The Proud History of Managerless Aston Villa

Instead of a manager, Villa originally used a ‘board of directors’.

We’ve all seen the hashtags over the years of #McLeishOut, #LambertOut, #BruceOut and #SmithOut (Update: #Gerrard Out). Back when Bruce was the Villa manager, a MOMS reader commented on an article – ‘Having no manager is better than having Bruce as manager’.

An empty sentiment? Well, as a previously published MOMS article suggests, there’s actually more than just an element of truth to it.

Below is an updated version of it, that lays out a startling fact of Villa’s history.

Proud History

When you look back at Aston Villa’s history of over 140 years, there’s a story that sounds like it’s straight out of  ‘A Venglos View‘, but it’s actually true.

The ‘Proud History’ mantra of Aston Villa is mainly attributed to the club’s great trophy haul in the early days of football and the fact we were responsible for the invention of the football league.

In terms of trophies, we’re talking about this little lot:

Football League (top flight):

Champions: 1893-94, 1895-96, 1896-97, 1898-99, 1899-1900, 1909-10 (6)

Runners-up: 1888-89, 1902-03, 1907-08, 1910-11, 1912-13, 1913-14, 1930-31, 1932-33 (8)

FA Cup:

Winners: 1887, 1895, 1897, 1905, 1913, 1920 (6)

Runners-up: 1892, 1924 (2)

That’s six league championships and six FA Cup wins (including the double-winning season of 1896-97), not to mention eight league runners-up spots.

Secret of Success

To modern day football eyes this success is extraordinary when you factor in the fact that it happened before Aston Villa decided to finally bother enlisting the services of an actual manager.

Yes, without a manager for decades, Villa were world-beaters. Other teams were using managers, as they became increasingly fashionable, but Villa kept to their guns and their footballing Luddite nature served them well.

Instead of a manager, Villa originally used a ‘board of directors’. It would seem they knew a lot more about football than their modern-day counterparts.

Do you want to know the secret to attacking football?

Again, it’s not having a manager. Villa scored 128 goals in the 1930-31 season (still a top-flight record), three years before they finally gave in and recruited their first manager.

As the ‘Aston Villa: The Complete Record’ book states:

‘While numerous other clubs had been operating with a manager for a number of years, Villa declined to do so until 1934 when, as the club programme revealed: ‘Aston Villa’s methods are to move with the times, as all methods must.’

Embed from Getty Images

Manager Curse

There’s a cautionary tale to come though about not sticking to your guns and giving into trends.

Villa’s first manager was Jimmy McMullan, a former Scottish international, who was appointed June 1934.

You could say, he started something of a curse for Villa and Scottish managers (Docherty, McNeill, McLeish, and Lambert). His first game was a 2-1 defeat by the Blues. The club finished 13th, unlucky for McMullan, as he then won only three out of the opening 11 games of the following season. A run that included a 7-0 defeat by the  Albion, a result that prompted McMullan to resign. Villa were later relegated at the end of the season for the first time in their history.

So much for the supposed benefits of having a manager. I mean, just look at Villa’s record from 1934 to the present day when they’ve employed them…

Football League (top flight, inc Premier League):

Champions: 1980-81

Runners-up: 1989-90, 1992-93

FA Cup

Winners: 1957

Runners-up 2000, 2015


One league and one FA Cup in 80-odd years. It’s a paltry return compared to what managerless Aston Villa teams won in a much shorter space of time.

To cut Villa managers some slack, at least they proved useful in winning five League Cups and of course a European Cup (and Super Cup).

It’s worth pointing out that the manager who was responsible for building the European Cup winning team, Ron Saunders, walked out the club at the quarter-final stages that season, so maybe that actually helped?

Joking aside, considering Villa’s tradition and history, it’s amazing to think only one Villa manager has experienced winning a top flight league championship (Ron Saunders) and a single Villa boss has lifted the FA Cup (Eric Houghton).

So on top of Saunders, Houghton, Barton, the only managers who have won a proper trophy (i.e. not the Intertoto or Peace Cup) are Joe Mercer, Ron Atkinson and Brian Little. That’s six managers in total. No doubt that’s been a Villa quiz question a few times over the years.

Just six trophy-winning managers in 144 years. It makes you wonder why we bother employing them, when you look at the managerless halcyon days of winning trophies for fun.



  1. I, for one, think Ron Saunders was our best manager, followed by Martin O’neil, Graham Taylor & Ron Atkinson, all of which, were treated badly by Deadly Doug. If only Steve Bruce would use some of the tactics they used, villa would be great again. Non of the fore-mentioned managers would ever have used a defensive midfielder like jedinak in the heart of defence. Bruce has his tactics all wrong. The fore-mentioned managers always had the tactics right, right from the start. Bruce has got to change his ways very soon, or it’s a case of see ya later. I am wondering if he is the right man for the job. I say bring back a manager who knows how to get the best out of players (Martin O’neil).

  2. Well, it’s a great article but let’s remember that George Ramsay *was* the club manager between 1886 and 1926 – 40 years. I know most people refer to him as club secretary, but his original title was manager/secretary and he did the lot in terms of team guidance and player signings as well as the administrative issues. However, the board of directors were intrinsically involved and it is true to say it was a team that ran the team from around 1900 (and before). The board members Fred Rinder, John Devey and Howard Spencer did a lot of work in terms of scouting and mentoring of players. But Devey and Spencer were old and great Villans and knew the game intimately. Talking of which I’m re-printing my book ‘The Villa Way (1874-1944)’ shortly. Have a look out for it at from mid-October onwards. Ta! … and UTV

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