The Villa Park misfits – Alun Evans

Dave Collett remembers a seventies nearly man.

When Villa signed Liverpool striker Alun Evans in the summer of 1972, it was something of a mixed blessing for the Kidderminster-born prodigy. To an extent, it all made sense. Kevin Keegan had come to Anfield a year earlier. Defying the usual Anfield team-building process, he had by-passed playing for the reserves by tearing it up in pre-season training, including the first-team vs seconds fixture that was annually played out at the Mellwood training ground.

This fixture was traditionally won by the reserves. If that doesn’t seem strictly logical, it was apparently the case that by the last week before each season started, the first-team line-up for the opening game was generally known. Having won a place in Bill Shankly’s voraciously energetic side, no-one was particularly keen on missing out by overdoing things a few days before the big kick-off. In August 1971, however, the first team lads hammered the reserves out of sight. This was so unusual that Shankly wanted to know what had happened out there. He summoned to his office a reserve player he loved to have in his squad; play-anywhere Ian Ross. His explanation was brief enough. “Aaargh – the boy Keegan!!” It was also good enough for the Liverpool boss, who picked him for an Anfield debut against Nottingham Forest where he duly terrorised their defence, grabbed a goal and put down a marker for a first-team start for the next six years. All this was great news for Liverpool who had paid a moderate fee for Keegan when they brought him in from Scunthorpe United. It’s hard to believe the enthusiasm was shared by Evans, who had overcome several problems to become a Shankly regular and now saw everything in danger of being snatched away.

Evans’s rise had been a swift one. Turning out for Wolves in their first season back at the top in 1967-68 – Villa at this time were heading very much in the other direction – he made a strong impression on football judges. One of them bore the name Shankly. Alun did himself no damage at all with a strong performance at Anfield where he made big centre-back Ron Yeats’s life a misery, scoring a goal as Wolves were narrow losers. Bill was no mug and realised that Evans would need some more time to hone his impressive skills, so kept the Liverpool treasure chest under lock and key.

The predicted improvement came and in the autumn of 1968, Liverpool pounced. This was no bargain basement signing, however. They had to pay £100,000 for the privilege of bringing Evans to Anfield. Though this amount might pass muster for Jack Grealish’s party expenses for any given month, the fee made Alun then the most expensive teenage player ever. Shortly after the deal was done, Evans marked his home debut with a goal at home to Leicester. His new team then travelled to Molineux and left with two points and no fewer than six goals. Alun helped himself to two of them in a dynamic display that made his fee look like it might be the deal of the decade. Shankly compared him to another young goal-scorer who had once worked under him – Dennis Law.

By the end of that season he had only managed seven goals, partly due to the role he had been given, that of being the eventual replacement for Anfield goal-legend and World Cup winner, Roger Hunt. The following season started off well but he still scored only nine, all of them before the end of October. Hunt had now departed for Bolton, so it was time for Evans to prove his worth. At the start of 1970/71 he looked to have done just that with five from the first six games. Surely only injury could stop him now, and so it transpired – but not on a football pitch. Visiting a Wolverhampton nightclub for a quiet night out with his wife, a man Evans had never even met smashed a pint glass into his face. Almost seventy stitches needed inserting into the wounds and he was scarred him for life. This didn’t deter him from coming back to action quickly but the reward for his courage was more rotten luck. Alun picked up an injury in a Uefa Cup tie and was out for four months.

The odd, not to say occasionally bizarre, twists of luck in sport and life saw Evans, resuming play in March, given the striker slot for the fourth-round home tie against Bayern Munich. Liverpool won 3-0, with Evans bagging the lot and effectively deciding the outcome halfway through. Three more goals, as well as a vital equaliser against Everton in the cup semi-final and over an hour’s playing-time in the final against Arsenal must have built up Alun’s hopes that he was established at last, but Keegan’s arrival changed all that. 1971-72 saw him make only eight appearances so it was clear that he would have to leave Anfield to play regularly.

Villa had just climbed out of the third division, having drawn over a million fans to Villa Park in all competitions, and were expected to use some of that hard cash to strengthen their team for the attempt at consecutive promotions. Alun Evans fitted the bill and the price, in the region of seventy thousand pounds, didn’t strain Villa’s budget too much. The problem was Evans’s condition. With so little recent game-time, the player wasn’t at his sharpest and would have to be used, initially at least, as the lone sub on the bench. Vic Crowe gave an idea of the problems that Evans was facing when he spoke in his programme notes of the difficulty of balancing the player’s diet and training regime without taking away too much of the strength he needed to perform at the level the club thought him capable of. Evans gave an early flavour of what the fuss might be about in a pre-season friendly against Spurs. Though cramped for room thirty yards out and at an angle to the goal, he somehow cracked in a shot that flew past Pat Jennings and hit the crossbar. Had it gone in, it would have been a contender for Goal of the Pre-Season.

Villa fans could be excused for wondering what he might do when he was in top condition but they had to stay patient. After all, Andy Lochhead had won the Midland Footballer of the Year award in April, a spin-off from his goal tally of twenty-five that had done much to secure Villa’s title win. Was Alun in direct competition with Andy for the honour of leading the attack? If not, he might get in the side if one of the wide men, Willie Anderson and Ray Graydon were to miss out. It was, of course, the excellent service that these two had provided that had given Lochhead many of his opportunities. Would this still work against defences a level higher? Where would the brilliant but infuriatingly inconsistent Chico Hamilton fit in? Just to muddy the waters further, another young centre-forward, Keith Leonard, had been picked up from non-league Highgate United. Like the highly-talented Brian Little, star of that year’s glorious Youth Cup triumph, he wasn’t ready to play first-team football yet, but it wouldn’t be too long before both would be nudging the manager’s arm.

Until the end of September, Evans was on the sub’s bench but had still made an impression in that time. He came on to score Villa’s last goal in a 4-1 League Cup win over new boys Hereford United then had to wait until the home game against Brighton to make his first league impact. Replacing Anderson, he somehow managed to get a cross in from the left bye-line when there appeared to be no space – an Evans specialty – and Lochhead took full advantage to give Villa a point. In the following midweek, he made his first start in the cup at Forest in the no.9 slot and scored a first-half winner, converting a cross from out wide. For the next league game at Cardiff, Evans was back on the bench, coming on for Lochhead in the second half as Villa chalked up another win. Alun was hardly in a position to complain; after all, Villa were well up the table and had already put themselves in a strong position to challenge for back-to-back promotions.

As often happens, one player’s break is another’s misfortune. Willie Anderson hobbled off at half-time against Swindon and Alun got a run-out for the whole second half. He wasn’t long in making an impact, either. Before the break, Villa had been insipid and left themselves open for a breakaway, Don Rogers taking full advantage. Crowe and Wylie had obviously got into the team in a big way at half-time and they dominated from then on. It took a while for the leveller to come but it was worth the wait. The ball fizzed in from the left and Evans launched himself at it, both feet in mid-air, to volley spectacularly into the net. Within minutes, Lochhead had grabbed the winner with a powerful header that gave Peter Downsborough no chance and the Villa points pile had grown even higher, to the delight of the raucous crowd. Another good performance at Forest brought only a point, despite Villa’s dominance. Perhaps it was a sign of how far Villa had come that some fans were bemoaning the fact that we had only managed a draw away to a team that had been in the top division earlier in the year.

The Forest game was Evans’ first start in the league, Anderson still out with his Swindon injury. He kept the place for the next few weeks. The home game against lower mid-table Sunderland went to form as far as the score was concerned, 2-0, but clearly not on performance as the Mackems were clearly the better side for most of the game. They were undone by a strong defence and two free-kicks from Bruce Rioch. The first shot was too hot to hold for ‘keeper Jimmy Montgomery and Evans obliged with the follow-up. The second punctured an already fragmented Sunderland wall and Villa, however undeservedly, were home. The next game saw a 1-0 win against struggling Millwall which saw Villa top after ten games. At this stage the promotion dream looked very much on. Alas, this was to be the high point of the season.

If a record of seven wins out of ten for a newly-promoted side was highly impressive, one in the next nine was less so. Crowe and Wylie had to deal with the issue of the two-winger system and whether it was effective in this league. Lochhead was left out for a spell, as was Pat McMahon, while Willie Anderson disappeared from the team sheet entirely after a 2-0 home defeat to Luton. Shortly after, he departed for Cardiff. Injuries; the disruptive impact of new selections; the run of the ball suddenly turning against you; brilliant saves from the opposition ‘keeper. These are all familiar enough to regular football fans. Alun Evans could at least console himself that he was one of the first names on the team-sheet during a time when it looked like Villa might fall out of the promotion race completely. Not that things were going too well for him, either. A well-taken shot after a corner was worth a point at Blackpool but otherwise the cupboard was bare, both for the striker and his team.

December brought a change in fortune and gave everyone a boost of sorts. Alun grabbed an early winner in a truly awful game against Orient, then knocked in two more over the holiday period. His downward header bounced up into the roof of the net against Forest and he netted another equaliser in an undistinguished draw at struggling Huddersfield. These wins were enough to keep Villa just about in the promotion race but a three-goal beating at home to an impressive Burnley side merely confirmed earlier perceptions that they and QPR were by some distance the best two sides in the division.

This result and poor performance which brought disgraceful chants of “Crowe Must Go!” from alleged supporters at the game, brought about some changes in the line-up. Crowe had already been hamstrung by the board’s failure to provide further financial backing, leaving him with the option of trying to sell squad players to help fill the club’s coffers while not weakening his team. Matters weren’t helped when the promising Leonard, who might well have got a run in the side at this point was put out of action for a long stretch by a serious car accident. The manager went for a combination of Graydon, Evans and Little up front, this brought pace and skill to the side, though not much in the way of resilience. Results suggested that they did rather well, but not well enough to have any hope of catching the runaway leaders. A fine run of only one defeat in the last ten games took Villa to a third-place finish, a remarkable achievement in the circumstances. A couple of Villa fans thought differently and got up a petition demanding the managerial pair should be summarily dismissed for this ‘failure’. A national football magazine’s opinion column had a good time taking the piss out of this outraged and entitled pair.

Notwithstanding this, Alun Evans was one of several Villa players to pick up an injury in the last third of the season -making the run-in results even more praiseworthy- and had to wait until the following August to be back into action. By now, the redoubtable Lochhead had departed and was replaced, in the absence of funding that would have allowed for a more ambitious signing, by Port Vale’s Sammy Morgan, who had recently made his debut for Northern Ireland. If there was ever a more committed striker than Sammy, his name remains unknown. To describe him as a bit raw was an understatement and Crowe and Wylie were careful to phase the new man in. Going the other way, Keith Leonard, still recovering from his injuries, was loaned out to Vale and their boss, former Villa man Gordon Lee to boost his recovery.

All this meant that Alun and Brian Little started the season up front together as a pair, Ray Graydon being suspended for the start of the season. Playing them up front allowed room for new cut-price signing Trevor Hockey who had moved from Norwich in the close season to provide extra bite in midfield. With Jimmy Brown and Bruce Rioch also operating in that area, Villa were unlikely to lose too many midfield battles in the coming season. Evans and Little lacked something in the physical side of the game, but their spirit, speed and skill would hopefully make up for that.

At first, it seemed that this would be the case. The new system seemed to work, certainly if the idea was to make Villa harder to beat. Villa were seven unbeaten into September but only one of their goals had been scored by a striker. While Geoff Vowden and Bruce Rioch had licence to get forward, a record of eight goals in the first nine games was hardly the stuff of promotion aspirations. Graydon’s recall helped as Villa tore through October and helped themselves to five wins out of six. Graydon and Little seemed to be holding their own personal goal of the month competition as Villa settled into second place. Evans joined in the fun, but only once. His brace of goals at Bolton were worth a good away win. At this point, a figure no less than ex-Villa boss Joe Mercer weighed in with fulsome praise of the Crowe-Wylie partnership, calling them the best young management team in the game. Joe knew both men well enough, having managed them in his term at Villa Park. Coincidentally, the pair were given improved contract terms by chairman Ellis at this time.

Sadly for all concerned, this was to be the highpoint of their time at the club they loved. Injuries to key players Graydon and Rioch, suddenly saw the team plunge into a run where goals were as rare as oases in the desert. Between the start of November and the end of January, Villa only registered five goals in league games. Now every goal conceded weighed more heavily against the team which sank down from the promotion places to below mid-table. That Alun Evans’s contribution to the meagre total was zero wasn’t entirely the striker’s fault as he missed a handful of games with injury. When he played, he looked much like the rest – giving his best but lacking in confidence.

A cup run always offers the chance of a change in fortunes and a confidence boost. Even this didn’t come easily for struggling Villa. The home tie with fourth division Chester was stuck at 1-1 for a long time before sub Sammy Morgan, on as a replacement for the ineffective Evans, came to the rescue with a couple of goals. The next round saw them at Highbury where few were optimistic regarding our chances. Once again, the cup fooled us all. Where had this form been for the last three months, we serial moaners chorused? Villa looked every bit as good as their top-level opponents and thoroughly deserved the replay they had earnt, despite being reduced to ten men in the second half. The replay was one of those Villa nights under the lights you can never forget. with Big Sammy giving Villa an early lead before Rioch’s powerful run and cross down the right caused problems in the Arsenal box and Evans drove the ball home for the clincher. The run came to a conclusion at Burnley, by now an established first division side. Villa gave it their all but came up short on a boggy pitch that didn’t really suit either side.

A month later, there was a mini-breakthrough. A breath-taking Evans volley from twenty-five yards flew into the net against promotion-chasing Carlisle. It would have featured on most goal of the season videos. Sadly, there were only twelve thousand witnesses. Villa’s slump down the table and the sale of talismanic midfielder Bruce Rioch to Derby left many fans worrying about the ambition of the current board. The fee meant that Crowe had over a quarter of a million pounds to spend but wasn’t able to bring in any of his targets before the summer. Instead, he tried Morgan up front alongside the now-recovered Leonard as Villa mounted a late rush for third place which fizzled out soon enough. A disappointing fourteenth finish was all the excuse the board needed to remove Crowe and Wylie after over four years of building the club up from nothing.

The new manager was Ron Saunders, though apparently he wouldn’t have been if the chairman had had his way. One of football’s biggest cliches is that when the new man comes in, all the players have the chance to start again. Evans would no doubt have felt that way, especially in a side that had struggled to score goals recently. Rumour has it that Evans wasn’t the most enthusiastic of trainers, which certainly wouldn’t have gone down well with the new man in charge. Villa got off to a slow start and the perma lum-faced manager even had an early laugh with the press boys after his first home game against Norwich had ended in a 1-1 draw. “Any of you lads any good at knocking the goals in?” Villa won the next game 6-0. For the first half of the season, Villa were Jekyll and Hyde, scoring plenty of goals and wins at home, struggling for form away. Saunders tried Little and Graydon playing off Morgan. This worked quite well, especially with Graydon getting off to a flier. Young hopeful Bobby Campbell got a few games before his leg was gashed open against Millwall. Keith Leonard got a bit of game-time. Then Morgan picked up a groin strain that he couldn’t shake off but there was still no place for Evans, not even on the sub’s bench.

The new year saw Villa absolutely flying, with the front combination of Graydon, Leonard and a supercharged Little tearing holes in second division defences. Then came the last hurrah. The brilliant Little took a knock against Fulham and Saunders didn’t want to risk him in the cup tie against Ipswich. Suddenly, Evans was a starter. Villa gave their alleged superiors a real scare, going two-up before succumbing to a late defeat. Ipswich boss Bobby Robson admitted that at 2-0 he was already looking ahead to the next match. The second goal came from a thumping angled drive from Graydon that came off the underside of the bar allowing Evans to simply fall forwards to head the ball into the net. There is a saying that all glory is fleeting and so it proved for Alun. The next game saw Brian return and continue his scoring spree. Evans’s last glimpse of first-team football came when he was surprisingly named on the bench for the League Cup final. His services were not required but he got a winner’s tankard.

And that was it for Alun’s Villa career. Within months he had gone to Walsall, where, converted to a midfield player, he played for three seasons, failing to register double figures in goals in almost ninety appearances. In 1978, eager for a fresh start, he went to Australia for five years, four of which he spent at South Melbourne. He enjoyed life enough to settle there after his playing days came to an end. Thus ended the career of a player who at one stage seemed to have the football world at his feet as a teenager but who in the end fell well short of that elusive and ephemeral quality, potential.