Anniversary celebrations

John Russell looks back a hundred years to Villa’s fiftieth birthday.

Given the “ESTABLISHED 1874” emblazoned across the Trinity Road stand it might be thought that the club would want to mark the one hundredth and fiftieth anniversary more than appears to be the case. But much as we like to remind the soccer world of our “PROUD HISTORY” (I still have the 25th anniversary Rotterdam souvenir scarf from 2007) we seem to remain very hesitant about the prospect of a “BRIGHT FUTURE”.

Perhaps a match against England or the ‘Best of the Rest’ such as when we gave William McGregor his due might be thought appropriate but even the best we could manage in our centenary year was a pre-season opener against new manager Brian Clough and league champions Leeds United. Then, we had just finished in the bottom half of the second division at the time so a reminder of what used to be was limited to a reproduction of the first Villa News and Record (It was never referred to as a ‘programme’.)

But things were not so very different in our golden jubilee anniversary a century ago. The season began ominously with a three goal thrashing by Satan City at St Andrews followed a week later by an uninspiring scoreless encounter on the banks of the nearby Tame. By the end of September came the first hint that all our ‘proud history’ was now behind us. Nevertheless at Aldershot we turned out the first team in what was to become a regular autumn fixture against the might of the British Army. winning 7-2.

A pair of games against the Baggies as was the vogue back then (0-1 and 4-0 at home) became the prelude to a modest run of success and we started to think “Cup!” again But then came the event that threatened to dominate the remainder of the campaign, the shooting at his Perry Barr home of centre-half Tommy Ball by his next door neighbour. Former policeman George Stagg eventually went on trial at Stafford Assizes (Perry Barr remained in Staffordshire for another five years before being split between West Bromwich and Birmingham and so Warwickshire). He was found guilty and sentenced to death but the sentence was later commuted to penal servitude for life.

The prelude to our first round cup tie was a sequence of winless encounters. After a New Year’s Day visit to Newcastle (1-4) we were not exactly brimming with confidence when having to go even further north to face mid table third division north Ashington (now famous for Bobby and Jack Charlton) even though the hosts had lost 1-7 at home to Wolves the previous week. Our 5-1 win was almost seen as a let down

Then for Aston Villa came the highlight of the Jubilee season, a Royal visit, although it was not exactly pre-planned. It so happened that the Duke of York (later King George VI) had been invited to a Friday night jubilee dinner of the Birmingham Jewellers Federation. “You’ve just built a new stand, perhaps you would like me to christen it on Saturday?” suggested the king-to-be. Spiffing idea. So at only a few days notice plans were made for a game against Bolton Wanderers, who had received the cup from the duke,s dad a few months earlier at the ‘new’ Wembley Stadium. Len Capewell had the honour of scoring the winner.

Having just made a rare visit to Wales to play Cardiff City, who were then on the crest of a wave until we upset them 2-0, it was back to the principality this time to Swansea Town, as they were at the time. In the previous round third division Swansea had taken three games to defeat second division Clapton Orient, not yet Leyton Orient. Like all lower division sides lack of finishing was their downfall and we were relived to come back 2-0 winners.

Second division Leeds United came next, born out of the ashes of the defunct Leeds City. But not before Villa Park played host to an unusual second round second replay. Unusual because Crystal Palace and Notts County had already played out two scoreless games and lo and behold they drew 0-0 for a third time so had to come back to Aston for a fourth try which the south Londoners eventually won 2-1.

Leeds United were top of the second division so no pushovers but by the end of ninety minutes that is exactly what they had been, 3-0. Still struggling in the league the big question was starting to become, “Could we mark our golden jubilee season by bring home our birthright, the FA Cup?

Baggies or Wolves to be next. Baggies but only at their second attempt. But first the big talk became an application for a licence to sell liquor at Villa Park on match days. Despite fierce opposition Villa succeeded where the Blues had failed so you could now have a pint with your pie.

44,000 turned up at the Hawthorns. a ground that never seemed capable of accommodating 44,000. Aided by the usual bit of cup luck our defence held firm as Capewell and Dorrell were responsible for most of the plaudits. A semi-final against Swindon Town or Burnley was to be next, at Stamford Bridge or Bramall Lane. Sheffield as it turned out when Burnley won their replay 3-1.

A pair of games against Tottenham Hotspur (0-0 at home, 3-2 away) and we were now comfortably in seventh place, Burnley 15th. Such were the expectations about the game that for the first time spectators were allowed on all four sides of the famous cricket ground. After the initial skirmishes it was apparent that Burnley had forgotten to bring along a defence, or for that matter a custodian, and three–nil is as convincing as it can get when it comes to last four winning margins

All eyes now turned to the cup final and our anticipated triumph. But first a visit to would-be champions Huddersfield Town guided by he who would be the greatest-ever manager, Herbert Chapman. It took a penalty kick to decide the issue in favour the striped eleven who were now two points adrift of Sunderland but with three games in hand.

Problem for fans was now how to get hold of a cup final ticket – if they could afford one. After the fiasco at the new Wembley the previous season that became known as the White Horse Final it had been decided to make the seating all ticket. 5/- 7/6 10/6 16/- and £1/1/-. But it remained pay at the gate for the terraces, 2/6 behind the goals and 3/6 along the sides.

Ironically, finalists Newcastle United were due to finish off their season with a rehearsal at Villa Park. But they did the unforgivable, for which they were subsequently fined heavily, by putting out a weakened team and making nine changes from their regular eleven. Our 6-1 victory was therefore no precursor of what was to come.

The league table now read:-
Cardiff P40 Pts54
Sunderland P41 Pts53
Huddersfield P38 Pts 52
Villa 7th P41 Pts 47

Those who attended the more recent cup finals against Chelsea and Arsenal know the feeling. In the pouring rain the cup final was a massive disappointment. Even though Newcastle were without first choice goalkeeper Mutch, one of the only two first-team players to appear five days earlier in the Easter Monday game at Villa Park and in which, ironically, he got injured.

The Villa excuse, if excuses were needed’ and they were, was an early injury to talisman Billy Walker, who then limped through most of the game. Tommy Ball had been replaced by Dr Vic Milne, who thus became the first amateur to play in a ‘modern’ cup final whereupon he decided that enough was enough and went on to become the club physician. I cannot help but record that the referee was a Mr William Russell from Swindon. No relative, as far as I know.

But defeat was not the only thing that marred the miserable day. Most Villa supporters were delayed on the way to the match unaware that five of their number from Coventry had been killed in a train crash on the approach to Euston station.

But the cup final was not then the final match of the season. Still feeling down in the dumps from events on the previous Saturday despite the league title being on the line a mere 14,000 attended Villa Park on a Wednesday evening to witness the curtain fall on what was now thought of as a failed season Having the league championship actually being seen to be won by the visitors to Villa Park was not something most supporters could stomach. And when Huddersfield took the lead after ten minutes the silence could be heard in Bordesley Green. But wait a minute, this is Aston Villa of whom I write. Average is not in our repertoire. 2-1 half time 3-1 one at the finish.

The league table now read:
Cardiff P41 Pts 56
Huddersfield P41 Pts 55
Sunderland P42 Pts 53
Villa 6th P42 Pts 49

Huddersfield had failed to win the title at Villa Park. Their destiny and that of Herbert Chapman was to be decided in sensational circumstances at St Andrews. In their 41st game Cardiff had beaten Blues 2-0 at Ninian Park. All they had to do was to do the same again in the return. With the score 0-0 after 89 minutes Cardiff were awarded a penalty. Score and they are champions. It almost goes without saying that they missed. Meanwhile Huddersfield beat Nottingham Forest 3-0 to steal the honours. Ironically, had current rules applied both teams had a goal difference of plus 27 but Cardiff would have taken the title, 61 goals to 60.

The one concession to our jubilee celebrations, such as they were, came when the Lord Mayor of Birmingham got his trophy out of the vaults and 15,000 turned up at Villa Park to see us draw 3—3 with our cross city rivals. It was our first encounter with goalkeeper Harry Hibbs, who they had just signed from under our nose at Tamworth.

It goes without saying that it remains to be seen how things will turn out for us in our 150th anniversary but we may yet have a say as we still have to play the three leading contenders.