John Russell looks back at an unlikely visitor to Villa Park.
Villa Park has been the venue of all manner of non-football events from baseball to boxing, from athletics to cycle racing, from pop concerts to gymnastic exhibitions and even firework events, plus dog shows, but given our origins it can be of no surprise that one hundred years on, in the summer of 1984 we eventually gave the ground over to religious gatherings for a whole week.
Trainloads and busloads came from all over the Midlands and beyond, reminiscent of all the old green works buses that used to arrive at the Serpentine on match days from far distant lands, well, Cannock and beyond. Far more women and children than was the norm for football, but everyone came not to watch the Villa, but to hear an evangelist successor to John Wesley and his cohorts, namely Billy Graham, preach the Gospel.
It is impossible to overstate the effect that Graham was still having, and at the time he was one of the most famous people in the world. Thirty years after filling out the Harringay Arena, London every night for the better part of a month he was still pulling in the crowds and managed to attract full houses every time way beyond that of Saturday afternoon even to see the recent European champions, then in an unstoppable decline again.
Admission was of course free but that is not to say there was not a healthy trade in spare tickets. I cannot speak from personal experience of the occasions except that I understand he operated from a rostrum in front of the Witton Land stand principally so that he could face the majority of his audience. I understand that the happening was also relayed to an overspill in Aston Park. I also assume he choose a different bible text each evening, otherwise at the end of six nights it would have been predictable for those who turned out every time which people did, not least his choir of 1,200 participants. He preached, spoke, or shouted passionately for about half an hour at a time. Cliff Richard also appeared, presumably as Billy’s warm-up man.
Despite the attendances at Villa Park it is fair to say that by the mid-eighties the influence of Graham in his homeland had started to decline because of his latent political affiliations. As usual at the end of the proceedings the congregation was invited to “Come down from the stands onto this beautiful pitch” and reaffirm their vows to the Lord Jesus. So each evening thousands can claim to have trodden the hallowed turf – where no-one is now allowed to go anywhere near these days, or risk a lifetime ban. The groundsman’s views are not recorded, but armed with a fork he probably did not have much of a summer holiday that year. I recall that some months later Villa were fined for a breach of safety regulations, something to do with fire exits being locked or similar, but I can’t find any record of such a happening so I may well have imagined it.
In 1989 Archbishop Tutu, a less flamboyant speaker followed in the footsteps of Billy Graham but I was not there for that either. If you actually trod the turf or were at either events please feel free to add your comments.