Aston Villa were founded in 1874 and went on to become one of the most successful English clubs. They have won it all, from English league titles, to FA Cups and of course the European Cup. All of these were achieved with some world-class players’ help and top managers’ guidance. In this article, let us have a look at some of the greatest Aston Villa managers of all time.
Based on the impact, success, playing style, win percentage and fans’ opinion, here are the ten greatest Aston Villa managers of all time.
=10. Martin O’Neill [2006–2010]
O’Neill was appointed Villa manager two weeks before the start of the 2006/07 season replacing David O’Leary. Villa made a good start under him, remaining unbeaten in their first nine league fixtures. Villa finished 11th that season, 5 positions better than the previous season. The following 3 seasons they finished 6th in each term, narrowly missing out on Champions League football in 2009-10.
O’Neill didn’t win a trophy at Villa, his highlight was the league cup run in 2009/10, where his side reached the final. Unfortunately, they lost out 2-1 to Manchester United in a controversial final. He surely earns his place among the greatest Aston Villa managers of all time.
=10. Dean Smith [2018–2021]
Dean Smith became manager of the club in 2018, taking over from Steve Bruce. He’s a Villa fan and from a Villa family, so everyone loved Dean. Villa had finished fourth in the Championship in the season before and were runners-up in the Playoffs, thus Dean Smith’s job was to get Villa promoted.
He did this exactly and brought Villa back into the Premier League after beating Derby County in the 2019 Championship play-off final. He also took Villa to the 2019–20 League Cup final, ultimately losing to Manchester City. Smith was sacked in November 2021, after a run of five successive defeats in the Premier League. He overall managed 134 games, with a win percentage of 41.04.
9. Graham Taylor [1987–1990]
Taylor came to Villa after building the best Watford side of all time. He came to Villa with the responsibility of transforming a Villa side that had stuttered after winning the European Cup in 1982. Taylor came close to his first title win in 1990 when the Villans were runners-up to Liverpool. It was after this success that England came knocking and things went rather downhill for Taylor.
Taylor’s England tenure started well with Three Lions going unbeaten for 23 games. Yet a poor Euro ‘92 and a disastrous qualification for the 1994 World Cup meant Taylor was shown the door, he would eventually return to Villa, although would fall out with the club’s chairman Doug Ellis after 15 months in charge.
8. Unai Emery [2022- present]
The Spaniard took over the reins of Aston Villa from Steven Gerrard with the club in a very difficult position. Unai Emery was able to bring the club back on track and Villa would win fifteen of their twenty-five league games under him, earning 49 points from a possible 75 during that run.
With a final-day victory over Brighton & Hove Albion, the club were able to finish 7th and secure European football in the form of UEFA Europa Conference League. From relegation battlers to European football, what was quite a turn-around.
This season they have had a good first half and will hope to continue the same, with a possible Champions League position finish in their sights.
7. Brian Little [1994–1998]
Anyone for a bit of the Man Who Walks On Water – Sir Brian of the Little? 1994 to 1998, 68 wins in 164 matches with plenty of quality football to boot, European football and another Cup win. Little had returned to the club and it’s where he belongs.
Under Little, young players like Mark Bosnich and Ugo Ehiogu were now getting more first-team chances. The new-look Villa team gelled well, and 1995–96 was a successful season at Villa Park. The club finished fourth in the Premiership, reached the FA Cup semi-finals and won the Football League Cup with a 3–0 win over Leeds United at Wembley.
6. Ron Atkinson [1991–1994]
Ron Atkinson is one of English football’s most recognisable and popular characters, having been involved in management for a quarter of a century. He was born in Liverpool in 1939, moving to Warwickshire as a child, where his football ability was recognised by Aston Villa; a club he would later manage.
Ron Atkinson almost managed Aston Villa to the league title. He won the Football League Cup and had a win percentage of more than 43 with Aston Villa, earning him a place among the greatest Aston Villa managers of all time.
5. W.J Smith [1926–34]
W. J. Smith was a secretary/committee member of Aston Villa F.C. from August 1926 to May 1934. During this time, this was the equivalent of the modern-day manager’s position. Before 1934, the team was selected by a committee. Smith was the last person to be a Secretary. Jimmy McMullan was appointed as manager when he retired.
Smith managed 354 games and won 175 of them. Having joined Aston Villa as a 17-year-old in 1910, he remained at the club until his death in 1957. His association with Villa lasted 47 years.
4. Joe Mercer [1958–1964]
Joe Mercer joined Aston Villa in 1958, who were bottom of the First Division. Although he led them to the FA Cup semi-finals, Villa were relegated to Division Two.
He moulded a talented young side at Villa and his team became known as the ‘Mercer Minors’. He led Villa to victory in the inaugural League Cup in 1961 but suffered a stroke in 1964, and was then sacked by the Aston Villa board upon his recovery.
3. Tony Barton [1982–1984]
Tony Barton is certainly worth his third spot here. Only two seasons in charge really, but having overseen the European Cup win and the Super Cup win, I can’t imagine many will disagree here. We all know about Barton’s achievements, taking an already good side made by Ron Saunders and making it into the best side in Europe.
Barton took over the Villa reigns in 1982 following Saunders’s switch to rivals Birmingham City – it was days before Villa’s crucial away leg against the Soviet Union, champions Dynamo Kiev. His success against the now-Ukrainian outfit meant he was appointed on a full-time basis.
A 1-0 win against Anderlecht meant Villa had their biggest game in history against Bayern Munich before Peter White’s goal consigned Barton to folklore. Three top-half finishes would follow before Barton left Villa, citing ill-health and the high pressures of top-tier management for the change.
2. Ron Saunders [1974–1982]
Whilst Tony Barton is the man who is celebrated for leading the Villans to the European Cup, his Birkenhead-born predecessor should also take some credit for laying the foundations. With promotion and a League Cup win secured in his first year, having established Villa back in the First Division as well as lifting another League Cup, he paved the path for European glory.
Saunders took a team that was lying mid-table in the second division and made them into a Championship-winning side. Saunders’s frugality in the transfer market played a big part in the success of the team.
1. George Ramsey [1886–1926]
It’s only fitting that the best manager in Villa’s history in terms of honours would also do the double and be the greatest Villa manager in terms of stats as well. The Glasgow-born manager provided success on an almost industrial scale. Ramsey originally came to Birmingham looking for work, yet his success as a player for the Villans led to him becoming the club’s secretary, and then manager in 1884.
Ramsey found success early in his time at the club, winning the FA Cup in his third season against fledgling rivals West Brom. What followed after the cup win, was a revolutionary rebranding of Villa’s tactics that made them unstoppable for most of the 1890s. Ramsey would lead his Villa side to five league titles in six years between 1894 and the turn of the century. Another title followed in 1910, as would another five FA Cups. His honours made him the most successful manager in history for over 100 years before the rise of Fergie.
Yet like his compatriot, part of Ramsey’s success was his adaptability. Ramsey was always praised for the forward-thinking tactics he employed. Ramsey would resign in 1926 after 42 years at the helm, becoming an honorary vice president. Before losing his life in 1935; Aston Villa were relegated that season.