The ghost of Christmas Past

John Russell delves back almost a hundred years to a less than white Christmas.

We had set out hearts on winning the FA Cup again in our Golden Jubilee year, 1924, so it is impossible to overstate the damage to our morale wrought by Newcastle United at Wembley when they scored twice in last five minutes. Not least because even with an unfit Billy Walker limping around for the whole ninety trying to stay out of harm’s way it was a game we should have won easily.

Fred Rinder struggled to restore our damaged reputation but by Bonfire Night, although we were not exactly in dire straights, we had to suffer the double embarrassment of a Joe Bradford-inspired Birmingham being on top of the league and the Baggies in second place.

An ignominious home defeat by Cardiff City, even if they had come within a last minute penalty kick at St Andrews of becoming champions the previous season, was the stuff of ‘death cards’ and protest meetings. Reports state that the team at Preston the following week contained seven reserves but such was the state of affairs that nobody could be quite certain who was first team and who was a reserve any more. Indeed, that very day the nominated reserve team had beaten Bolton Reserves 1-0 at home whilst another ‘reserve’ eleven had fulfilled a long term commitment to play at Hull City Reserves where they lost 5-4.

A 3-0 win at home to Burnley on Christmas Shopping Saturday looks great on paper until you discover that at one time the visitors had four men out of action for various periods during the game. Victims, it is said, not of rough play, but of over-exuberant Villa youngsters over-keen to impress.

Five days later, Christmas Day saw us making our first ever visit to Leeds United. The home club had just spent a fortune on ground improvements under the supervision of Archibald Leitch, the architect responsible for the Trinity Road stand. They were hoping for a crowd of 50,000, but got barely half that. Aston Villa was not the team we once were, as was proved in the second half. A lethargic first period was scoreless. The next twenty-eight minutes remain amongst the most ignominious in our history. We conceded six goals. Admittedly the still up and coming Talbot retired injured after the third goal but then so did Whipps, the man who scored them. We were figuratively in ‘rags’ and that may have been the origin of our unwanted nickname that post-war was to become almost a term of endearment.

It would be interesting to know quite how the teams got back to Villa Park for the return fixture on Boxing Day. The records show that we gained some measure of revenge in winning 2-1 but it is not hard to imagine that the visitors had over-imbibed on the journey and were still full of the joys of the festive season. Also, there were nine different players on the pitch from the previous day.

You will now be amazed to learn that we were expected to play three games in three days and were due be at home to Liverpool on Saturday December 27th. Meanwhile, not just Villa Park but the whole of England and Wales was covered in a deep depression. It rained everywhere for the better part of twenty-four hours and with less time than that between games to get the ground fit for play the Villa groundsman was on a hiding to nothing. Liverpool hinted that he may have done just that, hid and done nothing, because only two other games were actually postponed that day, at Cardiff and Manchester City, thus at least proving the bad weather was wide spread. Even so, it was rare to postpone a game in those days but the referee had no choice but to call it off.

There was a near full programme scheduled for the following Thursday, New Year’s Day, but not including Villa and Liverpool. The visitors insisted that we play the game then but – another surprising thing – the decision was not down to the clubs but to the referee. He insisted on our ‘suggestion’ of a three week delay. Not that it did us any good because when the game was eventually played we lost 4-1. So continued the 37 year journey into the wilderness before we managed to win anything worthwhile again.