The men we couldn’t do without

Dave Collett remembers an irresistible force.

Number 4 – Ken McNaught

I’ve never been, or wanted to be, a football agent. If I was forced into the role, I could imagine drawing up a ‘dos and don’ts’ list for my valued clients. Amongst the latter, the following would feature:

• Don’t join a new club where the man you are replacing is a highly popular player who has been much valued for the last five years (for example, Chris Nicholl).
• Don’t join if the bloke you are replacing has just had his best-ever season (Chris Nicholl again).
• Don’t join if the aforementioned player captained the side to cup glory in the previous season, scoring an unforgettable goal from such a long distance that it was probably hit from outside the ground or the county it was in. (Guess who?)

Happily for us, Ken McNaught ignored all this and also put aside a recent move of a different sort: into a new house with his wife. It’s possible that the impressive McNaught agreed the move when he realised that Everton, while not really wanting to release someone who had had such a good season last time out, wanted the money from the deal that would enable them to strengthen other areas of the team. A £200,000 transfer fee allowed them to feel good about the deal.

For Villa fans, the previous year had given us plenty of opportunities to assess the incoming defender. After all, we had played the Toffees five times in 1976-77 plus two sets of extra time. Manager Ron Saunders had sought the views of his own iconic striker, Andy Gray, who hit twenty-nine goals in that season, and Gray’s positive impressions of the abilities of his fellow Scot may have helped to influence the boss’s inclinations.

The idea behind the move may have been that Villa’s vibrant attacking play -the best seen for at least a generation- meant that teams leaving Villa Park were likely to do so licking some serious wounds. Away from home, the standard was not quite as good but only the concession of points on numerous occasions after we had taken the lead had prevented a serious challenge for the league title. The signing of McNaught to help shore up the defence (along with the signing of the excellent Jimmy Rimmer in goal) would make the defence more secure, while Messrs Gray, Little and Deehan would be free to wreak havoc at the other end.

Well, it’s a theory at least; the reality didn’t run quite so smoothly. Successive home defeats, including one against his former club, meant that the newcomer had a bit of a rough ride. On leaving the Everton game, I heard one Villa fan express the opinion that, while Ron Saunders had a good record of signing attacking players, his defensive signings hadn’t been so good. The solution, apparently, was to bring in a second manager who would be empowered to sign defenders only. It was an interesting idea, one which was thankfully never put to any practical test as to its efficacy.

Villa continued to splutter along in the league, with McNaught’s form attracting a lot of attention. Saunders was both clever and good enough to back his man whenever he could, not being especially desperate to win any popularity contests by leaving the new signing out. After an away draw at Leeds, he singled out Ken’s outstanding performance, saying that he was five times better than his opposite number, Gordon McQueen, then rated one of the best centre-backs in the league. This technique of protecting your player from the knives with your own back was only needed briefly. A home tie against Gornik of Poland saw Villa take a convincing two-goal lead into the second leg. The fact that both goals came from the much-maligned McNaught, one of them a spectacular if awkward horizontal header, calmed everybody down. Another goal at West Ham a few days later, more or less sealed the deal that this new bloke wasn’t too bad after all.

These goals came in a good run of performances and wins where Villa had seemingly recovered from early season travails and were settling down to the form of the previous season, even if the goals weren’t flowing quite so readily as last time round. Sadly, it wasn’t to last, as Villa struggled to find the consistency that would propel them towards the top. Typically, Villa came out of a couple of cracking wins against Manchester United and Liverpool (at Anfield) then slumped to a single point and no goals from the next three games against Middlesbrough, Chelsea and Ipswich. This was to carry on for much of the season, with Villa seemingly marooned in solid mid-table. Injuries didn’t help, but then came one that did exactly that.

Allan Evans played at Newcastle in early April, replacing Andy Gray, and scored Villa’s goal in a 1-1 draw. Also in that team was the redoubtable Leighton Phillips alongside McNaught. After this game, Gray returned up front, but Phillips had fallen ill and would need replacing. While musing over his options, Saunders, a man with a well-earned reputation for strong and independent thinking, consulted Ken about the issue. Ken offered the opinion that he thought that Evans, bought by Ron as a defender in the first place, would be a good choice to partner him on the end-of-season run-in. Ken’s logic worked like this: at Everton, he had been partnered by Mike Lyons or Roger Kenyon, both big, powerful centre-backs. With either of these players, Ken had been able to quickly strike up a good understanding. Either centre-half would take one ‘side’ of the pitch. If the ball came onto your side, you dealt with it and your partner went on the cover in case of mistakes. Playing with Leighton meant that this didn’t happen so easily. Leighton Phillips was a class player who liked bringing the ball out of defence, hardly surprising for a player who used to play in the midfield area. He also enjoyed sweeping up behind Ken, leaving the big Scot to go for every header. McNaught preferred the Everton system and Saunders went with him.

Call it coincidence, but Villa duly won the next five games and were suddenly in the race for a place in Europe for the next season but a defeat at Molineux ended that interest. Those seeking more evidence for the late run may have noted that the return of several key players might have had an impact. Nevertheless, there was little doubt that Evans had done well and would take some shifting to split from his new partner.

So it proved. 1978-79 was a prolonged nightmare as far as injuries to first-team players were concerned. At times, it seemed that a whole team were unavailable for selection. John Gregory surely earned his ‘play anywhere’ reputation in this period. One of the few stable parts of the team was the Evans-McNaught combination, with the worthy Leighton Phillips being moved on to Swansea to make room on the wage bill. Admittedly Evans, while wearing the number four shirt that he made his own for so long, would actually be working up front, often with some success, but this would only be when the manager’s hand was forced by injuries to Gray and Little. It was also during this period that unfamiliar names like Shaw, Gibson and Williams were put before the Villa public. In time, they would be well remembered. Despite all this chopping and changing, another good run near the end of the season gave Villa another sniff of the top six but they couldn’t quite see things home.

The disruption at the start of the new season was of a different sort. Prolific players like Gidman and Gray had fallen out with the manager over certain issues. Another, John Deehan, was regarded by the boss as surplus to requirements, so it looked like a rebuilding job was on the cards. Ron Saunders wasn’t the type to deal in excuses so, after a poor start, he took the team on a long run that again took them near the top positions. The defence was largely unchanged, as indeed was the centre midfield, leaving Ron to find the answers to the wide and striking positions. Alan and Ken continued as before, happy in their combination play. Strangely, both missed the last few games with injury. Their replacements, Brendon Ormsby and Noel Blake, did well enough, while making it clear how much they still had to learn from their more experienced team-mates.

To write about what happened over the next period would be a waste of time and energy, as no-one reading this will ever forget it. Villa were now set up as one of the top sides in the country, as well as the best in Europe. All that was to unravel from the time that former chairman Doug Ellis returned to the club, having purchased Ron Bendall’s shareholding in December 1982. It took a while for Ellis to wreck the side that had brought so much glory to the club’s name. in the meantime, Killer Ken had added some more lustre to his Villa Park legend by scoring with a diving header to clinch the Super Cup win against Barcelona. The game was also noteworthy in that, in the absence of the great Dennis Mortimer, Ken was captain for the night and the smile on his face at the end of the game told the world how much he had enjoyed what was a tempestuous and sometimes violent match.

Villa did well enough in the league to clinch European football for another season. The issue on Ken’s mind was that his contract needed renewing. The big man was happy to sign but wanted a multi-year deal. The new chairman wasn’t so keen on that, especially as there had been concerns expressed over Ken’s occasional absences with a persistent calf injury. This objection seemed rather a stretch as the centre-back had only missed a single game in the previous season. In the words of Steve Stride, Villa’s long-term secretary, Doug Ellis could resist almost anything, except a tempting transfer fee. So it was that no agreement being reached, a bid of about £150,000 was accepted from near-rivals West Bromwich Albion.

While it would be nice to sneer at the fact that Ken never really settled across the way and so effectively was a waste of money for them, the damage done here was even greater. In moving the player on, Villa were losing more than just an individual; they were breaking up one of the best partnerships the club had had in the modern era. Whoever came in was going to have to establish a new relationship and pretty quickly. The first candidate for the job was Brendon Ormsby. A whole-hearted lad from Northfield, he had played for Villa for several years but had had few chances to show what he could do -unsurprising when the standard set was so high. Ormsby could hardly have got off to a better start, scoring the winner in an opening day derby against – West Brom. Guess who was playing at the back for the other lot? Such are the vagaries of the fixture list.

No doubt Ellis approved of the long run that Ormsby was given in the side, as he was already on the books and so no transfer fee was involved. Brendon held his place for about half the season and, not withstanding two hammerings by Arsenal and Notts County, Villa’s defence held up. A sense of how thin Villa were now spreading themselves could be gathered from the fact that when the young lad missed several games through injury, his replacement was none other than Des Bremner, taken out of the midfield and put alongside his fellow Scot, Allan Evans. Eventually, Ormsby resumed but found himself out of the picture when, in March, Tony Barton effectively spent the McNaught fee on Steve Foster of Brighton. It was hoped that he would form a formidable barrier to opposing forwards once he settled in next to Evans.

Foster started with two away defeats but on his home debut knocked in the winner against Watford, which doesn’t do any new signing any harm. The jury on Foster was out as we hit the summer, the first news being that Tony Barton was sacked for finishing a disappointing tenth, with, for the first time in his short managerial career, no trophy to show off at the end of the season. The new manager was the very much untried-at-this-level Graham Turner. The incoming boss gave Foster the first half-dozen matches to show what he could do, and with Villa conceding a high number of goals, was happy to go back to the Evans-Ormsby combo for the rest of the season.

Apparently, Foster wasn’t too happy about the fact that he wasn’t being allowed to play the way he had previously at Brighton, where he organised his back line up the pitch, playing for offsides. At Villa, the idea was to drop and defend the penalty area line, something Steve hadn’t done before. He wasn’t too pleased to be stuck in the reserves, either, and soon Villa accepted Luton Town’s offer, about half of what Villa had laid out to get the centre-back in the first place. Taking a wild guess, I’m thinking this wouldn’t have pleased Doug too much, especially when Foster went on to thrive in a promising young side at Kenilworth Road. Still, apart from stuffings at Filbert Street and Old Trafford, Villa’s backline didn’t do badly, as they wound up back in tenth place.

Ellis’s apparent policy of dismembering the great side of the early eighties continued the following season, with Cowans and Gibson departing. The policy seemed to be, if the offer was decent, then sell without worrying too much about replacements -not a bad description of the McNaught transfer itself. Ormsby resumed duties until injured then youth team defender Dean Glover took his place alongside the worthy Evans. By now the Ellis asset-stripping had seen Villa fall well down the table and December saw defensive reinforcements brought in in the shape of Paul Marcellus Elliot. Clutching my Irony-ometer tightly, I note that Elliot was signed from Luton Town where he had lost his place to, yep, Steve Foster!! The fee for the player was £400,000. Quite an expensive game, this replacing Ken McNaught, innit? Anyone hoping for a settled backline producing consistent performances was to be disappointed. Elliot certainly had a lot of good qualities to bring to the team. Pace, strength, power in the air were all things he could provide -you just didn’t expect to see them every week.

Villa’s struggles continued until Doug splashed the cash to strengthen Villa’s piss-weak midfield just before the transfer window closed, then Villa pulled clear of danger. With further new signings coming in during a busy summer, there was a certain optimism surrounding Villa’s affairs for 1986-87. One of the new men was another centre-back, Martin Keown from Arsenal (£200,000). Keown had been on loan at Brighton the previous season and was a highly-rated young player. He started the campaign at the back with Elliot, Allan Evans being slowly pushed out of the picture. It didn’t work very well, any partnership with Elliot always looking to be built on dodgy foundations. According to Andy Gray, Keown’s unforgiving standards meant he wasn’t the most popular player in the Villa dressing-room and team morale was arguably further damaged. Which two of Evans, Keown and Elliott were picked became irrelevant, as a Villa squad with enough talent to be tipped for good things in August collapsed, injuries and all, to ignominious relegation.

Dreamers hope that the hero on the white charger will race to the rescue at this point and put all to rights. In this case, the knight in shining armour was one Graham Taylor, who felt his race was run after a memorable decade at Watford and was seeking a new challenge. He certainly had a big one on his hands at Villa Park and duly set about the business of turning things around. He started off by finding out who was determined to be a part of a promotion challenge. Elliott was amongst the number who didn’t feel obliged to stick around and repair the damage they had contributed to. He was off to Chelsea; his replacement was the less-than-glamorous Steve Sims, a Watford cast-off that Graham knew well from his Vicarage Road days, for £50,000. Sims and Keown started the season and did well enough to get Villa through the early part of the season where injuries were rife and players needed time to get back into action. The defence did so well that they conceded more than once on only two occasions from the start of September until the end of the calendar year.

Allan Evans was well-rested by the new year when he replaced the injured Sims and kept his place until the summer. Villa leaked a few more goals with the new partnership but with Garry Thompson fit and firing, McInally looking for goals and the boost of new signing David Platt, Villa carried enough of a threat up front. The season looked like it might tail away into a play-off place but clean sheets in the last three games saw us clinch promotion by the narrowest of squeaks.

The signing of Derek Mountfield from Everton for £450,000 showed that there was no complacency regarding the need for a stronger defence in the top division. Mountfield wore the number two/three shirt on occasions but everyone knew where he was going to play. He and Keown and Evans often formed a back three which seemed secure enough, Villa pushing up to eighth spot after the Xmas games, even giving us hope that there might be an outside chance of a challenge for Europe in the new year.

Alas, any such hopes were wiped out by a poor run of form which saw the team win only four more games before the summer. The seemingly talismanic McInally’s goals had all but dried up. The manager spent over a million pounds on two players, Callaghan and Ormandroyd, whose start in claret and blue was underwhelming, to put it politely. Stir a few injuries into the mix and we were left biting our nails on the last day once again, this time with less positive emotions. Mountfield was one of the absentees, so it was up to Keown, Evans and Sims to help get us over the line which was just about what happened.

Taylor knew that he had had a narrow escape and sought to seriously strengthen his team. An era came to an end when Allan Evans became the last outfield player from THAT side to leave the club, deciding that Leicester would be a good place to finish his career on a free. Sir Graham may have been less prepared for Martin Keown’s refusal of the new contract he had been offered and he ended up moving to a stalling Everton side. Taylor set to work and brought into the club Kent Nielsen, a big centre-back from Brondby for half a million quid and then broke the bank to bring the unwanted Paul McGrath in from Manchester United for £425,000. This was quite a big fee for a player with injury problems though happily we all know that it turned out to one of the bargains of all time. So good was Paul that it didn’t really matter who played alongside him, things worked out fine by and large. Neither Ken McNaught nor Allan Evans would claim to be in his class, but football is about combinations as well as individual brilliance and as a pairing they were one of the best ever and one that should have played at Villa Park for longer than they did. But as has already been said, Doug Ellis could never resist a ‘good sale’ that set the club back six years and well over a million pounds to put right.