Gentleman’s agreement – the Richard Davis story

John Russell on another one that got away.

Once upon a time – so you know this is going to be a fairy story – Villa had a player who scored 74 goals in only 60 appearances. That’s right, 74 goals in 60 games. This is the more astonishing because even though he played at centre forward you will search in vain to find his name amongst our pantheon of great front line leaders – Archie Hunter, Hampton, Waring, Ford and Hitchens.

Indeed, it is a pound to a pinch of snuff – a local colloquialism recognised by all Brummies of a certain age – that until I reveal his name in a few words time you have never heard of him before. Richard Davis.

What is more ‘Dickie’ (every Richard is Dickie’ whether they like it or not) was not even a registered Villa player at the time. He was one of the two ‘guest players’ who appeared for us during the dark ages of blackouts and food rationing. Vic Potts was the other – registered with Doncaster Rovers but living across the road from Villa Park so no travelling problems when train journeys were restricted to no more than thirty miles.

Most of the Villa players who saw out the end of the thirties remained at home and joined the military reservists. So much so that originally they gravitated to Solihull Town when Villa decided to opt out of playing football as hostilities began. This eventually meant that Solihull were able to turn out two teams every weekend and the A team ended up winning their league with the B team, who had replaced a council side who had also opted to stop playing, finishing runners-up.

Eventually lots of Villa players guested for other clubs – Walsall especially, plus Northampton Town and playing for the legend that was Billy Walker at Nottingham Forest – and they required only tacit permission to do so. Except that famously Jackie Martin once agreed to turn out for Tottenham Hotspurs against Portsmouth only for the Villa directors to order him to play for Portsmouth against Tottenham instead. It may have had something to do with the fact that the London clubs were in dispute with the Football League at the time after being lumped together with the clubs from South Wales.

Anyway, back to our teenage hero. Doubtless his talents had been recognised by all our Solihull contingent because he was indeed still registered with Town but obviously needed no persuasion to turn out for us and his former colleagues. But there was an even more obscure reason why he did not actually sign for us. His talents had already come to the attention of Sunderland, who like us had opted out of football on the declaration of war. But there was a gentleman’s agreement that he would sign for Sunderland when the lights went on again.

Looking at the 74 goals our man scored it may be assumed, wrongly, that some of them were against inferior opposition – the likes of RAF Bridgnorth, Hednesford, Cosford, Lichfield and Worcester City. But it should be remembered that these service teams were usually made up of top class players similarly ‘guesting’ and often many already had international caps. These included Eric Houghton, who played against us at Bridgnorth.

Match reports at the time were generally brief and to the point but reading between the lines there is little doubt that week in and week out Dickie would almost inevitably have been ‘man of the match’ had there been such a meaningless accolade back then.

Sadly when football proper resumed in 1945 Davis had been our only wartime investment in youth and he wasn’t even one of ours The first team was by now old and past it and we faced seasons of struggle to recover our former reputation

Having read this far you deserve to know what happened to him, unless you have not already rushed to Wikipedia that is. Well, I can tell you that we did indeed miss a player to add to our retinue of greats mentioned at the start of this article. Richard made his debut for Sunderland in December 1946 and with 25 goals was the first division’s leading scorer in 1949-50. He scored 73 goals in 144 games for Sunderland before moving to Darlington in 1954.

It is not so much a case of the one that got away, and a Brummie to boot, but we should be proud indeed that our predecessors maintained the ethos of our founders and stuck by the ‘gentleman’s agreement,’ however tempting it may have been to do otherwise.