Even a man who has earned a reputation as the king of European football is impressed by the view on his way into work. “Every day [when] I am going to the training ground there is the 1982 European Cup,” said Unai Emery. “Always when I am going in my office, I am passing this and watching the trophy.”
When Emery trades Bodymoor Heath for Villa Park, the banner that separates the two tiers of the North Stand is Brian Moore’s commentary of Peter Withe’s winner in Rotterdam in the 1982 final. It can feel a long time ago: Sunday marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Tony Barton, their European Cup-winning manager. Wednesday brings an end to a 13-year exile from continental competition. A 3-2 home play-off defeat by Rapid Vienna in 2010 came with Villa losing their status among the best of the rest in England, rocked by Martin O’Neill’s sudden resignation, with a budget trimmed and ambitions reduced.
And when Villa appointed Emery, the most impressive part of his record felt irrelevant: They were 14th, more concerned about avoiding a trip to Rotherham than a return to Rotterdam. A surge took them to seventh place. The Europa League record-breaker now faces a two-legged play-off against Hibernian in the Conference League.
Emery’s pedigree is such that many expect Villa to go all the way to the final in Athens. “Now the moment is to play against Hibernian,” the Spaniard said. “There are really good teams and to win it is very, very difficult, but we have to be first candidate to be in the group and second try to be candidate to focus in this competition.”
And yet he has proved a master of plotting a path through the pool stages and then the knockout rounds. Emery won a hat-trick of Europa Leagues with Sevilla in 2014, 2015 and 2016, reached the 2019 final with Arsenal, and then lifted the trophy for a fourth time in 2021 with Villarreal.
“Playing in Europe always gave me a lot as a coach and in football, I am so grateful for the possibility,” Emery said. “Now with Aston Villa I want to share with everybody my experiences and my competitive way, that I did before and I want to do it here. That is the message for the players and for the supporters.”
It was instructive that, unprompted, Emery dropped in a mention of the two sides to triumph in the newest European competition. “Teams like West Ham and Roma, who were the first team to win the competition two years ago,” he noted. Each was proof that, while it is easy to dismiss the Conference League as the unwanted lesser sibling of the more prestigious European competitions, it has had immense significance to its winners.
Emery celebrating his fourth Europa League triumph, with Villarreal (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
West Ham’s previous European silverware came in 1965. Despite reaching a European Cup final and a Champions League semi-final, Roma had none. For clubs starved of success on this stage, who saw a small cabal sweeping up all the medals, the Conference League is what you make of it. For Villa, whose last honour came in 1996, it could have a similar status. Emery transformed both the history and identity of both Sevilla and Villarreal; if he is trying to do the same with Villa, his recruitment policy may have come with an eye on this kind of opportunity.
Pau Torres was part of his Villarreal team who triumphed in 2021. In the same year, Youri Tielemans scored the goal that blasted Leicester through a different glass ceiling, securing the first FA Cup in their 137-year history. And, most auspiciously of all, his latest addition is Nicolo Zaniolo, who scored the winner in the inaugural Conference League final. The on-loan Roma winger could make his debut at Easter Road. “Hopefully, yes,” said Emery. “He has experiences, he won the Conference League with Roma.”
A visit to Edinburgh is a homecoming of sorts for Emery’s captain. John McGinn won the Scottish Cup during his three years with Hibs. Villa signed him for just £2.5m in 2018. “Now I think he would cost more than before,” said Emery; not that he has any intention of letting the Scot go.
McGinn has proved the man for the big occasion before: He scored the Championship play-off final decider in 2019, ending Villa’s three-year stint outside the Premier League. Come May, he could find himself in a select group with Ivan Rakitic, Jose Antonio Reyes, Koke and Raul Albiol, the men who have skippered Emery’s teams to European glory. Or, indeed, bracketed with Dennis Mortimer, who captained Villa in the 1982 European Cup final. “This is the history of Aston Villa and it is amazing,” added Emery. “We want to write a new history now in our way.”