Playing away

John Russell recalls the days when going to an away match was an expedition.

There is a certain irony that, back in the distant days beyond recall, Birmingham New Street Station actually began life as Birmingham Grand Central when it replaced Curzon Street as the main city terminus until it was renamed in 1854. Even more odd was the fact that the new station was designed by Robert Stephenson and the main entrance was in Stephenson Place but perhaps self aggrandisement was given the cold shoulder he named the station after the nearby principal street. Time has gone full circle even though Grand Central is merely seen as a shopping centre and bears no relationship to that wonderful terminal on 42nd Street. Nobody is ever going to compose a musical about Birmingham New Street. (I once got shot in Minneapolis – there is a scene at the end of 42nd Street where a gun gets fired. Sitting in the front row the actor pointed the gun straight at me and I swear he had a massive grin on his face when he saw my reaction.)

I bore you with more facts about ‘our station’ but for more than a decade it played a significant role in my great Aston Villa adventure. Working as a civil servant in the city centre I had a one hour lunch break and it was very rare indeed for anyone to take less than the stipulated sixty minutes. But woe betide anyone taking the twelve o’clock break to overstay their return to the office

After lunch at the civil service canteen in Piccadilly Arcade or instead joining the postmen in their retreat in Pinfold Street I adjourned to platform six at New Street Station. This was a regular meeting point for half a dozen of us to congregate and discuss, mainly, all thing trains. Then at precisely 1.50 (no confusing twenty-four hour clock yet back then) the departure of the train for Manchester was the signal for us to return to our daily grind.

But most importantly the sojourn at the station had enabled me to pick up the railway handbill for the train to the next away match, usually to be found in a rack alongside the main entrance. I always felt that there was a closet Villa supporter in the railway offices in New Street because it was rare to find a similar handbill advertising trains to Birmingham City matches, but there was always a suspicion that they did not have much of an away support.

Bear in mind that at the time there were eight Lancastrian team in the first division so we were frequently headed in that direction from New Street, or alternatively from Snow Hill to London ahead of plans for the demolition of New Street. Excursion trains would generally start at Northfield then venture north calling at Aston, Witton, Bescot and Walsall before heading across Cannock Chase to Stafford. It always took precisely one hour from New Street to Stafford.

We were usually provided with an eleven coach train and I was always to be found in the rear coach where fellow fans would come to collect from me the programme for that afternoon’s Villa News which I had picked up on the way home on Friday night from Buckley’s news agents at Witton Square. When going to Blackburn or Burnley the train was particularly attractive to the train spotting fraternity as it would do a circumnavigation of Manchester depots, otherwise the train was seldom full. On one occasion going to Burnley I went through and counted just sixty of us and two of those were an elderly couple not going to the match but using the cheap train to go to see relatives. As frequently happened..

The other joy of the train in those days was that it always arrived in plenty of time to get to the ground and possibly have a meal at Woolworths restaurant. Likewise there was always plenty of time after the final whistle to get back to the station.
Although I would always insist on catching the outward train at New Street I was always delighted to get off at Perry Barr or Witton on the return journey.

Except in the case of FA Cup matches there was never any need to buy a train ticket in advance. Rather than use the main booking office I always made a point of buying my ticket at the small booking office in Queens Drive, if only to justify the continued existence of that closure-threatened but useful office as it meant never having to queue. The FA Cup was a much bigger fixture than it is today and often there would be three excursion trains, each requiring specific tickets. So it was best to choose wisely. Also the question in going to London, apart from New Street or Snow Hill, was whether to stay for the midnight train. Worse, cheap tickets from Paddington were not valid on the 6.10 although I did bluff my way onto it once and spent the journey in a compartment reserved for the Villa team whilst they remained in the restaurant car. It was either the crowed 7.10 – crowded with London day trippers that is – or the midnight newspaper train. This one went round the Wrekin and was due to arrive in Snow Hill at two minutes to four but never knowingly did.

After a mad dash to Greys in Bull Street just in case the 4am bus left late I would opt to walk home past Villa Park. Staying in London for the evening meant dogs at the White City or I-e hockey at Wembley or Harringey. Or the plush seats at the Leicester Square Odeon if there was a good film on

Eventually in the mid-sixties British Rail gave up on running football excursion train after frequent spates of vandalism as Everton and Liverpool supporters vied with one another to see who could wreck the most carriages, which the following Monday morning were to be seen standing forlornly in the carriage sidings at Dunstall.

As if to prove that we had been lucky to have the tacit support of British Rail and that supporting Villa away was not a common Saturday activity, into the breach stepped Stockland Coaches. They seldom managed to fill a coach – 37 being the almost regular turnout. I always went to the garage on a Monday morning to book four tickets in order to try to make sure that they did not consider cancelling the trip through lack of support.

But because it would always need two drivers they did not venture to the north-east and that meant resorting to a normal service train (no excursion fares) and that interminable 45 minute layover at Sheffield while they loaded the newspapers. Initially, people did not believe me when I told them of the delay and the opportunity to visit the fish and chip shop across from the station but it soon became a regular occurrence. As did the rare opportunity of travelling to Hillsborough on a tram when trams were proper trams, not street cars.

Nostalgia. I only hope that somebody somewhere is building up a folder of Villa nostalgia to share with the generations as yet unborn.