate on the game here!” I don’t know what he was doing there. Nightmare.

‘Ron Saunders was tucking into his Remy Martin at the time, passing it round the lads to “calm our nerves”. Calm our nerves? We were 2-0 down by half-time! First time we had a chance of winning the league in 70 years and we prepared like that.’ 

Pause for breath. Shaw tells his stories like he played the game, with maverick glee and, usually, a killer finish. He is as good round the table as he was on the pitch and given he was once named Europe’s best young player in an award since won by both Ronaldos that tells you something.

Allan Evans heads away from Arsenal's Paul Davis while Shaw looks on during Villa's 2-0 loss

Allan Evans heads away from Arsenal’s Paul Davis while Shaw looks on during Villa’s 2-0 loss

Despite losing 2-0, Villa were crowned league champions as they celebrate at Highbury

Despite losing 2-0, Villa were crowned league champions as they celebrate at Highbury

In the eighties Shaw had a flash of blond hair, glamour model girlfriends, and lived the dream as a player for the club he supported during their most successful years, culminating in victory over Bayern in Rotterdam 36 years ago.

Trent Alexander-Arnold has the chance to replicate the homegrown feat with Liverpool on the day Villa try to reach the Premier League again. Shaw will provide opinion on those subjects.

But first, to that chaotic May day in 1981. At the break Ipswich were 1-0 up at Middlesbrough. ‘Our chins are on the floor, Ron is going potty,’ Shaw recalls. But in the second period Boro scored twice and that was enough.

Trent Alexander-Arnold can replicate the feat of being a home-grown player  to win the Champions League with Liverpool on Saturday

Trent Alexander-Arnold can replicate the feat of being a home-grown player to win the Champions League with Liverpool on Saturday

‘We only used 14 players that season. We had continuity. Away from home our attitude was to keep it tight. Our manager would be more ecstatic at a 0-0 draw than a 3-2 win. Loved a clean sheet.

‘He trained us so we were very fit and quick on the break. Similar to how Liverpool exposed areas on the counter against Roma.

‘We had Tony Morley and Kenny Swain out wide, and overlapping fullbacks who were converted wingers. We played that system the following year in the European Cup.’ 

Villa’s was a maiden voyage in the competition but England had enjoyed a five-year monopoly through Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The 1981 final was also Liverpool against Real Madrid.

Shaw remembers a ‘gimme’ first round tie against Icelandic side Valur, and how in the second Jimmy Rimmer’s fingertip save squeezed Villa past a ‘bloody good’ Dynamo Berlin side on away goals.

Not that Saunders would be around to see the quarter-finals. ‘Ron resigned, flippin great!’ Shaw says. Saunders’ shock decision coincided with the return to the club of Doug Ellis as owner and the absence of an improved contract.

Shaw (centre) featured in Villa's 1-0 first-leg win over Anderlecht in 1982 European Cup

Shaw (centre) featured in Villa’s 1-0 first-leg win over Anderlecht in 1982 European Cup

‘In the end the gaffer didn’t feel he was being properly looked after and on principle he walked out,’ says Shaw. 

Villa promoted Tony Barton from his position as chief scout. ‘I thought he was the postman because he used to bring me all my Valentine’s cards!’ laughs Shaw. ‘No he was a great talent-spotter, bless him.’ 

The first leg of the quarter-final at Dynamo Kiev was tight. ‘The hotel accommodation was awful; cockroaches in the meals, no curtains in the rooms, the toilets weren’t working.’ Shaw scored the opener in the home game as Villa eased through 2-0.

Then came Anderlecht, a team with strong European pedigree. Villa protected a 1-0 lead into the second leg in Belgium, where trouble erupted in the stands.

‘I was watching the fighting when the ball went out of play,’ Shaw says.. The result was 0-0 but Anderlecht appealed to UEFA for Villa’s expulsion because a fan had run on the pitch when Anderlecht striker Kenneth Larsen bore down on goal.

Bayern Munich's Reinhold Mathy (No 10) watches on as Shaw battles for the ball in the final

Bayern Munich’s Reinhold Mathy (No 10) watches on as Shaw battles for the ball in the final

‘We found out later he was in the British Army in Europe and he’d come over to watch the game,’ Shaw says. ‘He was just escaping all the violence.’ 

UEFA fined Villa but waved through passage to the final, where the opponents were a Bayern side featuring Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Paul Breitner.

‘I think we were ten to one with bookies,’ says Shaw. ‘I wish I’d have known that before the game! We were just there for the ride. They had world-class players and we had none recognised by the FA coaching staff. What chance did we have?’ 

When Rimmer was forced off with a neck injury on nine minutes, the odds looked even longer. Nigel Spink, a 23-year-old deputy with little senior experience was thrust into action.

Peter Withe is congratulated by Gary Shaw (No 8)  after scoring the winner against Bayern

Peter Withe is congratulated by Gary Shaw (No 8) after scoring the winner against Bayern

‘Record number of central league reserve appearances, Spinksy,’ says Shaw. ‘But he was man of the match.’ Spink pulled off a number of saves and Villa struck through Peter Withe in the 67th minute. 

‘I put a great ball in to Tony, he did his bit, and Withy has shinned it in off the post. I was first to the celebrations.’

Shaw had won the biggest club prize on offer at the age of 21 and his performances earned him the Bravo award for outstanding young talent in Europe. The list of names that followed him is illustrious indeed: Marco Van Basten, Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi to name a few.

‘The ceremony was in Montecatini. Beautiful. I was in the audience with the Italian World Cup winners of 82.

Shaw, 21 at the time, helped Villa beat Bayern 1-0 to lift the European Cup in 1982

Shaw, 21 at the time, helped Villa beat Bayern 1-0 to lift the European Cup in 1982

‘It was sponsored by the magazine Guerin Sportivo and thankfully they picked up my drinks tab. It was going out the room when it came to settling the bill.’ Shaw gained further admirers when taking on Barcelona in the Super Cup at the Nou Camp. 

‘Oh, El Diego,’ he says. ‘I didn’t even think I’d had a decent game, then at the dressing room there is all this commotion with bodyguards, or whoever Maradona had with him, and they were asking for my shirt to swap. I’ve gone, “Are you taking the p***? The best player in the world?” 

‘But I wasn’t allowed because of our Black Country flippin’ kit manager. “I’ll have to phone up for a new shirt.” For f***s sake it’s Diego Maradona!’ 

Shaw scored in the home leg that Villa won and he has a large canvas of a photograph taken in the immediate aftermath. ‘Withy had elbowed their centre-halve, Migueli, who is on the deck with half his front teeth missing. The referee hasn’t seen it.’ 

In that season’s European Cup Villa were knocked out in the quarters by Juventus, with Gentile, the legendary Italian defender, man-marking Shaw. ‘He wasn’t interested in the game, just stopping me. I swear if I’d gone to the toilet he’d have been at my side.’ 

Shaw faced Diego Maradona in the Super Cup at the Nou Camp

The former striker thought he didn't have a good game when he played against Barcelona

He then faced football royalty when he came up against Diego Maradona (L) in the Super Cup

Shaw thinks the Italians tried underhand tactics before the game too. ‘I did a live interview with Rai TV at the old Pebble Mill studios on the Monday. 

There was an interpreter there, dodgy guy, and he brought this stunning blonde, who was very friendly towards me. I was thinking, “Is this a ploy, on the field and off?”‘ Shaw resisted the temptation of a night out. ‘I could see where they were coming from, but I took the Giorgio Armani jumper instead.’ 

Growing up in the Kingshurst area of Birmingham, Shaw would hone his touch by kicking a ball against the wall of the Punchbowl pub for hours. ‘I worked on my weaker left foot, which proved very useful for finishing when I got older.’ 

He began his association with Villa as a supporter. ‘I’ve been to every Villa appearance at Wembley since 1971,’ he says. ‘I saw them lose the League Cup to Spurs when I was 11. Broke my heart.’ 

The comparisons to Solihull-born Jack Grealish are obvious. Grealish’s dad Kevin was in Rotterdam in 1982 and Villa’s current No 10 has stood on the terraces too.

After their encounter, Maradona was impressed with Shaw and wanted to swap shirts

After their encounter, Maradona was impressed with Shaw and wanted to swap shirts

‘I briefly met Jack at the training ground a couple of months ago,’ Shaw says. ‘After his injury I think he’s come back a lot stronger, more confident player.’ Shaw was named the PFA Young Player of the Year in 1981 and rode the crest of a wave heading into the World Cup in 1982. But Ron Greenwood selected others for Spain in a decision that still causes sorrow.

‘To watch Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking go on the plane injured was tough. Fair enough, they were good players. But I’d just scored 24 goals, no penalties, no free-kicks, and I’m sitting on a beach in Ibiza having a San Miguel.

‘Then we got knocked out for not scoring enough. Now you only have to play a few games in the Premier League to get an England cap!’ In all, Shaw scored 79 goals in 213 games for Villa but those statistics are warped by events against Nottingham Forest one Tuesday night in September 1983. 

‘Kenny Swain brought me down, and as Ian Bowyer’s gone to pull me up something didn’t feel right,’ says Shaw. ‘I’ve carried on but my knee’s locked. No St John’s Ambulance men around, I’ve had to hobble off. Next day they operated. Really that was the end of my first-class career.’ 

Battling through numerous surgeries, Shaw would never again hit the same heights and left Villa in 1988, enjoying a nomadic postscript that included spells in Copenhagen and Austria.

Had he remained fit he would have gone abroad to more glamorous destinations. ‘I had phone calls from Real Madrid, whispers of Juventus,’ he says. ‘I’d have loved to play in Italy, learnt the language.’ 

Legendary Juventus defender Claudio Gentile, man-marked Shaw in Villa's quarter-final defeat

Legendary Juventus defender Claudio Gentile, man-marked Shaw in Villa’s quarter-final defeat

Shaw reached the FA Cup fifth round with Shrewsbury in 1991 – ‘we knocked Watford out, I stuck two past a very young David James’ – and then came an opportunity to play in Hong Kong.

‘I did a lot of living, not much playing,’ he says. He worked in the marketing department instead. ‘It was a great time. Come the weekend it was more expensive to stay in Hong Kong for a night out than it was to get a flight to Singapore or Manilla. I did Taiwan one Friday night.’ 

Shaw gives a flavour of the life he loved. ‘The governor was Chris Patten and I used to have to walk past his mansion to meet a girl I was seeing. One day, staff at the airline Cathay Pacific went on strike over wages, and all the air stewardesses are outside picketing. I’ve gone, “Flippin’ eck, this is the best looking picket line I’ve ever seen!” 

All Miss Worlds. They’d be out there all night in sleeping bags. I used to take them flasks of coffee.’ On returning to England in 1994 Shaw held a role coaching at Villa’s school of excellence and oversaw Gabby Agbonlahor’s development.

For the past few years Shaw has worked for Opta, attending matches to record data. He has covered around 80 this season alone.

He is a regular at Villa Park, does women’s football, and also youth games. He spoke to Cyrille Regis at an Under-18s match a week before his sudden passing. The emotion remains. ‘He was a great lad, a bloody shock.’ 

Shaw wasn't capped for England's senior team and made seven appearances for the Under 21s

Shaw wasn’t capped for England’s senior team and made seven appearances for the Under 21s

Now 57, Shaw can go untroubled through the concourse at the stadium he once sent into regular raptures. 

‘The blond hair has gone and I limp now.’ He is talking about his chronic knee problems. ‘I’ve had too many ops, I wouldn’t even know the number.’ He often gets injections to relieve fluid and his struggle became gravely serious in August 2016. 

‘I was walking down the stairs and tweaked my knee..’ After an aspiration by his physio the swelling came back six weeks later. A steroid was administered but danger struck.

‘I woke up in the middle of the night. It had exploded. Throbbing, red hot, it was going all down my leg. I thought, “I’m in trouble here.” I phoned my physio. He said, “Get yourself down to A+E, quickly”.’ 

Doctors at the Queen Elizabeth acted with speed. ‘They put all the antibiotics into me straight away, bang, bang. I was in hospital for six weeks and had two ops to try to get the infection out. You start to worry at that long. I lost two stone in weight.

‘They were monitoring it every day. If that travels up from my knee to my main organs, it’s lights out isn’t it? Septicaemia is the silent killer, it kills thousands.’ Shaw was in a bad way. ‘I didn’t know where I was with all the drugs pumping into me. I was hallucinating. I didn’t recognise anybody for the first ten days.

Shaw, 57, won't continue his streak of seeing Villa's every appearance at Wembley on Saturday 

Shaw, 57, won’t continue his streak of seeing Villa’s every appearance at Wembley on Saturday 

‘It took me about three months to recover. The zimmer frame went straight in the bin but I had to shower with crutches. Then it was a walking stick.’ 

His neat flat in Edgbaston is on the top floor. ‘I had to call on a few favours.’ Shaw is back walking unaided now but slowly. He went to his local pub to watch Liverpool defeat Roma and is pleased Alexander-Arnold has the chance to emulate his feat by becoming a local European champion. 

‘It is nice to have that in this day and age, when the game has changed so much,’ Shaw says.

His beloved Villa are in action on the same day. ‘They have improved from last season but there could be a major reconstruction if they don’t go up. I hope they keep Steve Bruce either way. He’s stopped that club doing a Sunderland.’ 

Shaw will not continue his streak of seeing Villa at Wembley though. ‘I look as an old diehard fan; it’s the play-offs, it’s not really a Wembley game for me.’ 

He is hosting an evening with Mark Walters at a pub in Stourbridge instead. So he doesn’t have to contend with the M6. Or Phil Collins. 


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