More than just the Villa

John Russell tells of a misspent youth.

Time was that before it sold its soul to television and was still a game, that watching football was still affordable.

I cannot imagine many under twelves being allowed to go to Villa Park on their own to watch a match these days but at a time when I actually received my “Villa money” rather than pocket money every Friday night I not only attended the hallowed halls but also St. Andrews and The Hawthorns. From the very outset I learnt the value of discretion and keeping numb when the opposition scored, though looking back at my diaries I seldom had the satisfaction of seeing the visitors win.

Thirteen used to be a coming of age back then because that meant you were allowed to have a paper round (Oddly, boys were also allowed officially to help the milkman on his rounds though Midland Counties frowned on any requests). Fourteen rounds per week for the huge sum of 43p per week. Fourteen because so many households used to take the Radio Times that that demanded a separate outing. After a short learning period the shop owner did not number the papers, you were expected to learn the round. Strangely it was easier to learn the morning round with its multiplicity of titles than it was the evening round with just two, the ‘Spach and Muil’

Having more money to spend my wanderings extended to Walsall and Wolverhampton, including famously those two floodlight friendlies against Moscow Dynamo and Honved although that was down to my father getting tickets and a mate to take us by car. Otherwise it was usually by bicycle. By now I had started work as a civil servant for the princely salary (salary, not a wage) of £3/10 per week. But that enabled ne to buy a brand new bike for £26 (or ten bob a week hire purchase). With my bus fare of five shillings per week the bike paid for itself inside two seasons.

At St Andrews for sixpence the bike was parked at a house in Tilton Road. The householders always use to put the bikes back out onto the street ahead of the final whistle making for a quick getaway. Not so at the Hawthorns where they were piled on top of each other behind a property on Holyhead Road. Walsall was easy; a house right next to the players entrance and Molineux the road behind the West Stand. I would be exaggerating if I have given the impression that I cycled to Wolverhampton frequently, although I also did do once to go to the Dunstall Park races.

As time went by Wembley soon came onto the agenda to watch England, although I was never really an avid England fan.
After Villa refused an invitation to put out a joint team in the Inter Cities Fairs Cup I was a regular at St Andrews for all their midweek games against continental opposition. I hesitate to mention that they reached the two legged final in 1958-60 (It took two seasons to play out) losing to Barcelona, or in 1960-61 losing to AS Roma.

In both seasons 1960-61 and 1961-62 I attended no fewer than 25 non-Villa matches as Notts County was added to the list via Thursday night rides on the back of a friend’s motor bike. Coventry City, then in the third division, was an evening cycle ride too far and it did not seem right going by train.

After Argentina, Spain and West Germany came to Villa Park in 1966 interest in other teams matches started to wane, although I never refused the chance of an FA Cup final ticket. Attending six finals in the sixties before my name fell off the invitation list when my Sunday team disbanded, as all Sunday teams invariably did, eventually.

As already mentioned horse racing appears regularly in my diary at Wolverhampton, Warwick, Leicester, Nottingham, Uttoxeter, the Epsom Derby and Royal Ascot, all through the auspices of the famous black and red coaches of Midland Red. Also Perry Barr greyhounds every Wednesday and Saturday night. And who can forget Graham Warren and the smell of the cinders as he rounded the track for the Brummies – the only acceptable use of the slang word. Stock car racing never took hold and was fairly pointless.

The great Australian miler Herb Elliott attracted a mammoth attendance to see if he could run a mile in under four minutes but to this day I still cannot recall whether he actually succeeded or not. I do remember, though, that there was a lot of hanging around at the meeting as nothing ran to time. The great Janet Altweg also attracted a large audience when she put on an exhibition at the old Birmingham Ice Rink. And watching Courtney Jones win the British ice dancing championship was a regular occurrence

But it is Edgbaston, which appears with almost monotonous regularity (A comment which in itself recognises a regular bank holiday outing via Derbyshire. I was not just content with County Championship matches but also Cambridge and Oxford Universities and the Combined Services plus second eleven matches on the bank holidays. Then there were the test matches for which I used up the precious annual leave which was not taken up with Villa matches

I had a junior season ticket at Edgbaston but had to spend my time in the west wing because juniors were not allowed in the pavilion. I was also one of about only two dozen who had bicycle parking tickets. I used to take my lunch hour 12.45 to 13.45 and cycle from town to the ground and back in time to see thirty minutes play then be back again at 17.15, until the close. My big achievement was to race home after the last ball in time to get there to hear the close of play scores at the end of Radio Newsreel. Miss them and you had to wait until the Birmingham Post next morning.

If all this suggests a fairly sedentary existence, with the editors permission my next article will tell of numerous cycling escapades, one involving Norman Fowler MP for Sutton Coldfield and then Minister of Transport. Football matches in which I took part including a cup final at St Andrews, running medals and a marathon in under three hours at the age of 52.

As my son said during Covid, “Father, there is no need for you ever to be bored. All you have to do is write another article about the Villa.”