Six foot two, eyes of blue…
On the way back to the top there were several players who may not have been amongst the greatest to ever wear claret and blue but are nevertheless remembered fondly for the effort they gave to the cause. One such footballer is Sammy Morgan. Born in Belfast in December 1946, Sammy attended the same school as George Best before moving with his family to Great Yarmouth at the age of twelve. After leaving school he studied at university and then became a teacher, playing for Gorleston in the Eastern Counties League. Sammy was 23 before becoming a full-time footballer, when he signed for Port Vale, then of the fourth division, and helped them win promotion, later scoring twice in a game where Vale were 1-4 down against Villa before drawing level.
Sammy joined Villa in the summer of 1973, for a fee of £22,222 as a replacement for the veteran centre-forward Andy Lochhead. Off the pitch the bespectacled Sammy may have looked every inch the maths teacher he had been prior to turning pro, but he was the equal of the hard as nails Lochhead when it came to battling against centre-halves. “Being part of such a famous club naturally brings pressures, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,”
In his first season Sammy scored five goals in 21 league games, becoming a regular in the side after Christmas, but carved his name into Villa legend during an FA Cup tie at Highbury. Underdogs Villa, as was often the case during those wilderness years, raised their game against their higher-level opponents, matching the home side with Morgan scoring before being sent off for an over-enthusiastic challenge on Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson. Sammy was eligible for the replay four days later where, roared on by a frenzied Villa Park crowd of almost forty-eight thousand, he scored the opening goal in a 2-0 win.
Villa’s league form throughout 1973-74 had been poor, with a run of five points in twelve games raising fears of a relegation battle at one stage, but the following season saw the team win promotion, although Sammy’s contribution was limited to just twelve games in which he scored four goals, in addition to two in the first four games of their successful League Cup campaign. A hat-trick in a 6-0 win over Hull City early in the season showed Sammy’s promise but he was injured during a 1-1 draw at Fulham in November and lost his place in the team to Keith Leonard. Off the field at this time Sammy played a large part in the aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombings, when as a high-profile Northern Irishman he could have been the focus of anger towards the Irish community. And not only did Sammy cause problems for the opposition, he could also be a handful for his teammates. As Chico Hamilton said, “We’d be at Bodymoor for training then find Sammy had lost his contact lenses and we’d all be on our knees in the dressing room, looking for them.”
With Villa back in division one Sammy played in three league games and the first leg of the Uefa Cup tie against Royal Antwerp before suffering a recurrence of the groin injury that had caused him problems the previous season. With his first team prospects limited he moved to Brighton for £14,000 in December 1975. The ever-modest Sammy, whose quiet disposition belayed the terror he struck into opposition goalkeepers, said of the time, “If I’m being honest the first division was a bit of a big step up,” but he had the consolation of knowing that his replacement was Andy Gray.
Sammy played in fifty games for the Villa, scoring fifteen goals. He played eighteen games for Northern Ireland and scored three, including one on his debut against Spain in a Nations Cup qualifier while he was with Port Vale in 1972, taking Derek Dougan’s place in the side. That this game was held at Boothferry Park, Hull, was a clue to the reason why the North were largely unsuccessful during this time – because of the Troubles they were unable to play at home for another three years. The game ended in a 1-1 draw but Sammy was dropped for the subsequent Home Internationals, although by the time he joined Villa he was a regular in the national side.
Six of Sammy’s first eight caps were won in ‘home’ matches, although all were played in England, at five different grounds. The first of his international appearances as a Villa player came in a 0-0 draw against Bulgaria for a 1978 World Cup qualifier played at Hillsborough in September 1974. In total eight of his caps were won while he was at Villa, the most notable of which was when he scored during a 3-0 win over Norway in a European Championships qualifier. Sammy’s Villa colleague Chris Nicholl also played in this game. Sammy was a regular in the Northern Ireland team until injury cost him his place during the 1974-75 season but he regained the number nine shirt and won further caps after his move from Villa.
After playing for Brighton Sammy moved to Cambridge United, whose manager Ron Atkinson was beginning to cause a stir in the football world, before finishing his playing career in the Netherlands. Here he played for Sparta Rotterdam, where he won his eighteenth and final cap, against Denmark in 1978, and then Groningen. He went back to his old career of teaching before returning to football, first as Academy Director at Norwich and then head of education at Ipswich Town. The six foot two, eyes of blue Sammy Morgan would be the first to admit that he would never be regarded as one of Villa’s greatest centre-forwards, but none put in more effort.