John Russell concludes his tales of the wilderness years.
Fed up of doom and gloom, I hope I can be forgiven for casting 1973-74 to the dustbin of history because I cannot wait to describe something exciting for a change. But that said, it has to be recorded that 1973-74 began full of hope and expectation. Come October all hope and expectation had virtually disappeared and April 1st onwards saw a return to the dark ages. Fourteenth place was not how it was meant to be particularly now it was three up, three down. It was no surprise therefore when Doug cried ‘enough’ and so Vic Crowe manages to squeeze a final mention into these pages.
Everyone expected him to be replaced by Brian Clough, wiling away his days on the south coast at Brighton. Instead of which Doug chose an even more erasable character in Ron Saunders. Who? Ron had famously fallen out with the directors at Norwich City and Manchester City and there was every expectation that he would quickly do the same at Villa Park. It turned out to be a marriage made in heaven for a lot longer than anyone could have foreseen.
Saunders also came with the accolade of having reached the League Cup final in the two previous seasons with the two clubs just mentioned. It was surely too much to hope that he could go one better. Fingers crossed.
1974-75 opened with a couple of practice games in Germany where at least we managed to beat someone we had heard of, Borussia Dortmund, 1-0. Then, because it was officially our centenary year, we thought we had best invite somebody special for the opening kickabout and so the lot fell on league champions, Leeds United. Hobson’s choice it may have been but the true irony of this choice was that they too came with a brand new manager, none other than the aforementioned Brian Clough. He was to stay at least for about as long as the bookmakers had predicted he would remain at B6 if he had been appointed. At least from his point of view he began with a win ,so immediately it was Saunders who was under scrutiny. Except that the highlight of the evening was the presentation beforehand of numerous old Villa stars including most of the 1957 FA Cup winning team. Strangely, Ron Saunders was not introduced.
The distinction of the first own goal of the season fell to Nicholl and Leeds added a second before Graydon got in some penalty kick practice. Except that he missed them both, one saved, one wide. Too late Sammy Morgan,75, an acquisition from Port Vale netted in front of 29,481.
It might be thought that Bury, to celebrate their promotion to the third division, would have made more than they did from our visit beyond a one penny single sheet programme Brian Little put in a substitute appearance having settled his pay dispute with Doug. It took 83 minutes before Graydon netted to enable us to bring home the black pudding.
The season proper opened with a second visit to York City 28 months after the first. In the meantime they too had gained promotion into the second tier but we were hopeful of at least repeating the previous single goal success. In front of a mere 8,740 we were a mite disappointed, not least when they took the lead after only eight minutes. It took a Graydon header on the half hour to restore parity and nothing we could do after that seemed enough to bring home the (York) ham not least when the referee ruled out a perfectly good header by Nicholl because of a perceived infringement elsewhere in the goalmouth.
This perceived failure was repeated again three days later a few miles across the county on the coast at Hull City. Once again the eighth minute proved our downfall but worse was to follow in that we quickly conceded eight corners and were saved from annihilation only by the superb keeping of Cumbes. After only one worthwhile attack in the first half harsh words were said and they seemingly had the desired effect. That is until Hull City went ahead after 73 minutes. The 78th minute equaliser from Robson quelled the mounting excitement amongst the 8,712 scattered across the terraces.
The first home game of the season saw the arrival of Norwich City after an absence of five years. Coincidentally, back in 1969 it had been the first game in charge as their manager by none other than Ron Saunders. It was to be hoped that the game would not see a repeat of that infamous season opener. In goal for Norwich was Kevin Keelan, discarded by Villa a decade earlier and he had found succour at Stockport County. Norwich had obviously seen more potential in him than we had hence his move to East Anglia. He managed to keep us at bay for 52 minutes before Graydon used his head, then a 75th minute equaliser meant a third consecutive 1-1. Not exactly what the 23,297 had been led to expect.
It all came right four days later when Hull arrived for a return fixture. Saunders had obviously spotted a kink in the first encounter though this was not apparent in the first half when all we had to show for our domination was a close range strike from the maligned Morgan. The game marked the 500th appearance in the colours of Charlie Aitken but only the second, albeit in green, by Jake Findlay. His showing nearly cost us the game in the opening exchanges.
Then a completely different Villa team took the field after the oranges, or so it seemed. With no fewer than six goals to our credit we found ourselves asking when was the last time a Villa player, Morgan, scored a hat-trick? After the poor start to the campaign a much reduced attendance of 18,973 had deemed the game worthy of a Wednesday night away from the television. Under the terms of his £20,000 acquisition from Port Vale the goals also cost the Villa an extra £12,000 which we were happy to pay in the expectation of more to come.
It may have been a diplomatic injury after his first half effort against Hull City but with Cumbes still injured Findlay was deemed unfit to play at Bolton Wanderers. Panic or not Saunders used his charm to persuade Dave Mackay to let us have Graham Moseley on loan from Derby County. It is not easy for a new player to fit easily into and established eleven especially after a mad dash to get to the match in the first place. It might therefore be concluded that Moseley was in some way responsible for the one goal defeat. But nothing could be further from the truth because he alone stood between Bolton Wanders and a much heavier loss. Especially with his save after just forty-five seconds. Bolton then crashed a penalty against the bar at 17 minutes before their all-out efforts were rewarded with what proved to be the winning goal after 26. It is always irritating when the opposing centre half scores, Paul Jones. Little missed an open goal with barely three minutes remaining but otherwise we can have no complaints. The 12.976 didn’t.
Although fourth in the standings promotion was now a dirty word at Villa Park and after so many false dawns over the years only 16,802 thought a game against Orient worthy of their attention. The absentees missed a scrambled goal from Morgan (14) and a 25 yards screamer from Graydon (31) before we allowed Orient to get back into the game, Downing (38). Graydon was still being intrusted with the penalties and duly did the necessary (70).
Then came the Merseyside millionaires from Everton in the second round of the League Cup. They brought with them the most expensive player in the country at the time, returning to his native city for the first time since he left St. Andrews. No, not Trevor Francis, but Bob Latchford. Part of his job was to mark our centre half Chris Nicholl in the event that we actually gained a corner, something he singularly failed to do as we went one up (30). But also with the most expensive goalkeeper in their ranks, David Lawson, we could make no further headway. Cumbes was back for us but Latchford made up for his error with a goal of his own (50) and 29,640 had to take note of the programme note, “If we draw tonight”.
Ahead of the replay we had to take in a visit to Bristol Rovers. Maybe because we did not want to risk Cumbes again Moseley played the last of his three appearances before we thanked him for his services. We certainly needed them in the first half in the face of a fierce onslaught from the team in blue and white squares. We actually held out until the 55th minute when the referee awarded an indirect free kick in the penalty area that should surely have been a spot kick. Sadly Graham was then at fault (85) when he failed to make a routine catch and 14,035 groaned or cheered as the mood took them. Graydon playing in his native city took a great deal of stick from those who had otherwise cheered.
Recognising one of the own, Everton supporters cheered their former hero, Ron Saunders, to the echo ahead of the replay. Whether they were still doing so after ninety minutes is a matter for conjecture particularly as the referee had to report the club after some bottles and beer cans had littered the field. If Everton fans had been disappointed at the performance of their own team not so the Villa fans as goals by Morgan (49) Carrodus – his first for us (58) and Graydon (80) would have had us chanting “easy, easy” if anyone had thought it safe to chant at Goodison Park. Even at this early stage of the competition with Crewe Alexandra (conquerors of Birmingham City) up next it was not beyond the realms of possibility that we would regain our birthright.
Ahead of the arrival of Millwall we were in sixth place with a derisory seven points from seven games only four points better off than last place Cardiff City but five points adrift of pace setters, Manchester United. Hardly the stuff of promotion seekers but anything Morgan can do, so can Graydon when he also netted a hat-trick. A feat which made him the leading scorer in the division. Battling a fierce wind as much as the Millwall defence but spurred on by 21,375 and a rediscovered Villa roar his first came on the stroke of half time, the second a penalty (56) and the third (71). 18 year old Bobby Campbell, who had made his debut at Bristol Rovers, lasted only nine minutes second time around when he sustained a nasty gash. This led to a first appearance of a £100,000 substitute, Welsh international Leighton Phillips, signed the previous week from Cardiff City. Graydon nearly made it four in the dying seconds but the fourth would have been for Millwall. Cumbes just managed to rescue him from potential embarrassment
A goalless game at Southampton needs little comment except the chief reason for the nil, besides an injury hit squad, was a great game by Cumbes, as if determined to prove that thoughts of seeking a new goalkeeper were unnecessary and Mike Channon who showed a remarkable inability to impress the 18,599 fans. We would also have liked to renew acquaintance with Lew Chatterley at the Dell but he did not make it into their team. Perhaps not unsurprisingly as his recent appearances for them had been in the unlikely position of outside left. It is somewhat difficult to imagine him speeding along the touchline
The game against Nottingham Forest had had to be put back a week but it was a game worth waiting for, as by the end it restored our credibility as promotion chasers. The opening goal (22) came from an unstoppable 20 yarder from Graydon before Hamilton remembered how to score again (44). Leonard put the issue beyond doubt (74). It all deserved more than the 20,357 who were there to see it but Villa secretary Alan Bennett blames the increase in the standing price from 30p to 40p as a responsible for a general decline in attendances.
Our last visit to Oldham Athletic (27/11/71) when we were both in the third division resulted in a 6-0 triumph and we felt we now had nothing to fear even though they were the only team in the division with a 100% home record (P4 W4). But they were now made of sterner stuff and when Garwood gave them the lead (52) there were fears of an unexpected reverse. A few minutes later (55) their number five under pressure from Leonard gave us a helping foot. Things took a turn for the worst after 68 minutes when Gidman was sent off. Saunders accused their number eleven Groves of play acting. The whole episode made every weekend newspapers and rumbled on for days, not least because Gidman was one of eight players sent off that day – a new high. All of which totally ignored the fact that with just two minutes remaining Graydon ensured our first away win of the season in front of 15,574, by far their best of the infant season. The late goal also made it a satisfactory debut outing for Alan Little and Betts.
We could now turn our attention to Fourth Division Crewe Alexandra and the 3rd round of the League Cup. Supporters wishing to travel there by train could go there for only £1.50, leaving New Street at 17.35 (limited accommodation). 12,290 was nearly treble their best for the season so far. We renewed acquaintance with Geoff Crudgington who had had the unique experience of having played for us five times and being on the winning side in every game. This time he had the rare distinction for a goalkeeper of being penalised for ‘hands’ when he strayed too far out of his area. There was little he could do about the opening goal by Morgan (10) but he was able to admire from a distance the equaliser by Duffey (49). An upset was now on the cards only for Leonard to spoil things for the majority of the 12,290 who were there to see it. We were seemingly coasting to victory when manager Jimmy Melia made an inspired substitution and with just four minutes remaining Reed became the hero of the hour. Dr.J Turner of Worleston who provided the match ball was probably chuffed with his donation, especially if he then got to take it home afterwards.
“Promotion is far more important than a cup,” said Ron Saunders, but why can’t we have both? responded the fans.
After watching the game against Blackpool the idea of promotion was a distant dream even though we won one–nil thanks once again to Ray Graydon, our new goalscoring sensation. And thanks maybe to a half time talk from the manager as it took only 24 seconds after the restart for him to convert a free kick from Aitken. This brought virtually the only cheer of the match because it otherwise dull game was played out not so much to the accompaniment of the Villa roar but a wall of silence. It’s amazing how quiet 25,763 can be.
Then Crewe turned up in B6 only having been there once previously, 28th January 1928 when we won a cup match 3-0. The fact that this score was not repeated or even exceeded was almost inevitably down to one man. Geoff Crudgington was bound to have a blinder and he did for the better part of 88 minutes. Then with 24,007 wondering if we were ever going to score, a shot from 25 yards by Ian Hamilton had fans delightedly rushing for the exits and looking forward to another new ground in the next round, Hartlepools United. Unlike his opposite number Cumbes, who had barely touched the sphere all evening.
But Saunders, who would rather had been playing the scheduled match against Oxford United instead of Crewe, was far more concerned by the next league game, a visit to second place Sunderland. 33,232 emphasises the importance of this game. As nil-nil games go this one was totally against the norm, being almost thrill a minute from first whistle to last. At the end denying Sunderland a point was every bit as important as the one we gained.
Meanwhile, our reserve team had a four point lead at the top of the Central League. We were unable to compete with Sunderland in the manner of attendances and only 23,977 deigned Sheffield Wednesday worthy of an afternoon out in Aston. Those who did turn up missed an unusual hat trick of free kick goals. Phillips (7) Nicholl (35) and Graydon (43), albeit a penalty. It is fitting that the Wednesday goal came from a free kick (22) which Cumbes did not need to attempt to save because it was indirect. All he did was push the ball into the path of the onrushing Craig.
There is something depressing about Craven Cottage which permeates itself on to the Flights coach every time we approach Putney Bridge. We had only won there twice in sixteen historical attempts but having gone six games without a win they must have been looking forward to breaking the spell, which they did easily. Perhaps it was the curse of having just been made manager of the month for October but this game harked back to the depressing times of the previous decade. To all intents and purposes it was over after just ninety seconds. That was all it took centre half Lacy to open their account and the fact that he was the centre half says all that needs to be said about our static defence. Goals after 48 (Busby) and Lloyd (52) had most of the meagre 10,979 on the banks of the Thames in good heart. Brian Little (63) did nothing to quell their good humour.
Next thanks to international commitments a fortuitous postponement if postponements can be fortuitous. A scheduled visit to Norwich City.
Nothing, absolutely nothing but perhaps history prepared us for the coupon buster which was Notts County in the shadow of a ruin which Cromwell knocked about a bit. We had a warning in the very first minute when for some inexplicable reason the referee disallowed a Magpie ‘goal’. And when Graydon has a penalty saved (37) there is likely to be only one outcome. We were just congratulating ourselves for having survived until half time when Needham stole the points for our first home defeat of the season. Argus sales reached an all time low that evening.
Suddenly the League Cup game at Hartlepools United was not the forgone conclusion it looked when the draw was made. They thought they need to do something special to mark for the first appear of the famous Aston Villa at the Victoria Ground. Perhaps it was the appearance of the RAF Police Dog Demonstration team which made us wary of running about in case we were belatedly mistaken as being escaping felons. Be that as it may we went about things in a rather pedestrian manner until Aitken (34) decided enough was enough and gave 12,305 cause to think that maybe we were first division material after all. All the more remarkable because it was achieved with his right foot. Nevertheless we were still there for the taking by any team prepared to put us under pressure so that is what they did. Bang on the hour Moore scored and we had to survive a fraught half an hour which we did – just about. If we had expected to meet up with Bobby Park he did not make it into their team. Just as well perhaps, given the achievements of returnees.
Worse, our next game was at Old Trafford, now managed by Tommy Doherty. After this fright and our two consecutive league defeats he must have been looking forward to an encounter with Doug. If Villa had gone in three goals to the good at half time the 55,615 would have had no cause to grumble but the fact that we only led by one – Hamilton (12) – indirectly led to our downfall The real cause for our demise was a severe bout of myopia by referee Seel when a ball hit Robson on the shoulder and he awarded a spot kick (70). This reverse seemed to upset us so much so that Daly completed his brace and our downfall with ten minutes still to go – leaving us shattered mentally and physically.
After three consecutive league defeats our next home game was fortunately against bottom of the pile Portsmouth, who obligingly played to type. Now in fifth place and fearing that the season might effectively be over only 16,827 attended. Two headers, Hamilton (3) and Little (22) soon settled the issue and even though we eased up Cumbes had a trouble-free afternoon.
The replay against Hartlepools United had had to be put back a week, so much so that the Villa News is undated. After four games against Bournemouth it was already the visitors ninth game in completion and our sixth. And we were back playing on our old traditional Monday night. After only six minutes Hamilton was entrusted with a penalty. Then in a fairly one-sided encounter they held out almost to half time before Hamilton (42) made it two. Then playing alongside his brother Alan on his 21st birthday Brian Little turned on the style with the best of the ultimate six (52). Gauden scrambled a goal for the Pool so we decided to punish them for their audacity. Little again (77) then Graydon (82) and a penalty (89) set up a fifth round tie at Layer Road, Colchester. 17,686
For no obvious reason Friday night soccer came to Villa Park, meaning we experienced two midweek games in the same week. This time the visitors, Oxford United, were made of sterner stuff and played in the manner that all third division teams had employed in B6. The game had been moved because of the cup replay against Crewe and as recorded in the interim we had suffered a big drop in form. Thus 18,554 virtually silent fans had to endure a midfield morass and that was not entirely down to the state of the pitch. Phillips was no answer to our problems at number nine.
A Tuesday night trip to Colchester United followed which may account for the Oxford game having been brought forward to the Friday night. With the prize a place in the semi-finals the home team seemed overawed. As against Hartlepools Alan Little was the unlikely choice to take on the mantle of Hampton, Waring, Ford and Hitchens with the result that he scored what proved to be his one and only goal for us (28) before he soon moved on to Southend United. The occasion demanded a great goal for the 11,871 to remember us by and that fell to Graydon (61). It was not until then that the home team realised all was not completely lost but their 85th minute strike by Froggatt was too little, too late. Cumbes saw to that.
On the strength of his goal on Tuesday night Alan Little kept his place at Bristol City. They had suffered three consecutive one goal reverses. Surely our day had come. It.s always annoying when someone appears to score only for it to be ruled out by an off the ball offence, otherwise we would have taken an early lead but after 26 fraught minutes that honour eventually fell to Mann for the home team. We remained in the doldrums and fell to seventh place, below the Baggies, a fate which had also befallen the reserves so optimism was now in short supply as we awaited the arrival of York City
Before the smallest crowd of the season 15,840 the York City resistance, such as it was, crumbled after only nine minutes, Graydon (3) and Nicholl. Villa should have gone to record a record score but only managed two more, Little (71) and Hamilton (86)
The following Saturday it was s**t or bust at the Hawthorns. Average crowd for them was 11,000 so with 23.011 perhaps we were responsible for doubling the norm. After nine minutes Cumbes was personally responsible for an Albion goal when unaided he failed to hold a routine cross. As an ex-Baggie there were taunts of Jimmy Warner and the 1892 cup final. Maybe it was shades of Hartlepools but the appearance of the RAF Police Dog Demonstration Team at half time had our defence retreating for cover in the second. They were still seeking refuge when Mayo (69) ended our hopes. Hopes which were otherwise ended by their half back Rushbury, who single-headedly kept us at bay throughout and was being instantly being hailed as the new Ray Barlow. Whatever happened to Rushbury you may ask. The police dogs would have been better employed carrying out their normal duties as later 16 fans were fined £865 for social misdemeanours.
There was a certain inevitability about the fact that ex-Rover Graydon would score against Bristol Rovers on Boxing Day, a Thursday. The fact that it was also the winner added spice to the seasonal crowd 21,557 but otherwise there was precious little Christmas cheer about the game. The 60th minute gremlin may also have claimed the goal which actually game gift wrapped in the form of a mis-directed back pass.
Two days later a trip to Cardiff City could mean only one thing – rain. Even more in keeping with the pantomime season the goal was scored by Showers with more than a little help again from Cumbes. Recognising his latent fallibility Cardiff City who had only scored one goal in their last four games then employed route one tactics. High balls into the penalty area aided by a high wind. All three goals actually came following set pieces, Buchanan (22) and Whitham (34) completing the rout. The late goal from Hamilton was no consolation for us or the 11,040 who suffered through it all.
Chairman Doug was so disgusted with the performance at Cardiff that he broke the Directors Code and went into the dressing room and read the riot act. Humble supporters did not yet have the luxury of writing to H&V.
The new year opened with a visit in the FA Cup to Oldham Athletic where we had achieved our only away league success so far (P12 W1 D4 L7). Following an injury to Frank Carrodus Frank Pimblett, an England Schoolboy international, made it from the Youth Cup team two days before Christmas (Round 3 – Villa 5 Bognor Regis Town 0) into the first team for this game and made debuts in the FA Cup, League and League Cup in three consecutive matches. The cup was starting to loses some of its magic and at 14,510 there were a thousand fewer at the tie than at the league match. We ran out comfortable winners through Little (34) Nicholl (56) and Graydon (83).
Ron Bendall, a local chartered account, became the largest Villa shareholder when he acquired the holdings of former directors.
With both Bristol teams in the second division the question was again raised as to whether the city would have a top class side if they amalgamated. In the event City put up no more resistance to Villa than Rovers had on Boxing Day. Hamilton ran the length of the field to set up Little for a twenty yard shot in the 34th minute then earned a goal of his own (82) but by then City had been so inept and it should have been many more. 21,762 got home to hear on Sports Report that Sunderland and Norwich city had both lost. We are back in the race.
But first the battle with Manchester United was joined at Hilton Service Station en route to the league cup semi final at Chester. A coachload of long distance United supporters on the way to their semi final at home to Norwich City were already in occupation when two coach loads of Villa supporters arrived. All hell broke out causing lots of damage and everyone missing the game because they were all escorted to Cannock policed station. So the capacity crowd of 19,000 at Chester was actually a few patrons short. What they saw was Bobby McDonald send us a goal up (16) then we completely outplayed them until Owen scored from a maul ahead of the toilet break. The second half followed a similar pattern and just as the sixty minute gremlin was leaving the field Graydon seemed to settle matters. We seemed to be confident of a second leg victory but Chester, who had eliminated Newcastle United in the fifth round, were not to be dismissed easily and gave us food for thought in the remaining eleven minutes. This after Moore had scored against the run of play. Chester were managed by K.O. Roberts, not to be confuse with the much taller ‘Shunter’ Roberts, and so there was no such thing as a forgone conclusion.
We then had to face Oxford United in our quest for promotion which was well and truly on again following the lashing from Doug. Not for the first time, or the last, we came up against an inspired goalkeeper, Roy Burton, so much so that at the end referee Ivan Smith went out of his way to shake hands with the custodian. After Little had put us ahead (20) with a spectacular overhead kick Cumbes had very little to do other than outdo his opposite number by saving a penalty from Clarke after Aitken had been less subtle than usual in tripping his man. The locals amongst the 9,872 went positively delirious when Clarke gained retribution after 85 but with almost contemptuous ease Nicholl did what Nicholl does and won the game with just three minutes remaining.
47,732 turned up at Villa Park on a Wednesday night fully expecting us to stroll our way to putting Chester to the sword and stroll our way to Wembley. People had been buying the programme all season and cutting off the vouchers in expectation of guaranteeing a place at the table. When Leonard put us two goals up (18 and 27) it was Tipperary revisited, until a poor clearance from Aitken landed at the feet of Mason and it was two –one in the twinkling of an eye. We still looked clear favourites except we had reckoned without Cumbes and the sixtieth minute gremlin struck again when he presented the orb to James. 2-2 and Chester could not believe their luck. That is not how it was meant to be but with a third game at Stoke City looking every inch a possibility cometh the hour cometh the man. And the man was Brian Little (80). Relief all round. Fully expecting to be going to play Manchester United again at the Twin Towers after a 2-2 they were beaten 1-0 by Norwich City. A second division final already guaranteed, the cup is as good as ours.
But next a chance of a Wembley double and an opportunity to show our first division potential as top flight Sheffield United had to face the Holte End. If this is the best the first division can offer at least we are unlikely to get relegated again, if only we can get there. If. It was a family reunion for Chris Nicholl for the opposing him at right half was his brother Terry. But it was also our best performance for many a long day as we were not only entertaining but aggressive, skilful and clearly fitter. We well merited the standing ovation at the end from most of the 35,881. Leonard opened the scoring (17) and concluded it (870. In between we had help from their number five (50) and almost inevitably Graydon at gremlin time. Their deflected goal by Woodward (70) was almost an irrelevancy.
While club president Pat Matthews was away on business in South Africa his agent unwittingly sold his Villa shares to Ron Bendall, so Matthews has had to ask the Villa board to release 5,000 new shares for him to retain his status.
Notts County had not been beaten at Meadow Lane for eighteen months when it came to our turn to show up there. 17,275 saw them likely to extend this record at our expense when Scanlon scored in only the seventh minute. But Little was on hand to quieten the crowd (30) before a penalty save by Cumbes (75) made it clear it was not going to be the Magpies’ day. Justice was done as the penalty award against Nicholl had been highly dubious, made worse when the referee only belatedly decided to take his name and so put his appearance at Ipswich Town in jeopardy. Little (76) added insult to injury as far as the Magpies were concerned before Carrodus demonstrated a true reflection of the play with a goal with almost the last kick. 3-1 and we were now 300-1 for the treble. Worth a flutter.
The next obstacle was a visit from Fulham, now captained by Bobby Moore. Not quite so statuesque as he is outside Wembley Stadium. After twenty-six minutes and in only their second attack Fulham took the lead. But we appeared to have been saved by a home town decision when the referee awarded us a spot kick after Little had been more the guilty party than goalkeeper Mellor. As always seems to happen on such occasions Mellor saved the spot kick by Hamilton and it was back to square one. A potential banana skin was avoided by Nicholl (57) – a header naturally, but a diving one from only a couple of feet off the ground, before we should have gone on to win through an 87th minute penalty for an obvious hands but perhaps mindful of his earlier error the referee waved play on to the chagrin of 28,533.
Ipswich Town were fourth in the top flight, only two points adrift of leaders Everton. And only one defeat and just four goal conceded at home. It was going to take a monumental effort to win at Russell Road (the road on the opposite side of the ground to Portman Road). And a monumental effort was what we but sadly for only the first hour. In front of 31,297 McDonald gave us the lead in ten minutes before Evans, in for the injured Little had us dreaming of a Wembley double until eventually the sky fell in. Johnson (63) was the signal for an all-out retaliation by the team in royal blue shirts. Just when it looked as they we may have saved the day manager Bobby Robson made an inspired substation. Inspired in that the player coming on, Bryan Hamilton, was on the transfer list and was particularly keen to impress any would be purchaser. Two goals (78 and 84) and it was a long journey home from Suffolk.
The cup game meant a rearranged midweek visit to Portsmouth who had managed to drag themselves away from the foot of the table. Due to an influenza epidemic they had only thirteen players available, we were in practically the same boat but injuries being the cause of our selection problems. Portsmouth still seemed to be trying to sort out who should be playing where when Carrodus scored in the first minute without any player in royal blue touching the ball. Graydon followed with his 22nd goal of the season (imagine that) and all seemed to be going swimmingly. Then we needlessly conceded a penalty (33) which Cumbes saved initially followed almost in an instant by George Graham – yes, that one (36). The best response to two quick goals against is a quick goal for and whilst 13,355 mostly Portsmouth fans were in a state of delirium Brian Little reminded them just who was in charge. After all that excitement the half time score remained the full time score.
Victory for us was far more important than for the visitors when runaway leaders Manchester United came our way. 39,156 guaranteed that the Villa roar would once again be heard as far away as Bordesley Green. And it did not take long before it was in full throat, Graydon, four minutes saw to that. Then on 24 Aitken used his head again. Nothing was going to stop us now and we dominated proceedings right up until 3.45. With next week’s visit to Wembley in mind we took our foot off the gas in the second half but were in no mood to let a two goal lead slip for the third consecutive game and still managed to ease our way to victory. It was a day to remember for 17 year old Masefield who substituted for Graydon, a gremlin victim. The first of what would be three seasonal substitute appearances for us.
Fans could get to Wembley by train £2.50 or by coach from the Serpentine £1.60 or even hire a car from Swan Rental and risk the M6/M1 for £16. Thanks to the voucher scheme everyone who wanted one should have been able to get a ticket. Only £1 to stand. There was even a special first day stamp cover to mark the occasion. But Saturday three o’clock was actually Saturday three-thirty and in case they could not decide things there and then and just to fleece the fans there would not be any extra time.
Ron Bendall has managed to buy his way on to the Villa board.
A cup final between two second division sides, third and fourth respectively was never going to be a classic. As exemplified by the negative tactics of the Canaries. The fact of the matter is Villa should have had the game sewn up long before Machin decided to play handball with only eleven minutes remaining. The police were just starting to patrol pitchside, hinting that a replay was more than a possibility when Keelan actually saved the penalty taken by Graydon. But all he did was get the faintest of finger touches to the ball and deflect it against the post from where it rebounded to Graydon, who was able to finish what he had started. Referee Hill, standing on the opposite side to the kicker, did well to spot the touch otherwise Graydon would have been penalised for playing the ball twice.
Saunders, the object of taunts from his opposite number in the week preceding the game, thus had the satisfaction of defeating players he knew too well and in winning the three handled trophy at the third attmp.
39,322 came to see the trophy paraded around the ground on a Wednesday night and also to see if they could cheer us back to the first division. But it was a case of after the Lord Mayor’s show as Bolton Wanderers, who had lost only one game in their last nine, did what most teams tried to do at Villa Park and that is bore us to death. From their point of view they succeeded in this task insofar as the outcome was a goalless draw.
Not to worry, Nottingham Forest have not won any of their last ten games and they are next on the banks of the Trent. But we suffered a setback when O’Hare lived up to his name and we went a goal down (15). But we had the country’s leading scorer and Graydon added to his tally (29 & 42). Just as well as Butler had put them ahead again just two minutes before our second. The excitement for the 26,205 continued after the break, all the more so when Little scored what proved to be the winner on 67. Perhaps forest were handicapped by the absence of their manager Brian Clough, at home in bed with the flu and no means of communication. Much was made of the count at the local magistrate’s court on Monday morning. Nottingham Forest supporters 20, Aston Villa supporters 20 but it was the one Manchester United supporter who drew most comments.
We awaited the arrival of Southampton. Perhaps feeling let down last time out only 31,697 entered the arena, although it could be the absentees were put off by the foul weather beforehand which led to our hiring a helicopter to help dry out the Villa Park mud. All eventually to good effect but only after Cumbes had saved from Channon early on. Then came a dazzling second half performance which had us thinking not only of promotion but also of making up the five point deficit on United and going up as champions. Leonard’s first league goal for five months (70) sent us on our way before inevitably Graydon (76) followed by a little help from Southampton was as good as it gets. The third goal meant that we ended the day with the same goals tally as Sunderland (53-28) so technically we were in second place.
Remembering the four-nil drubbing at Orient two seasons ago we could not be too confident about going there again. And rightly so because we all but replicated that disaster as we floundered in the mud at their cramped ground. 9,466. Unaccountably it was our worst performance since third division days and received its just reward when Heppolette wearing number eight put us out of our misery with eight minutes to go. Slightly odd because he had had to change his shirt and Bennett was also wearing a number eight shirt. But as referee Grey, who initially had not noticed the duplication, pointed out the rules only required that players are numbered, not which numbers, so no controversy.
The Baggies dreams had by now gone up in smoke and almost the only kudos remaining to them was to destroy our ambitions. 47,574 were keen to find out. 24 minutes in Brown beat Cumbes from 20 yards and things were not looking good. But half time and heavy rain which came close to snow changed everything. There is nothing like the confidence of a goal and having scored against the Saints Leonard with two headers, 58 and 66, made him a fans favourite again. It was three goals in eight minutes and all headers as Hamilton had dashed in (64) to question the Albion defences.
We next had the opportunity to influence the relegation scrap at the foot of the table as to who would be going down with Sheffield Wednesday. First Millwall and our first league win in London for yonks. Not before we an attack of the jitters and we had given the opposition the customary goal start, Burnett (15) being the anti-Villain. Then a penalty right on half time that was surprisingly entrusted to Hamilton rather than Graydon. King saved his kick but was adjudged to have moved and he was successful from the retake. King was so upset by the decision and argued vehemently with the referee and had his name taken for his lip. Graydon went off injured to be replaced by McDonald, who set up Leonard with goal number two and Little iced the cake. 13,335
Then our game at Sheffield Wednesday was postponed for the worst possible reason. Hillsborough was needed for an FA Cup Semi final. Birmingham City 1 Fulham 1. At the same time Villa Park was the venue of the other semi final, West Ham United 0 Ipswich Town 0.
This led to another relegation opponent at the hallowed hall, Cardiff City. Graydon retired hurt early on to be replaced by McDonald whereupon we struggled against another defensive wall until Little prodded the orb home after 65 frustrating minutes. Having finally broken the back of the Welsh resistance things became easier after that and culminated with the best goal of the season and a diving header. But unusually a second for Little. He should have had a hat trick at the death but his shot hit the bar. 32,748, not bad for a Wednesday night and the loudest cheer came when Mitchell got Fulham’s last-gasp equaliser in their replay.
36,224 was even better for a Saturday afternoon against Oldham Athletic and the retsusn of their coach Andy Lochhead, who received a reception still remembered to this day. They saw another virtuoso performance from Little including the hat trick that he just missed out on three days earlier. If we had actually scored ten we would not have been flattered by the winning margin But the Little display was not without a certain controversy. After scoring in the 10th and 35th we were awarded a penalty a minute later. Graydon and Hamilton were now alternating when it came to penalties but with one eye on his hat trick Little asked to take it, only to shoot tamely into the goalkeeper’s hands. Captain Ross was not best pleased at his putting self before the team. Little eventually worried centre half Hicks into conceding an own goal before finally getting his hands on the match ball (82) then setting up the nap for Hamilton as fans were ready to leave for home more than content with what they had seen.
It was said that three quarters of the 20,762 at Blackpool were Villa supporters and this is borne out by the fact that attendance at the previous match there had been 6,540. They went expecting a cakewalk and that is exactly what they saw. This despite the fact that Blackpool had the best defensive record in the division, 26 goals conceded including 21 clean sheets by John Burridge.
Sadly for them their attack was almost the worst, only 38 goals. Phillips scored his second goal of the season (7) before a 28th goal against them resulted by their own inefficiencies (Hatton 18 og). Route one – Cumbes to Little (68) ensued our 100th goal of the season in all competitions. Unfounded rumours spread that Sunderland had lost sparking a celebration party but Sunderland had won so it was a pleasure temporarily delayed.
The fate of Sheffield Wednesday had long since been settled, they were thirteen points short of safety. Again we made up seventy-five percent of the 23,605. We had a bout of promotion jitters at the start which they were ill-equipped to take advantage off so all was virtually done and dusted when after 24 Leonard netted and the terrace dance could begin. Little decided to take the opportunity to overtake Graydon as the division’s leading scorer and netted after 31 and 73, the latter with a stunning volley which fully justified his entitlement. Skipper Ross may have got his own back for the incident against Oldham when he elected to take a penalty himself for his only goal of the campaign but few would dare to deny him the privilege.
57,266, only a handful short of the ground capacity at the time turned out for the promotion party. It must particularly have irked the players of Sunderland to find themselves clapping us on to the field. After all they had been in the box seat for most of the season. They did their best to deny us the spoils but ultimately their best was not good enough. But we only started to play like a first division outfit after Gidman came on as substitute when the time gremlin struck Hunt. For Hunt it was his first start of the season, for Gidman, obliged to play at outside right, his first appearance since an incident on Guy Fawkes night. When Little was tripped (78) he got the message when Ross again opted to take the resultant penalty. But the last word went to Little (84). Ironic in that he had been born near Sunderland.
35.999 turned out for Norwich City’s version of a promotion party. They celebrated Continental style by tossing bouquets to the crowd. The distribution of gifts did not end there as perhaps they did not have the stomach for the challenge and they presented Leonard (11) and Gidman (20) now at left half with goals before deciding to put in some sort of effort but to no avail. Even without Little and Graydon goals became available to anyone who fancied one and Mcdonald (82) and Carrodus (86) gave Saunders the immense satisfaction of putting one over John Bond.
Derby County won the first division but in finishing fifth and so, like Villa but unlike Manchester United, qualifying for Europe Stoke City had had a stellar season. Mike Wright choose them for his testimonial match. On the back of promotion 16,067 was a good turnout for such an occasion. Graydon, who had missed the last five games added an unheralded goal (20) to his tally before Leonard (51 & 63) showed that we could hold our own next season in the top echelons. Moores found space to remove some of the gloss in making it 3-1.
The testimonial season ended at the Hawthorns where the Baggies had fallen away to finish sixth and we achieved a satisfactory 2-2 for Ray Wilson.