How we got to Wembley

John Russell remembers a long-ago, mythical time.

It is impossible to overstate the place of the FA Cup in the history of Aston Villa any more than it is possible to overstate the status of the competition in the minds of fans from Newcastle to Newquay in the days when beyond the league it was the only other trophy up for grabs as the saying goes these days. Throughout the country FA Cup ties were guaranteed to attract attendances way above those of mundane league matches. It was the thrill of the unexpected and the thought that for the losers of that was it for another season.

On the Monday following the games in the second round the previous Saturday the nation held its breath when at 12.30 the BBC radio took us over to the council chamber of the Football Association at Lancaster Gate where a man from West Bromwich Albion was delegated so supervise the shaking up of 64 snooker balls in a velvet bag and decide the destiny and destination of the large listening audience

On 10th December 1956 we found ourselves having to go to Luton 26 days later. Not a trip which we who were few when it came to away matches viewed with any enthusiasm. Villa and Luton were one above the other in the lower level of the first division but with one thing in common. Both of their pitches were notorious mud heaps. Besides which even though it was only 70 miles distant Luton itself was not an easy place to get to, especially by train.

Such was the attraction of the FA Cup that British Railways felt able to run not one but TWO special trains for what was to be a three hour journey via Leicester. In order to ensure they arrived incident-free in good time Villa stayed overnight in Bedford. The Luton pitch was exactly as expected, the only sign of grass a triangle of greenery in each of the four corners. Unlike today were choose our best available eleven. Talk of substitutes was for the distant future. Kick and rush was the order of the day for games in which the ball regularly nestled in a nest of mud.

After barely ten minutes we took the lead when Dixon headed home a corner from Leslie Smith when unmarked ten yards out. Ten minutes after the Bovril break Luton drew level when Stan Crowther took it on himself to play basketball and Turner easily put the resultant penalty beyond Nigel Sims. Worse was to follow ten minutes later when a shot by Davies struck Morton on the back of the head for an involuntary go ahead goal. In a move which was to have repercussions later in the campaign McParland took over from Pace at number nine and he did what McParland does 2-2. We were happy to have escaped a potential a potential humiliation. 2,094 – their biggest crowd of the season apart for the 21,388 when we had been the visitors in September and fought out a prophetic and drab scoreless contest.

For historical reasons which have never satisfactorily explained Villa always played their midweek home fixtures on a Monday and so less than ninety minutes after the winners had been drawn to visit Middlesbrough it was back to Villa Park for the second instalment. No time to produce a programme only a single sheet 2d card.

Villa Park was in no better condition than Kenilworth Road and it was a case of the survival of the fittest, which was obviously Villa otherwise I could turn my computer off at this point. On the hour Dixon used his head again for what was then described as a ‘picture goal’. Always assuming that the brilliant Birmingham Mail photographer Ken Kelly was up to the mark – which he was. With the Witton Lane clock moving round to 3.30 Dixon finally put an end to the increasing nervousness and most of the 28, 356 went home relieved as much as happy.

With Nigel Sims injured goalkeeper Keith Jones was called upon at White Hart Lane. Apart from an amazing penalty save when the ball rebounded off the post into his arms as he turned round to look where it had gone it was not a match he would care to remember for what became his swansong.

Even with home crowds mostly in the region of 25,000 we were again thought worthy of two excursion trains to the north-east. Centre forward for the home team was a certain Brian Clough. It was going to be no walk in the Ayresome Park. Playing on grass for a change we nevertheless fell a goal behind on the half hour when a shot rebounded of the knee of Sims to the feet of Clough. It took us ten minutes to draw level when again Pace defied his lack of height and headed home. With the half-time oranges beckoning Harris scored a soft goal so the omens were not looking good. With the notable Delephena stretching our defence, cometh the moment cometh man and that man was Leslie Smith. It was now cut and thrust even after Dixon put us in front for the first time before, somewhat relieved we could wend our way back to the station. Where next? Villa Park actually for another second division opponent. Bristol City.

Meanwhile Birmingham City, who had been humiliated at Wembley last season by Manchester City and the innovative Revie Plan (as actually copied from the Hungarians and Hideguti) were on a roll inspired it seems by their adoption of a wartime favourite Keep Right on to the End of the Road. In their infinite wisdom the Birmingham Mail decided that if Birmingham City could be inspired by a ditty then Villa deserved the same. I suppose we should be flattered. In the event is was thought that another wartime chant It’s a long way to Tipperary would fit the bill and so they conjured up some words suffice to mock the Bristolians.

Our opponents again turned up with an international centre forward, John Atyeo. This was enough to cause concern so with expectations rising by the minute and a big crowd expected the gates were opened early. Eventually 63,100 made their way in. As at Middlesbrough both teams were required to change colours and Villa played in pale blue, first introduced at Charlton just before Christmas, against opponents in white.

An interchange between Sewell and Pace led to our scout leader proving that City were indeed miles too slow. But the aforementioned Atyeo rounded Dugdale and it was game on, The tension was finally relieved by a sensational diving header from Sewell when many considered that he could just as easily have run forward and prodded the ball home. Goalkeeper Anderson distinguished himself as a now rampant Villa went in search of the coup de grace, although truth to tell we had already seen it.

Even with Blues and Albion in the sixth round the last team we wanted to be drawn against was Burnley. For some unknown reason the sixth round drawn was held not at the traditional time of 12.30 but at 5.30. I recall dashing from work to be home in time for it. The worst happened – Burnley – and even worse. Away!.

It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Certainly that was the case when we arrived at Turf Moor a ground where a Villa victory was almost as rare as Halley’s Comet and where they had so far been unbeaten this season. There were over 10,000 of us amongst the near 50,000 in a ground which never held 50,000.

The game took on an aura of expectancy when the ball struck Peter Aldis in a goal mouth scramble and he became the inadvertent scorer of an own goal on the half hour. Then just after the hour in what was to become a classic move a reputation was made. Smith centred, McParland rose. Pandemonium. Twice Villa might have had a penalty, our defence held out. Back to Villa Park where a Burnley victory was just as unlikely as a visit from Halleys Comet. By now the FA was wise to Villa’s trick of prompt replays and we were obliged to put off the big event until a Wednesday afternoon.

The semi-final draw was one of ifs, buts and maybes. Nottingham Forest or Birmingham City v Manchester United, who had won at Bournemouth where a goalpost had broken. Burnley or Aston Villa v West Bromwich Albion or Arsenal.

Given that it was early closing day the attendance at Villa Park, 49.346, was a mite disappointing. Perhaps Villa fans were getting complacent and confident of an easy victory Burnley played something of a dastardly trick by turning out in all black. Curiously it was not until half-time that the referee condescended to remove his black jacket. But with both teams obliged to change and no alternative shirts available Villa borrowed a set of red shirts from Birmingham City. The stay away fans were completely exonerated when Burnley accepted their fate and the result was as conclusive as it was predictable. Dixon and McParland. This was followed three days later by what was already being spoken about as a cup final rehearsal as we held league leaders Manchester United to a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.

Controversially the Molineux was chosen to host the semi-final against the Albion, who had even more controversially won a replay at Highbury with a linesman standing with his flag erect signalling offside. Villa fans for Wolverhampton were advised to avoid West Bromwich and the Great Western route and travel via the London Midland route. Wolverhampton fans who had no love for either side were entitled to one third of the tickets made a killing by selling them to the competing supporters. So the ground was more or less equally divided.

Meanwhile Villa manager Eric Houghton made a controversial team selection when he selected Myerscough to play at centre forward in lieu of Pace. On his head be it.

No complaints about the pitch. From my view close against the wall on the South Bank I was directly in line with the ball as it aimed towards me after only two minutes. Unfortunately it did not reach me, the net intervened and Whitehouse had sent the Baggies fans into a state of delirium. Being more used to a heavy ground, playing with a light ball was proving a problem to Villa until McParland scored a copybook header from a centre by Dixon and supporters headed for the loos confident of not missing much. Wrong. Whitehouse again and I was too close for comfort to the catastrophe

It was cut and thrust throughout the second half but with Wembley seeming to be further away than Wembley. Until McParland sent the ball my way again. 2-2. The last four minutes were played out in a sort of truec. See you Thursday. See you at St Andrews.

Manchester United 2 Birmingham City 0. No surprise there, then. And the famous photograph of the three local semi-finalists on the bowling green at Villa Park was not to be repeated with just two of the local teams ahead of the final.

I managed to get a ticket from a Blues supporter for the enclosure at St Andrews, a more advantageous position than I could ever have expected. In the first instance I was directly in line with Billy Myerscough when he bent backwards to head the goal which ultimately took us to Wembley. But more importantly I was directly in line with a shot which struck a retreating Stan Lynn on the heel and curled out of play for a goal kick just beyond the far post. Needless to stay Stan knew very little about what miracle he had instigated. Albion were resigned to their fate when Allen was injured in a collision with Dugdale and took no part in the final fifteen minutes.

If the choice of Myerscough to lead the line at Wembley was controversial it is worth noting that Villa came close to having amateur in goal on the big day, Mike Pinner. He and the ever popular reserve Arthur Sabin shared the role as the great day approached.

As to the final itself a black and white DVD of the game is available if you know where to look for it. Enjoy.