Twentieth century finale

John Russell talks about odd events from another century.

Twenty-three years on and it is now possible to write about the last century without expecting to be referring to lampposts, Charlie Athersmith, Jimmy Crabtree et al, the opening of Villa Park and the famous double.

The last century and in particular the nineteen nighties can mean only one thing, the inauguration of the Premier League.
A glance at the final first table from thirty years ago disguises the fact as to how close Villa actually came to winning the resplendent new trophy as surely our history demanded.

Villa had initially paid a significant part in the formation of the new league as one of the six clubs destined to arrange that they would make themselves rich and guarantee that they could never be relegated. Unfortunately for Villa, the other five members of the founding cartel quickly realised that Doug Ellis was not the wizard entrepreneur he liked to pretend himself to be and they quickly elbowed him aside and he took no part worthwhile part in the final discussions.

All season long the media talk had been as to how the league had been designed to be a Ferguson benefit to enable Manchester United to fulfil their ultimate destiny in seeking to dominate English football and beyond and so it subsequently proved for season after season. Villa initially threatened to ruin that ethos until in the final three games we too did what we were expected to do and after three horrendous defeats fell away to finish a less than creditable second ten points adrift.

After a brief flirtation with reducing the top flight to twenty clubs the Premier League reverted to twenty-two before soon realising that at least two clubs and probably more would be unable to compete financially in this cash cow and soon cut the numbers back to twenty clubs again to keep the now television money in house. The so called ‘little clubs’ would now have to make do with any crumbs which could come their way from progress in the FA Cup, although they were never going to be capable getting much beyond the fifth round. But they had other ways of making money as shown when Gravesend and Northfleet were drawn to play the ‘mighty’ Aston Villa at home.

From the very outset a century and a half earlier it was in the Football Association rules that first out of the hat, when it was a hat and not a velvet bag, meant choice of grounds. So lower clubs had started to relinquish any perceived home advantage in the hopes not of an unlikely victory but of lots of loot. Whether the representative fans from the sixth tier Beezer Homes League appreciated having to travel one hundred and forty miles to watch a ‘home’ match did not come into the equation. They would have to lump it. They would get to visit a big ground and we would provide them with a top class programme to remember the occasion by.

G&N actually put up a typical minnow struggle and there was some concern around B6 when they went in at the break at nil-nil. No concern about replay ticket though because, of course, any replay would also be at B6. Three-nil at the end made it looked easier than it was.

But our decade-ending FA cup venture had another oddity in store. Manchester United upset the nation and their fans by deciding that worldwide glory was more important than the FA Cup and they were not even prepared to risk putting out a reserve team to appease everybody. This meant a one club deficiency when it came to the third round, which unusually was to take place before Christmas. The FA decided that rather than let one team to have third round bye the losing teams from the second round would be given a once in a lifetime chance of being a more than lucky loser to make up the numbers.

In the event the ‘lucky losers’ were Darlington and it transpired that not only were they the lucky losers but when the draw was made there remained only two balls still to be drawn out. Whereupon they lost out and to finish off the decade and the century had to come to B6 rather than we Methodists having to visit the Quakers as they were known. Our hard fought 2-1 victory actually falsely implied that it would be the start of our twenty-first century renaissance but an ignominious cup final defeat against Chelsea soon put an end to that thought.

As for the Premier League, in thirty years it has made an awful lot of people rich. Players, managers and officials, but excitement is now confined to the memory bank of the more elderly spectator and it has started to throw up abundance of poor play and stiflingly boring matches as managers go in search of what has become the ultimate accolade, a clean sheet. Never mind actually trying to attack and actually win a game.

Gone are the days when in need of a better player a club would cast an envious eye over the nearest lower division club. Every new signing is now expected to be at least an international even if that international team is in the lowest bracket of the FIFA ratings. Having played at whatever international level is deemed better than what now has to be derogatorily referred to as the English League. Gerry Hitchens would never have got beyond Kidderminster.