Villa's Greatest Heroes: Dennis Mortimer

Every generation, every crowd and every single Aston Villa fan has their own heroes. How could they not, after 133 often glorious years? This is the club who have provided more England internationals than any other. This is the club who founded the Football League.

And this is the club whose captain, in 1982, lifted the biggest prize in club football - and became the confusing factor in a trivia question.

It's not surprising that, when people are asked to name the three scousers to have lifted the European Cup as captain, they forget Dennis Mortimer. Not just because he was wearing claret and blue rather than red, but because few footballers have spent as much of their career in the West Midlands as the man who arrived at Villa Park in 1975.

Indeed, in two decades in the game, Mortimer only spent one season outside the land of Cadbury's, Land Rover and Central Trains. After more than 400 appearances for Aston Villa, and with European Cup, League Championship and League Cup medals in his pocket, he departed for Brighton in 1985. When he returned to Birmingham the following year, it was to play in the blue of Villa's greatest rivals.

The midfielder is far from alone in being a Villa legend who crossed the second city divide. Indeed, Des Bremner, Nigel Spink and Peter Withe, three of Mortimer's teammates that night in Rotterdam, have all done their time at St Andrews - as did Ron Saunders, who had built the team. Mortimer, furthermore, went on to yet another local rival when he took up a coaching role at West Bromwich Albion.

Divided loyalties? The question has been raised before now. In April 2006, Mortimer caused outrage amongst the Holte End faithful by declaring that he would rather see relegation-threatened Birmingham City win the second city derby. Reading past the sensationalist headlines, though, few Villa fans would disagree with Mortimer's blast at the culture of 'complacency' that held the club in thrall.

"The Villa fans are talking about beating Albion and Blues as being their season. But that's not good enough," he complained.

"We should be talking about winning trophies and playing in Europe. The supporters are desperate for a win tomorrow as that would mean they have done the double over Blues. That would be the only thing they could take out of this season - beating Blues and sending them down. That shouldn't be what it is about."

Right or wrong, such words were unwelcome to many supporters. Did they hold a grudge? The standing ovation Mortimer received at the European Cup 25th anniversary celebrations last season suggests all was forgiven. And Mortimer himself, after Randy Lerner replaced Doug Ellis - never a man with whom Mortimer saw eye to eye - made no secret of his pleasure that his concerns had been addressed.

All this, of course, was later. And none of Aston Villa, Birmingham City and or West Bromwich Albion had been Mortimer's first home in the West Midlands. Before signing for Villa, the midfielder had played more than 200 games for Coventry City, attracting the attention of many of the country's top clubs in the seven years he graced the turf at Highfield Road - a spell that included Coventry's one foray into Europe. He made his debut at just 17, more than a decade before lifting Villa's first title in 70 years.

That title is Mortimer's legacy. For all his vital contributions in the glory of the following season, the 1980-81 season saw him at his most talismanic. He played in all 42 league games, and, while he only scored four goals, one of them was the one that sent Villa on their way to the title.

"We went into that game thinking that, if we beat Liverpool, we'd kill them off for the title," he remembered later.

"Their defence was playing a very high line and when Ken Swain picked up a ball I just kept running on his shoulder. As I reached the halfway line he slipped me through - and suddenly I was in all this space."

Picture the scene, and feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. A forty-yard one-on-one against Ray Clemence, one of the greatest keepers in the history of the game. The Liverpool defence that had won three European Cups in the previous five years chasing back. The unexpected title bid in the balance, even as early as January.

The pressure would have been too much for some men. Not the fantastically-bearded Mortimer, who took just two touches and an immaculate shimmy before stroking the ball past Clemence and into the bottom of the net. His teammates mobbed him. Villa Park erupted.

Dennis Mortimer was never capped for England. It remains the most glaring example of what many Villa fans see as a tradition of the club's best and brightest being overlooked by the national side. The country's loss was the region's - and particularly Aston Villa's - gain.