John Russell harks back to a player of extreme versatility.
Ask any football pundit which was the first overseas country to defeat England in England and it is a pound to a pinch of stuff that you will get the reply, “Hideguti and Puskas, Hungary, Wembley 1954.”
But one person who could be guaranteed to know the correct answer to the conundrum is the subject of this article, Con Martin, who was in the Republic of Ireland team which defeated England 2-0 at Goodison Park in September 1949. What is more Con scored a rare collectors item when he scored the opening goal, from the penalty spot. Even more bizarrely Con was one of several players in the Irish team who appeared for both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in that same year. Which is probably why pundits tend to question whether the Emerald Isle counts as ‘overseas’ at all.
Con began his sporting career playing Gaelic football, a handling game which was later to stand him in good stead in ways he could not have imagined at the time. After Drumcondra he joined Glentoran but his stay there was rather brief when he was spotted by one of the shrewdest managers ever to grace the game, Major Frank Buckley, then of second division Leeds United. Buckley had to act decisively because Manchester United also had their eye on Con not at a half back where he was now playing but amazingly as a possible goalkeeper, a position in which he had already been chosen in a representative game in Ireland. So what happened later was not the surprise it seemed to be at the time.
For a mere £8,000 Leeds United had got a bargain and Con quickly became a fan favourite. But after a couple of seasons in yellow and blue things went awry when he was injured in a game against local rivals Sheffield Wednesday. Unable to play in the next game Leeds went on a winning spree and even a manager as famous as Buckley was unwilling to change a winning side. Consequently Con found himself playing in the reserves, which if nothing else meant a queue of scouts from other clubs heading for Elland Road.
For the bargain price of £10,000 Villa won the battle of the scouts and twenty-four hours later on 2nd October 1948 Con was no longer a Central League player when he turned out at Villa Park against Sheffield United at centre-half in place of Harry Parkes, stand-in for Frank Moss. Con can hardly have had a more sensational start to life at Villa Park as we went three goals to the good in only thirteen minutes. But Villa being Villa the sky nearly fell in in the second half and four goals in eight minutes led to a frenetic last five minutes but Con held his nerve and at twenty to five we had won 4-3.
Despite this success Con did not appear in our next game but for the best of all possible reasons, back then he was on duty in Belfast against Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright et al. Ireland 2 England 6. But from then on manager Alec Massie had no hesitation in inking in the name Martin on his team sheet every Thursday morning for the remainder of the season. Though mostly at centre-half, sometimes at right-back. We finished the season in mid-table but the biggest disappointment had been the FA Cup, where we took three attempts to beat Bolton Wanderers before surrendering to Cardiff City following the notorious penalty which, as you will gather, still rankles seventy-plus years on.
Optimism was rife in Aston at the start of 1949-50 even though Massie had moved on and as in the great days of yore the directors had taken on responsibility for team selection. This was not a problem when it came to the inclusion of 6ft 1 inch Con. Tall for his time, but not for today, where some clubs only want six footers.
Con played centre-half in every game except one in October when World Cup duty called and another in March where he was in opposition to Trevor Ford at Wrexham. I need no excuse to recall that at the time our league record was a unique P30 W10 D10 L10 F40 A40 Pts30. Ditto 1950-51 through to March, when a cartilage operation to captain Ivor Powell led to our acquiring the greatest player I have ever seen in claret and blue, Robert Dennis Blanchflower (as usual, respect where it is due).
The dream partnership of Martin and Blanchflower was to survive only one game together when Con was injured at Middlesbrough. But absence and injury not withstanding we went on the sort of winning spree which had confounded Frank Buckley in the first place and Con was back in place for the opening of season 1951-52 at Bolton Wanderers.
In the days before substitutes an outfield player was always expected to don the green jersey in the event of an injury to the regular goalkeeper. In the case of Villa that nominee was always going to be Con. Peter McParland and Stan Lynn later performed the duty but both would rather I did not mention it. Thus it was that an early injury to Joe Rutherford led to Con donning the green jersey but against the likes of Nat Lofthouse with inevitable results, 2-5.
It goes without saying that Villa then had a major selection problem so it was decided to preserver with Con in a reserve game at Bury (1-1) Four days later Graham Cordell was deemed not ready for the first division so Con was thought good enough to face Derby County. Con played with an assurance that suggested he had been waiting all his career for this one big moment. He retained his place including for the then traditional friendly against Shamrock Rovers.
A poor game at Stoke City (1-4) and fit again Rutherford was recalled for a home game against Manchester United. He performed no better than any of his predecessors – or successors – against United and it turned out to be his swansong. Cordell was finally given his chance at Tottenham (0-2). He stayed around for two more games but did not exactly distinguish himself. So nothing for it – the ever reliable Con had to come back. He brought his own unique style of ball handling for all to see.
When it came to team selection the two parts of Ireland had now gone their separate ways so we did not have the joy of seeing Con in action when England gained revenge against Ireland (2-0) right here at Villa Park.
All good things must come to an end and after sixteen consecutive games in goal Con replicated the finger injury suffered by Joe Rutherford in a friendly (if there is such a thing) against second division Birmingham City at Villa Park (3-2) to make up for the fact that both had quickly been eliminated from the FA Cup Already we had the luxury of standing in seventh place, so finally Keith Jones was given the chance to show his mettle.
It doesn’t help when good as you were at centre-half you are now being thought of as a goalkeeper. Opportunities for recall are likely to be few and far between, if an. This despite being thought of as being from the mould which gave us Paul McGrath. Including his 27 outings in goal Con played over 200 games in the colours during which he rarely if ever crossed the halfway line. So much so that he only ever scored one goal for us and that from the penalty spot at The Valley on Good Friday 1950. His last Villa game was at centre-half in the cup at Arsenal in 1956 (1-4). Ironically his successor, who went on to achieve greater glory, also made his debut against Arsenal a few days later in a league match – Jimmy Dugdale.
So it was that Con left within touching distance of something we have never been able to repeat. He went on to try his hand at management at Dundalk and Waterford but was unable to match his playing achievements.
Cornelius Joseph Martin – Legend, hero.