Unsung heroes

Some of the lesser-known secrets of Villa’s success, remembered by John Russell.

Over well nigh 150 years there are hundreds of people whose names evoke memories when it comes to being responsible for the triumph and despair surrounding the once greatest football club in the world. But I can guarantee that with the notable exception of Bill Moore very few supporters can name a single one of those responsible for making sure that every player donning the claret and blue shirt and stepping on to the field was fit for purpose. Step forward Joe Grierson.

From 1893 when he joined us from Middlesbrough Ironapolis until 1910 Joe appears in all the team photographs showing us lauding our historic successes both as League Champions and FA Cup winners. He is not to be seen amongst the well-suited directors but usually top left and unheralded in a sports coat and flannels and wearing a shirt and tie. For Joe was described as our TRAINER.

One can imagine that in those days he was tantamount to a drill sergeant major on the barrack square behind the Witton End but it was a dual role because he was also expected to be the equivalent of a medicine man. As shown by our results he was obviously very good at his job and as a consequence much revered.

I mentioned Bill Moore at the beginning of this article because he was the very epitome of Joe. Everyone knew at the time that the secret of our FA Cup-winning achievement in 1957 was down to one man and that man was Bill Moore. It was no coincidence that at the time we were regarded as the fittest team in the country. Everyone was willing to run that extra mile, which they frequently had to do on training runs to and around Sutton Park

Bill was preceded by Hubert Bourne, who even had the experience of seeing things from both sides of the wire when he got to play for us half a dozen times immediately after the first great conflict. Not very successfully as it turns out because as leader of our front line he only scored twice and was only on the winning side once in our disastrous start to the resumption season.

But on match days Hubert and Bill did not hide away amongst a forest of advisors and substitutes in a lookalike bus shelter but they sat out in the rain or whatever, on a backless bench adjacent to the entry onto the pitch. A bench which may also have been used by the visiting team when Albert Wilkes chose to take one of his famous team photographs as they came onto the field.

Back in those days of yore you could be certain that when a player went down injured he really was injured and not writhing around hoping to get an opponent at least yellow carded. And worse than that, no player looked forward to the arrival of Hubert or Bill at his side. Players did not gad about in the equivalent of slippers back, then they wore boots with a reinforced toe cap. Getting kicked on the ankle or shin by an opponent hurt, really hurt. Hence unwieldy shinpads.

When this happened there was often a slight hesitation before Hubert or Bill would take to the field as they liked to be certain they were really needed. It was always embarrassing for them if a player miraculously recovered at the thought of the ‘magic sponge’ because its magic was really in its ice cold water. Carrying an old football bladder containing the sponge and the ice cold water Hubert and Bill often evoked ironic applause if they were required to hare across the greensward, especially if it meant a dash to the Aston End, leaving much water spilling out behind them onto the pitch, long before anyone thought of turning on sprinklers at half-time (Why do they do that? it only makes the pitch slippery).

These days the backroom staff hide in the shadows of the manager or team coach as managers like to be called to absolve themselves from any financial cockups. Trainers now specialise and like to be called physiotherapists and at the first sign of hurt to their precious multi-million pound commodity they leap up and with blue lights flashing rush to the aid of the wounded. In the days of the £20 per week player the repair used to take at most a couple of minutes but these days every injury demands a triage assessment and takes an eternity. This in the hopes of giving the substitute replacement time to ready themselves.

Unless life-threatening it used to be a rule that every injury should be treated off the pitch. A serious injury used to mean the possibility of playing out the game with only ten men. But this was never the handicap suggested by the scribes reporting on the game for the Sports Argus. This was because every one of the remaining ten players would feel they had to make up for the absentee and so opponents suddenly found themselves playing against not eleven bu twenty men, with some unexplained consequences.