Memories of Charlie Aitken

Dave Collett remembers a true legend.

They say that modern life is too fast, but then they never saw Charlie Aitken when he was on a run. Now that Time has caught up with Charlie, all of his surviving opponents must wonder why they could never do it.

The Charlie Aitken legend is, in its own way, as miraculous as Nigel Spink’s endeavours in Rotterdam in 1982. It started, like all good stories do, with a great twist. Villa’s Scottish scout had spotted a promising player up in Edinburgh and asked him down for a trial. It’s not known whether Wilson Briggs was concerned about making such a long trip on his own but Charlie took the plunge and asked his friend if could come along and have a go, too.

So it was that Charlie Aitken had his first experience of Birmingham, one that would last him a lifetime. The good news is that Villa were sufficiently impressed to give both players apprentice professional contracts; the bad news was that both lads played in the left-back position. Perhaps, being good pals, they could do a job-share. If only Wilson had known that his share would amount to two first-team appearances in the best part of a decade! The Villa boss at the time was a wonderful bloke by the name of Joe Mercer. He wasn’t frightened of giving young players a chance, and the last game of the 1960-61 season against high-flying Sheffield Wednesday seemed the perfect opportunity to give the tall teenager his debut. As Villa afficionados will know, this game was the last hurrah for Johnny Dixon, a man with over four hundred appearances for the club. Johnny was loved by the Villa crowd but Mercer was keen to move him on and it was understood that this was to be a last outing for him. Johnny duly celebrated with a goal in a 4-1 win – and a broken nose.

It didn’t take long for it to become apparent that Aitken was here to stay. He had to wait for a few games at the start of the next season but then became an automatic selection. Charlie was soon dubbed ‘Mr. Consistency’ not just for the level of his performance which certainly matched that label, but also for the sheer number of games he played, year-in, year out. In no fewer than five seasons, he played in every single league game. These days, he would expect to be rotated or subbed off because he was looking a bit tired. But Charlie Aitken didn’t really do tired.

There were no speed guns or computers around in those days to measure everything to the nth degree, but you didn’t need them to realise that Charlie was bloody quick. Wingers could beat him, but he would recover with incredible speed and be back at them again in an instant. Now and again, he would carry the ball from his own penalty area and surge forward at top pace, leaving opponents gasping in his wake. To give a flavour of just how quick he was, Villa once varied training by bringing in former Olympian Mike Rawson to do some sprinting one morning. Rawson thought it would be a good end to the session if they had a handicap race for all the players. Charlie was offered a handicap but declined, saying he would rather run off scratch. You know who won the race, much to the amusement, if not the surprise, of his team-mates.

The Aitken story could never be repeated today because a player as good as Charlie would never stick with a club in long-term decline, as Villa were then. Today, he’d probably refuse to sign any new contract put in front of him, effectively forcing the club to sell him. Either that, or his wages would be too much for a relegated team to afford and they would be glad to get him off the wage-bill. Not that there was no interest in a player with three under-23 caps for Scotland. Strangely, the call-up for a full cap never came. Was this due to the selectors’ reluctance to pick so-called Anglo-Scots, something commented on generally at the time?

Bill Shankly was an admirer but Charlie regarded Villa as his club. Even when the best players were sold, the youth system was scrapped and the training ground sold, he soldiered on, despite muttering that he was “better treated as an amateur.” Training was sometimes held across Trinity Road on Aston Park. We have to hope that the local dog-walkers were thorough with their pooch-hygiene. Charlie kept on plugging away at left-back, apart from a short spell in midfield when numbers were thin and even one game on the left wing, in the game against Everton that sealed relegation.

That was, of course, the inevitable consequence of this boardroom incompetence. When, with the club on the edge of bankruptcy, a new board came in with the human dynamo Tommy Docherty as manager, it looked for a while like the Great Villa Revival was on and the crowds came flooding back. Alas, it was a false dawn, and it took the quieter approach of two former team-mates of Charlie’s, Vic Crowe and Ron Wylie, to bring the long-term improvements that were needed. Alas for Charlie, his second relegation coincided with his testimonial year, and his match against Coventry City only attracted a poor crowd

In their first full season, a brilliant run took them to the League Cup final. In the semi-final second leg, they beat Manchester United in front of more than 60,000. At the end of the game, Charlie went to the away dressing-room just to say “Hard luck, lads” to the United players he knew well. As he pushed open the door, he saw they were all slumped down, looking at the floor, silent. Charlie quietly closed the door and walked away. In the final, he dealt well with the threat of the elegant Alan Gilzean. Villa deserved better, but two late Martin Chivers goals sealed a defeat that hurt too much to heal quickly, and Villa fell away to fourth in the league.

Next season was different as Villa showed how they had become hardened to the division. After a blip in mid-October, Villa went on a long run of wins that took them to the title. On the way, they discovered a new secret weapon. Charlie hadn’t scored for over five years, but the management team must have reasoned that a tall full-back might have a chance of causing some damage at dead-ball situations, especially with Andy Lochhead and George Curtis distracting defenders. Charlie’s four goals – all headers – doesn’t look too spectacular, but three of them were winners in tight matches. The last of them was an early effort at Bradford City which effectively sealed promotion, bar the mathematics of it. Meanwhile, the Villa kids were making their way to a Youth Cup final which they were to win. The Bodymoor Heath training ground was now thriving, meaning it was goodbye to Aston Park and any pitches that local industry kindly allowed Villa to use.

The progress continued the following season, when Villa came a highly-creditable third in the second division, though some incredibly termed this as failure. Bobby McDonald was coming through and had a run of games at the end of the season, so it looked like Charlie might face some direct pressure for his place for the first time in many years. Typically, he played even more games than ever (38) and in the home game against Notts County, he passed the record of the great Billy Walker, arguably Villa’s greatest-ever player. Both teams formed up a circle to applaud Charlie as he received a silver salver commemorating his remarkable achievement from Billy’s widow. Sadly, after a strong start, injuries and loss of form meant that Villa’s season faded away, despite a late run that promised more. The highlight? Possibly the right-footed shot from an angle that brought the winner in a televised game at Nottingham Forest. The scorer? Charlie Aitken!

No doubt, Charlie would have been saddened at the departure of Crowe and Wylie after four good years. As regards the new manager Ron Saunders, tabloid stories of players being driven up sandhills until they vomited held no terrors for one of Villa’s naturally-fit runners. It says everything about Aitken that, in a side being managed by a fitness nut, he played in every league and cup game that season – fifty-five in all. Happily, McDonald secured a place in the team as a prompting midfielder who struck up a good relationship with the sparkling tyro, Brian Little. A glorious run-in with eight consecutive wins, all of them convincing ones, meant Villa were back at the top. Another Wembley run, this time with a successful end, meant that Charlie Aitken finally had something to show for his time at Villa Park, a winner’s medal for a major trophy.

He held his place in a side that struggled at times in the top flight. He’d played over twenty games when, after a home defeat to a QPR team that very nearly won the league, Saunders called time and he never played first-team football again. Had he been allowed just one more game, he might have found himself in the same matchday squad as one Gordon Sidney Cowans. Imagine that, Dixon, Aitken and Cowans, over 1,500 appearances between them. Beat that, if you can.

The circumstances in which Charlie left Villa were unpleasant, to say the least, and certainly didn’t reflect well on the people running the club. Aitken was able to fix himself up for a couple of seasons with New York Cosmos where no doubt he showed the likes of Pele and Beckenbauer his paces. After that, he was always happy to turn out for the Villa Old Stars, to help those players who’d had a harder time than he had. He was often at Villa Park and always shared the joy of the team doing well. He ran an antique shop in Acocks Green and stayed in Brum, like he was part of the furniture. Which he was.

Six hundred and fifty-plus games for the Villa in what were often unrewarding times, but there were no transfer requests, no tabloid articles begging to be released from ‘My Villa Hell’. He always kept himself supremely fit and drank very moderately. He never claimed that Villa were his club, nor that Birmingham was his city. He just played for his club a record number of times and settled in that city, proving yet again that actions speak much louder than words. In all the times I saw him play, I never recall seeing the ref reaching for his notebook to take Charlie’s name. Then again, why would you kick a bloke when you can just accelerate past him and take the ball from him as clean as a whistle? With all the reports of kindness and consideration shown to supporters over the years, we can see the fuller picture of what made up the story of Charles Alexander Aitken, Gentleman Footballer.

For once, the cliché holds true: we shall never see his like again.