A cultured midfielder regarded in many circles as the best ever captain of Aston Villa was almost ever-present in one season with Brighton.
Dennis Mortimer captained Villa when they won the European Cup in 1982 under manager Tony Barton.
Mortimer joined the Seagulls three years later and shone in what was a rather disappointing Division 2 season which saw the Albion finish 11th.
Brighton’s near-promotion form in the season before had prompted Mortimer to try to help the Seagulls to restore their elite status after he’d been released by Villa.
In a programme feature by Tony Norman in November 1985, he said: “I knew this was a good side to come into; a team that wanted to play good football and win promotion. They missed it so narrowly last year and I felt I would like to be part of that challenge this year. I knew there would be excitement in the season ahead, and to me that is one of the most important things in football.
“Obviously I’m coming to the end of a long career in the game. I’ve been a professional for 17 years now and I wanted one final challenge. That’s why I came to Brighton.”
In his programme notes for the opening game of the season (against Grimsby Town), manager Chris Cattlin said of his former Coventry team-mate Mortimer: “He is a truly outstanding professional who will give the team steadiness and experience.”
Fans had a taste of what he would bring to the team when he scored a cracker in a pre-season game against Arsenal.
Unfortunately, while Mortimer was a consistent performer in midfield and the team enjoyed a decent run in the FA Cup – losing in the quarter finals to Southampton – Cattlin’s side were beset by injuries to key players and ultimately fell short of the top spots.
Knowing his time on the south coast was going to be limited, Mortimer didn’t uproot his family from their Litchfield home and instead lived in the Courtlands Hotel in Hove when not commuting back to the Midlands.
Despite being born in Liverpool, the bulk of Mortimer’s career was connected with West Midlands teams, beginning with Coventry City and ending with West Brom where he had a spell as assistant manager after his playing days were over.
He had not been a schoolboy star but was picked up and developed through Coventry’s youth development system, in particular under the watchful eye of Bob Dennison, the man who, at Middlesbrough, brought together as players one of the most famous footballing partnerships in Brian Clough and Peter Taylor.
“As a lad I thought I would be an engineer and, although the whole family were Liverpool mad, and we never missed a home game, it did not enter my head that I might be a professional until I was 14,” Mortimer said in a Goal interview in 1973. Coventry offered him a trial just as he was leaving school and his career built from there.
His initial Coventry boss Noel Cantwell, the former Man Utd and West Ham full back, was sure Dennis was destined for greater things after his first England under-23 call-up. “Dennis will become a big name in football, “ he said. “When he gets in Sir Alf’s side I don’t think he will lose his place easily.”
The same article revealed how his flowing locks earned him the nickname Doris amongst his teammates.
Coventry general manager, Joe Mercer, who was a legendary figure in the game and had a spell as caretaker manager of England, said of Dennis: “He has this great change of pace…he can go into another gear and accelerate out of trouble like all the good ones.”
However, it was after his move to Villa in 1975 that he rose to prominence, culminating in that famous 1-0 win over Bayern Munich in Rotterdam, courtesy of a Peter Withe goal.
As part of a 30th anniversary celebration of the achievement, Mortimer told the Birmingham Mail in 2012: “It was such a momentous occasion for Aston Villa Football Club and for all of us as young men that you never forget it – and I doubt the fans who witnessed it would ever forget it either.
“You only have to see how big the competition is now and how much hype it gets to realise what an amazing achievement it was for us.
“Every year when the final of the European Cup, or Champions League as it is called now, comes around, I get a glimpse of that fantastic trophy and it all comes flooding back.
“I’ll never get bored of talking about it, but I don’t get reminded about it that much any more. It’s usually me telling the younger kids that Aston Villa won the European Cup.
“Some of them don’t believe me, because it was so long ago, and before a lot of them were born, but they go away and Google it and think ‘Wow, yes, they did win it!’”
In 10 years at Villa, Mortimer made 403 appearances and scored 36 goals. A 1977 League Cup winner, he led Villa to the English Division One title on May 2, 1981, and then lifted the European Cup on May 26, 1982.
The Birmingham Post said in 2010: “The Liverpudlian was at the forefront of the club’s finest era of modern times; a driving force from midfield that helped bring a level of success to Villa Park that his successors can only dream of.”
Although capped by England under-23 and England B, a full cap eluded him. That seems extraordinary now, especially after scoring twice in a 3-1 win for the under-23s against the Netherlands at Highbury, when Goal magazine reported he was being “hailed as the new Bobby Charlton”.
Said Dennis: “It’s good to be bracketed with an all time great like Bobby but I have got my feet planted firmly on the ground. Your luck can change so quickly in football.”
After Cattlin allowed Jimmy Case to leave Brighton (telling the board his legs had gone, even though he then had six seasons at Southampton!), the team was crying out for a seasoned cool head in midfield who could put their foot on the ball and spread the ball about.
Cattlin eventually turned to his former Coventry teammate to bring that quality to a squad that was not quite reaching the heights required to restore the elite status lost in 1983.
Sadly Mortimer spent just the one season at The Goldstone, but his 40 league appearances were the highest number in that season’s squad. Cattlin was sacked close to the end of the season and Mortimer returned to the Midlands – making the somewhat controversial decision to join Villa’s arch rivals Birmingham.
Funnily enough at the very same time he was heading back to the Midlands, the captain who lifted the European Cup that month also went on to play for the Albion. Romanian international Stefan Iovan was the Steaua Bucharest captain when they beat Barcelona on penalties in Seville; five years later, he was stepping out at Wembley as part of the Seagulls’ line-up in the Division 2 play-off final with Notts County.
But finally back to Mortimer. Now a sports speaker, pundit and coach, he’s not afraid to speak his mind and has been known to upset a few people with his outspoken comments about Villa’s plight in recent years.
- Pictures from my scrapbook show Dennis Mortimer in action for Coventry against Liverpool, from Goal magazine, and an Albion matchday programme shot of him in full flight for the Seagulls.