My teenage diary – continued

John Russell talks about the Villa, cinema and less important pastimes.

As explained previously,this is a popular programme on BBC Radio 4 Extra in which minor adult celebrities are invited to read extracts from the diaries they kept as teenagers. Presenter Rufus Hound always gets mildly excited, questioning the participant at any reference to sexual activities.

You are not going to get that kind of thing from me, nor are you going to get a verbatim account. This is because I did not actually keep a written record, only a basic record of appointments kept. That said, it is to my intense regret that I did not start keeping a detailed record until 1955. Other than underlining matches seen in the fixture list I have no other proof of what came before. Worse, I long ago destroyed my original diaries having for twenty-five years copied everything out into a five year diary.

Undaunted, in opening the tome for 1955 the year starts unsurprisingly with an ew year’s day game at home to Sheffield Wednesday. A Saturday as it turns out, boring 0-0. With this in mind it might be thought that the Villa News is to become little more than my diary for the rest of the year but be assured I will dig deep to flush out a touch more. Such as the fact that two days later I went to the Odeon New Street to see White Christmas.

This film is now a seasonal perennial but the fact it was at the Odeon indicates that it was a first showing in the city. Confirmed by my Radio Times Guide to Films which proves that it was a colourful 1954 remake of the now oft repeated original 1942 black and white version. Big films usually had their first showing in the city centre cinemas, Odeon, Gaumont, West End or Forum before moving to the suburbs. An indication of the popularity of a films was a rare notice that it had been “retained for another week.” Eventually the record for retentions came to be The Sound of Music at the Gaumont, which for over six months had the effect of delaying the showing of other notable films.

Long before the days of television films were to play a significant role in this record of my activities, and especially the Plaza Cinema on Stockland Green. The listings in the Evening Dispatch (we were a Dispatch family rather than the Mail) were an important part of teenage life, not least whether the film was a ‘U’, especially as I always went on my own. Occasionally cinemas would be unscrupulous and a film would be shown in the paper as a U (no age limit) only to turn up a the cinema to find it was an A (accompanied by an over-sixteen). Hence children outside the cinema pleading for an adult to take them in.

Villa had been drawn away in the cup at Brighton and with no reserve game in the fixtures the club treated us instead to a match between the Birmingham County FA and the FA of Ireland. Mike Pinner, Norman Clarke and Roy Chapman helped add a few to the gate.

Drawing 2-2 at the seaside, it was back to Villa Park on a Wednesday afternoon. This was unusual as Monday was our usual midweek matchday, which may account for the meagre attendance of under 14,000. With a 2 o’clock kick off I was not there for the start. Arriving breathless in the middle of the second half we ran out easy 4-2 winners. I must have sneaked out of school and missed the last lesson of the day but if the teacher noticed my absence he must have assumed I had not been there at all.

When it came to floodlit football I was later to be at Molineux for the famous matches against Moscow Dynamo and Honved but Villa had been the pariahs of the Football League because we refused to play under floodlights and we had no lights of our own – we couldn’t afford them. It has always been said that our first floodlight game was at Old Trafford in the Charity Shield following our Wembley triumph in 1957. But back in January 1955 Southern League Hereford United were one step ahead of most and had lights of their own. Not that it mattered though, as heavy snow descended on the afternoon of January 13th and our fourth team Worcestershire Cup game due that night had to be postponed.

Fog and snow was a part of winter weather back then and the home game against Derby County Reserves was the next casualty of the winter. Things were no better for the first team at Portsmouth where thick fog descended and the game was abandoned after 79 minutes when we were leading 2-1. Useful points denied as we were hovering near the bottom.

The appearance of Stanley Matthews was guaranteed to add a few to the gate at Villa Park and this time he actually turned out. Matthews could teach some opera prima donas a thing or two because it was not unknown for him to cry off at the last minute and to become a ‘team alteration’ after people had paid their sheckels in the expectation of seeing him play. The reward for the 30,161 who did turn out was a 3-1 home win.

Then we had to go to Doncaster Rovers on round four. They included the latest teenage sensation. Alec Jeffrey, and our predecessors were quite pleased to come away from ‘Up North’ without seeing a goal. Meanwhile I was not to be denied the thrill of the cup and had taken myself along to St Andrews for Blues 2 Bolton Wanderers 1. It was not unknown for supporters of both teams to go to each others grounds. With admission to the terraces just 2/- and earning 9/- per week from my paper round it was hardly expensive.

Once again I was a late arrival at the replay, sneaking in for free. If a teacher missed me my mates must‘ve covered for me because I do not recall repercussions. “Russell, sir? He’s gone to the Villa.” I and the 36,872 were rewarded, if that is quite the right word, with an extra 30 minutes but to no avail. 2-2.

Norman Clarke must have impressed in his appearance for the County because he was selected to make his debut at the Valley. He must have been less impressive this time; it turned out to be his one and only first team showing as we floundered in the mud and went down to a humiliating 1-6 defeat.

While this disaster was taking place I was at the Hawthorns for Albion 2 Burnley 2. The Baggies were no longer the team they had been the previous season when they ran Wolves close for the title, their Easter 6-1 thrashing at Villa Park proving decisive.

The Doncaster saga moved to Maine Road where we were no more successful than before. But at least we did not lose. 1-1.

It was almost a relief to be playing Bolton Wanderers at the weekend. Back then every team seemed to have a crowd-pulling star and for them it was the England international centre forward, Nat Lofthouse. Being marked by Con Martin he was subdued and our 3-0 saw us rise above the drop zone – though it was never called that at the time.

There we now problems fitting the cup replays into the fixtures and Monday saw us heading (though not me) heading for Hillsborough. We had been drawn to play at St Andrews in round five. If? Tickets went on sale in the morning, so unable to go to Sheffield, on the sounding of the lunchtime bell a whole gang of us of whom I was probably the only Villa supporter dashed off to St Andrews and joined the queue. As I recall with a ninety minute lunch break we made it back just in time for the first lesson of the afternoon.

I arrived home to find that we had drawn again, 0-0. As darkness descended earlier in the north the game had been abandoned after ninety fruitless minutes. The loss of the extra thirty minutes was eventually to deny Villa a unique place in the records. While all this was going on Stoke City and Bury were involved in an identical saga. They also played out five games but unlike us with an additional extra time they could claim the longest-ever cup tie. Except it was only plus 22 minutes not thirty because their second game had been abandoned due to snow. They had actually played each other seven times, having also played each other over Christmas. 0-0, Doncaster could still not be put to bed and it looked like being a waste of my 2/-.

Amazingly, another draw had almost been anticipated because twenty-four hours later the fourth replay took place at the Hawthorns. General opinion was that we were not too keen to play the Blues at the weekend and we performed accordingly. Jeffreys finally enhanced his reputation with a brace of goals and at 1-3 there was relief that it was all over. Disappointed, I could not bring myself to go to St Andrews to see Doncaster Rovers again. With a school full of Blues supporters I managed to get my money back.

While all this had been going on my diary shows that I went to the cinema eleven times in six weeks including such gems as Dawn at Socorro (Rory Calhoun), Living it Up (Martin & Lewis), Knock on Wood (Danny Kaye), Hell and High Water (Richard Widmark), The Command (Guy Madison) – unusual for being the new Cinemascope. A few months earlier I had seen the Robe (Richard Burton and Jean Simmons), the first such film. Most were at the Plaza, a short walk away. Seats at the front were only 1/- but being so close to the screen I preferred to pay the extra sixpence for a seat near the back. Never the back row for obvious reasons and upstairs was sixpence too much.

I hated rugby more than I hated school itself and it was always a joy when games were cancelled because with no spare classrooms available we were always sent home. Anticipating the afternoon off in my case meant a trip to the Hawthorns where Albion were playing league leaders Chelsea. When Chelsea scored their third in the 89th minute the ground practically emptied and there was a rush for the waiting buses. But the game was not quite over and I had the joy of leaping aboard a bus that was just about to leave and tell those Baggies already aboard that they had actually lost 2-4. For a Villa supporter at the Hawthorns joy does not get much better than that. Sad thing is that Chelsea went on to become the worst team ever to win the first division.

Winter now took hold again and both our games v Everton were snowed out. Needless to say I went to the pictures again Night People (Gregory Pack) and again, rare for me, The Colditz Story on a Sunday afternoon at the Odeon New Street. Films used to stay for a week in the city centre whereas out in the sticks there was a routine of two three-day showings with Sunday reserved mainly for horror films and B or even C movies.

Besides Brian Tuby and his son there cannot have been many Villa supporters at Huddersfield on a Wednesday afternoon because although they were mid-table only 5,287 braved the ice and snow. Our 2-1 win saw us rise up the table above both the Albion and Arsenal. Practically safe.

Martin and Lewis heralded in the start of spring in the Three Ring Circus. Apparently they were funny but I reserve judgement on that accolade.

Having seen them at the Hawthorns I got to see Chelsea again. This time the game was preceded by something unusual back then but becoming increasingly common these days. Wearing black armbands, the players stood erect in the centre circle to mark the passing overnight of the Villa chairman, Fred Normansell. At the time few fans would have known the name of their club’s chairman – indeed, managers often remained anonymous and were not the all-dancing, all-seeing performers of today. Their place on matchday was in the directors box next to the chairman. Nobody expected us to win 3-2 but win 3-2 we did, to rise into the top half of the table. Doncaster was now a blip in the past.

Dragnet (Jack Webb), later to become a TV ‘must’ and The Sea Shall Not Have Them (Dirk Bogarde) are added to the list of forgotten films that get me excited when I see them listed on Film4 or wherever.

Seeing the score from Highbury go up every fifteen minutes when watching Villa Reserves 1 (Pace) Sheffield United Reserves 0 was not very thrilling, not least because it went 0-0, 0-1,
0-2 0-2 0-2. This meant that they went above us and pushed us back into the bottom half. But not to worry, Albion are next.

39,960, fewer than expected, but Walsh showed the Albion that they had been wrong to sell him to us, not least because they had centre-half Ray Barlow leading their front line, in the days when it was a line not a one man show. 3-0. Not quite as sweet as the 6-1 the previous Easter but sweet nonetheless.

Flu was now rampant, which may account for the absence from my diary of films. We struggled to put out a team at lowly Leicester City which may account for the 2-4 reverse that temporarily led them to believe, wrongly as it turned out, that they could still avoid relegation.

Meanwhile I had been at Villa Park for an FA Cup semi-final, Manchester City 1 Sunderland 0. As hosts Villa were entitled to one-third of the tickets; I do not recall how I came by mine but it may have been via assistant secretary Len Latham, who was a friend of my father. It certainly did not come from joining the Sunday morning queue which used to stretch from the ground, down to the Holte then ending in Witton Square.

Sunderland had been hopeful of finding themselves in the final against Newcastle, who were stone-blind certainties to beat third division York City at Hillsborough. Except they didn’t.
Despite overwhelming odds against them York held out for a 1-1 draw and to add insult to injury as far as Sunderland were concerned the replay was played at Roker Park. Newcastle won 2-0.

The reserve game against Burnley which should have been played on semi-final day was put back to the Monday afternoon but even I was not prepared to risk parental wrath by being absent from my desk. 1-1. I was absent again two afternoons later for another reserve fixture, this time against Everton (0-3).

Then the Burnley first team arrived at Villa Park. None of the players who had taken part in the reserves game played in front of the 19,950 even though we had to include Colin Gibson in lieu of the injured Walsh. “We always beat Burnley at home” and this was no exception. 3-1 saw us get back to a crowded mid-table where only four points covered eight teams.

Easter Saturday saw us play one of these eight teams, Cardiff, led by a certain Trevor Ford who had finally ‘gone back home’ after misdirecting himself and ending up in Sunderland. We had Con Martin. Scotsman Eddie Follan was the unlikely hero with his 15th minute thunderbolt.

Meanwhile, as I mnetioned previously, a family visitor of my age had come to stay from the wilds of Essex. He had never seen a ‘proper’ football match and I took it upon myself to show him three at three different grounds. So it was that while we were playing in Cardiff we saw West Bromwich Albion 3 Portsmouth 1 and on Easter Monday Birmingham City 3 Middlesbrough 1

For Villa Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday – a holiday in the city because we kept the factories working on Good Friday to save having to keep lighting up the furnaces – could mean only one thing, would-be champions Wolverhampton Wanderers. With so much at stake for the home team it turned out to be an aerial battle which went in favour of a header from Ron Flowers with only three minutes remaining. You could be more or less guaranteed there were only three minutes remaining. No fictitious time added on at the end.

Living in Erdington 23 I had to pick my visitor up from Erdington 24 so it was a rare occasion in which I arrived at the ground by Outer Circle bus. I was keen but not altogether hopeful that my visitor would see three home wins. We had Tommy Thompson in place of Gibson. Result, a rarity, a Villa Park hat-trick by the aforementioned Geordie. 4-2 before 44,334. Worth coming all the way from Essex to see. In denying Wolves the title, had we inadvertently handed it to Chelsea? You already know the answer from reports above.

Jimmy Hagan was still playing for Sheffield United when they were next on the bill. 21,149, so not quite the pulling power of Stanley Matthews. Age did not weary him even if the rest of his team failed to respond to his promptings and 3-1 was about as routine a victory as could be expected.

We still had a lot of making up to do and with only ten days of the season remaining game 39 saw us off to Preston. A certain nostalgia attached to our games at Deepdale and victory was always sweet to rectify the disappointments of 1888. Thompson was making a belated bid to replace Dixon as the club’s leading scorer for the season. His brace saw us win comfortably
3-0, Our misfortune was that Preston North End in general and the onlooking Tom Finney in particular must have seen something special about Tommy Thompson. A few weeks later he transferred himself to Ribbleside to become the only player to have played regularly alongside Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews when he and Matthews eventually ended up together at Stoke City.

I had not yet become a regular away follower so while history was being rectified I was at home and probably consuming a half-time Bovril while we thrashed Manchester City Reserves 4-0 courtesy of a hat-trick from Roy Chapman.

Portsmouth had just missed the title at the final hurdle went we returned south to make up the abandoned fixture from mid-January. This time we were losing 1-2 in the 79th minute when Stan Lynn stepped forward to take a penalty. He missed! But the ball rebounded off the bar to Eddie Follan. 2-2.

Traditionally cup finalists took things easier as the great day approached but even so it was essential to ensure the likely eleven remained the likely eleven. So it was that for their last league game Manchester City had to head to Villa Park. They were greeted by 27,788,
who were treated to a virtuoso performance from Stan Lynn, keen to restore his reputation after hitting the bar at Portsmouth. He had the satisfaction of thrashing two shots past the renown Bert Trautmann. Don Revie had not yet devised his plan which was to humiliate Birmingham City twelve months later and our 2-0 win saw us finish in a flattering sixth place, incredibly only one point behind runners-up Wolves.

Except I am getting ahead of myself.The season was not yet over!

After the triumph of the Matthews cup final television had now reared its ugly head and the matches which as usual had been arranged for cup final day were brought forward to Friday evening. Everton were used to playing on a Friday evening when their fixture clashed with the Grand National, for us it was a ‘first’ and a first to remember when in the setting sun Thompson, probably watched by the management from Preston, scored the only goal of the game.
Like football the cinema had a season of its own and films tended to be shown when the audiences were likely to be larger, hence to otherwise blank diary for March.

To be continued, when you will learn more about a misspent youth at Edgbaston.