The first of many

John Russell tells the story of how Villa won their first trophy.

The precise origins of Aston Villa Football Club are shrouded in mystery, because no detailed records were kept at the time and for many years nobody thought to ask. Much of what is known with any certainty comes from a talk given twenty-five years after the event by Jack Hughes, one of the original team, to a gathering of former players.

Association football, as it became known as opposed to Rugby Football, had its origins as a working man’s game in the north of England and amongst the public schools in the south. Football was not nearly so common in the Birmingham area, as emphasised by a letter to the local newspaper on November 12th 1873 complaining about the lack of clubs in the area.

‘A clerk’ wrote: “It has often been a matter of much surprise to me, that in a large town like Birmingham there should not be a really good and properly constituted representative football club. As far as I am aware, the only clubs we have here at present are one or two connected with the public schools, and it may be by chance one composed entirely of the young blood of Edgbaston, and, therefore, too exclusive in its membership to allow its obtaining more than a local reputation. These clubs, I believe, play without exception according to the Rugby rules, or a modification of them.”

The cudgels were taken up by a club calling itself the Birmingham Clerks Association Football Club, believed to have its origins amongst local council clerks. Several clubs, linked mainly to local hostelries and religious institutions, came into being but Birmingham Clerks had problems in securing fixtures and their early games involved teams from Sheffield and Nottingham.

The original Aston Villa was indeed a large ‘villa’ in the Heathfield district, which was part of Handsworth, then in Staffordshire. The house, in sight of Aston Hall and Aston Park, was demolished late in the nineteenth century, but not before it had given its name to the part of the surrounding area which had come to be known as Lozells.

Religion played a large part in life in the environs of Birmingham at the time and the Wesleyans decided to establish their presence on the north side of the area with a chapel in George Street, Lozells, which quickly came to include a Sunday School. The religious meetings proved so popular that on 27th April 1864 they laid the foundation stone of a new purpose-built chapel to replace the original. The materials of the building were chiefly red and blue brick although I hesitate to claim this as the origins of our claret and blue colours.

At the same time the Birmingham Clerks football team, which had hitherto had played their games on a rough patch of ground in Aston Park, found a home of theie own adjacent to the Bulls Head pub on the Bristol Road. They became the premier club in the district when they extended its membership qualifications and changed their name to Calthorpe FC. Significantly, in search of fresh opponents, they even went so far as Glasgow.

Chief rivals to the Birmingham Clerks had been the Birmingham Cricket and Football Club and when they met each other in dense fog at the Aston Lower Grounds on November 21st 1874 the ‘cricket’ club were victorious by two goals to nil.

News of the appeal of football had by now reached the members of the Aston Villa Cricket Club, which was composed chiefly of former pupils of the Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel. In 1931 the original teacher at the school, Frederick Price, described how his former pupils had sought his advice on how to set up a football team. Whether this was after what has become an apocryphal meeting under a lamppost at the corner of Heathfield Road is by no means certain. Neither is the date of this meeting, which is quoted variously as March or November 1874. Both are problematical as it is suggested they had come from a meeting to discuss cricket and were looking for some form of exercise to enable them to keep fit in the off season. An alternative possibility is that they were on the way home after attending a meeting of the Men’s Bible Class.

Be that as it may the lads decided to contribute a shilling each to buy a football so that they could start practicing. Unfortunately, having decided to form a team they could not find anyone willing to play against them. Not that there was now any shortage of ad hoc teams playing regularly in Aston Park but the likelihood is that teams associated with public houses may not have wished to be associated with what was basically a temperance club.

Eventually a team from Aston Brook Saint Mary’s, a church on Lichfield Road at the corner of Aston Brook Street, agreed to a game. The only problem was that they were a rugby club, and remained so for some years afterwards. So it came to pass that they would play a fifteen a side match, rugby in the first half and soccer (as it was sometimes known) in the second.

If mystery surrounds the date of the lamppost meeting, facts are equally obscure when it comes to the date on which this game took place. Where is not in doubt, as the venue was a field in Westminster Road, Perry Barr, probably on the corner of Livingston Road, site now of Holy Trinity Church. Presumably the goal posts, and they would simply have been posts, were the same for both halves.

There has never been any satisfactory explanation as to how a team of Wesleyan Methodists who had not only never played football together but probably never played rugby either, managed to hold a team of well-tried rugby players scoreless during the first half, but that is how history would have it. It seems unlikely and the apparent facts only came to light after many years, so perhaps it was a little exaggeration by those Villa players who took part and would not like to admit defeat.

What has never been challenged is the fact that Villa scored in the second half to win the game. Jack Hughes is credited with somehow scoring this famous goal. It is not known who managed to referee the game of two different codes, if indeed there was a referee. Equally the names of the fifteen Villa players have oft been recorded and it is interesting to quote their ages at the time as established from the 1881 census, as well as their addresses, which were all fairly local to Lozells.

As befitted a goalkeeper for parks teams throughout the ages Scattergood was the oldest, being 38. The other ages confirm the old schoolteacher in so far as they were obviously his former pupils, not contemporary ones. Price (not the teacher), who became the first captain, was 22. Weiss, 24, Knight 28. Lee was 16, Midgley 18, Hughes 22, Whateley 26, Page 19, Robbins 25, Sothers 17. It has not been possible to confirm with absolute certainty the ages of Mason, Such and G & H Matthews.

A team continued to play cricket under the name of Aston Villa but it is by no means certain whether this was solely a Methodist team or one representing the whole of the area now known as Aston Villa. Ironically the first report relating to Aston Villa is of a cricket match against Marlborough played at Birchfield on September 18th 1875. The team includes the name of four players who are known to have played in the original football match; Hughes, Midgley, Matthews and Sothers. Marlborough made 69 and dismissed Aston Villa for 19. But like their counterparts out on the Bristol Road the Methodists found finding football opponents something of a problem.

Reports of football matches played in Birmingham in 1875 are few and far between and in the case of Aston Villa, non-existent. A couple of cricket matches get a mention and are notable for including the names of some of the original footballers.

Lack of opponents was to some extent solved when J. Campbell Orr, whose name is still revered in Birmingham football circles, had the inspired idea of forming a local Football Association to match those in Lancashire, Sheffield and London. Even he recognised that there was a shortage of good class clubs in Birmingham and insisted on calling it the Birmingham & District Association so as to embrace Black Country sides into the fold.

Somebody at Aston Villa had the foresight to put their names down for this select group and so joined the three teams from Wednesbury – Town, Old Athletic and Old Park, Walsall Victoria Swifts, Aston Unity, who were to become our rivals and neighbours, Saltley College, Royals, Calthorpe, Cannock, St.Georges, Harborne, West Bromwich, Stafford Road from Wolverhampton, Harold and Tipton.

The Birmingham & District FA was also keen to promote the game and on 8th March 1876 two teams, one chosen from clubs in the city and the other from the outlying areas, took part in a trial game with a view to competition against other associations. Although Aston Villa was still in Staffordshire and so outside the city, Price and Mason became the first players from the club to gain any form of representative selection. The ‘outsiders’ in the form of the district, won the match, which took place at Crankhall Grounds in Wednesbury, by one goal to nil.

To replicate the popular official Football Association Cup the district FA decided to establish a cup competition of its own. Aston Villa and Tipton could not wait to get started and decide to play each other for charity on April 1876. For some reason they chose to play on neutral ground, Crankhall Farm in Wednesbur,y so the game attracted a handful of spectators and yielded only 2/4 (12p). Tipton won the game 1-0 and although it came to be misreported as being the first game for the Birmingham & District FA Cup no trophy was ever presented. But with a cup ostensibly at stake it did come to be regarded as Villa’s first competitive game.

By a happy coincidence Villa’s first real competitive match was also to come against Tipton, when they were drawn together in the first round of the new competition. Villa did not have the honour of playing in the first competitive game in the district as that went to Wednesbury Town 2 Walsall Victoria Swifts 1 on 14th October 1876.

On 4th November 1876 a rugby match took place between Moseley and Aston St. Mary’s – the first reference I have found to our original opponents taking part in a match.

On 15th November 1876 Florence 1 Holte Wanderers 1. The first game played for a silver cup, value £21, took place at Olympic Ground, Hall Road, Handsworth. It was said that the second game between Burton on Trent (Allsop & Son) v Aston Villa would take place on 25th November 1876. Several games were postponed that day and I can find no trace of this game being played or what happened about any replay or the cup.

Villa and Tipton had to wait another five weeks before they crossed swords on the field Villa had managed to find for themselves at Wellington Road, Perry Barr. Aston Villa were clearly going places because for a mere five pounds per annum somebody had the inspired idea of renting a space of their own. This enclosed space had the massive advantage that Villa were able to charge admission money to watch them play. This quickly led to the demise of Calthorpe, who were unable to do likewise at their Bristol Road field and were soon to disband. On 18th November 1876 our entry into the realms of competitive football only lasted ninety minutes as Tipton again scored the only goal.

Villa did not have everything their own way in the immediate vicinity and faced a great deal of opposition from nearby clubs. Aston Unity had a ground on the corner of Trinity Road and Witton Road, Excelsior were almost opposite Unity in Fentham Road. There were numerous pitches in Aston Park used by clubs of lesser ability and ambition. Then there was a pitch within the confines of the Aston Lower Grounds, a Victorian Pleasure Garden which became to be seen as an ideal neutral ground.

On 24th March 1877 the Calthorpe Ground was the venue for the first final of the Birmingham Cup when Wednesbury Old Athletic defeated Stafford Road, Wolverhampton by 3-2, thus setting the standard for Villa to aim at. A list of all the secretaries in the Birmingham district reveals a total of 88 playing soccer but only a few, like Villa, still playing both. We were after all still officially the Aston Villa Football & Cricket Club. WH Price of 18 Wheeler Street, the captain in the first match is shown as the football secretary and DJ Stephens, 3 Mayfield Road his cricket counterpart.

By 1879, thanks mainly to encouragement from Ramsay our footballing fame had now spread north of the border, so much so that Queens Park, the most famous team in Scotland asked to pay us a visit. A record crowd, though nobody knows how many, saw the Villa take the lead after half an hour with a goal by Hughes, our famous first timer. But the visitors came back at us and we had to admit defeat at 1-2.

We next introduced another new innovation, a pre-season six-a-side soccer competition. Ten teams turned up at Perry Barr although the players practically outnumbered the spectators because the weather was foul. We put two teams out in the rain but to no avail. Nottingham Forest took the first prize of ten guineas

By now the Birmingham & District FA had 29 member clubs and were starting to express the hopes that one day one of them would carry off the FA Cup, currently the preserve of clubs from the south.

We didn’t have to travel far for our next competitive match. Aston Unity had pretensions of being the biggest fish in the soccer pond at the end of the seventies. Later they were to abandon soccer altogether in favour of cricket and were for a long time almost perpetual wooden spoonists in the Birmingham Cricket League before promotion and relegation was introduced into local cricket. They eventually left their ground in Witton Lane in favour of the ‘countryside’ out at New Oscott. 2-1 to Unity would have left no doubt as to who was cock of the district and it wasn’t the Villa. There are no reports of incidents as the crowd wended its way home along Trinity Road.

Harborne Unity did not fancy their anticipated thrashing in the first round of the Birmingham Cup and diplomatically withdrew. This set up a second round tie against Excelsior, who may also wish they had withdrawn after an 8-1 humiliation which did not attract much of a crowd to Perry Barr.

By now we had finally been persuaded to chance our arm by entering the FA Cup. After a bye in round one we had to go to Wolverhampton to meet the enginemen from Stafford Road. Andy Hunter scored the goal which gave us an unexpected 1-1 draw. Fitting the replay into our fixture list proved problematical and it was six weeks before they turned up at Wellington Road. By now we were in fine form and our 3-2 success was not the surprise in Perry Barr that it was in Wolverhampton.

Round two saw us drawn against Oxford University but we astonished the Midland football world by scratching from the competition. Many were prepared to believe it was because we could not afford the fare to Oxford or that the players could not get time off for the game but the reason has much to do with the politics of football.

In the second round the University had defeated a team from Birmingham in Aston Park by six goals to nil. Included in their team were two players, Hebblewaite and Barwick, who were registered with a team from Leeds and who did not have permission to play for the University. The rules on this subject were obscure; attempts were made to persuade the University to withdraw or at least play the game again, but they refused. Villa for their part declined to have anything to do with a club they considered to have at least broken the spirit of the rules and so they magnanimously withdrew instead. Somewhat obscurely the website of the Oxford University shows that that they defeated Aston Villa by 2-1 in the third round of the FA Cup on 31st January 1880, but efforts to trace any reference to this game have proved fruitless. Oxford went on to reach the cup final at the Oval, losing 1-0 to Clapham Rovers.

The Birmingham FA decided that all games in the fourth round of their cup should be played at the neutral Aston Lower Grounds. Supporters of Walsall Swifts and Wednesbury Strollers were not overly thrilled at this. For Villa the Lower Grounds were a home from home and our opponents, once again Aston Unity, could hardly complain about being required to play 400 yards away down Trinity Road. Where they may have complained was in losing 1-0, but there was no doubt about the result.

The FA had failed to allow for an odd number of teams in the competition so three clubs made it through to the semi-finals. The bye through to the final went to Saltley College. Villa had to overcome Walsall Swifts if they were to meet the students again, which they did by 2-1.

The scene was set for our third consecutive cup tie at the Aston Lower Grounds. Villa took the lead on the half hour through Eli Davis. Saltley equalised before the changeover following which skipper Ramsay scored shortly afterwards and bill Mason ensured the impressive cup was ours, the first trophy won by Aston Villa FC. Except as was the custom of the day we did not get to take the trophy home. We had to wait until the annual dinner of the association at the Nocks Hotel in Church Street twenty-seven days later before getting our hands on it. Later the Villa players complained about the quality of the medals they had been awarded and new ones were minted.