My teenage diary – part three

John Russell looks back at 1955-56.

Villa decided to do away with the ‘Persil’ matches – Colours v Whites – because of the possibility of injuries to the best players from reserves over-keen to take over their place. Consequently the first chance to view the immaculate greensward and what painting, if any, had been done to the ground over the summer came with a brace of Central League matches. Manchester City Reserves 4-2 and Stoke City Reserves 0-0.

Meanwhile the first team had started where they had finished last season so to speak with a game against Manchester City at Maine Road. A 2-2 draw looks better on paper than it did for those who had spent their shekels. But we kept the same team at Roker Park where Sunderland were hopeful of improving on their cup semi-final and joint runners-up positions in April. To say we were annihilated is to put it mildly. 1-5.

Cardiff City became our first home visitors for the season. Captained, or more to the point, lead out by, as was customary for returnees to the scene of the crime by the traitor Trevor Ford, up against Con Martin again with the same result. 2-0, Dixon and McParland.

We hoped for better thing two evenings later in the return against Sunderland. But hope did not spring eternal and, embarrassingly, we were thrashed for a second time, 1-4. Whereupon we made a most audacious transfer signing. But the biggest mystery is not so much that we pulled off such a major coup but that Everton decided that Dave Hickson was now surplus to their requirements. He actually signed for us on a Friday afternoon when the team for the game at Huddersfield had already been selected so he had to watch from the directors box as we took the lead after barely thirty seconds. McParland. But watching Joe Tyrrell in his place Hickson must have been confident of adding to his reputation. After 32 minutes Glazzard burst our bubble. 1-1, four points out of ten.

56,935 may not seem a vast attendance for a game against the Blues but straight from work at 6 pm on a Monday night it was a massive turnout. The excitement was palpable. Most people were there to see the latest edition to the pantheon of great Villa centre forwards. Unless you were a Blues supporter it was a massive let down The only thing that can be said about Hickson was that he was a massive disappointment; Everton surely knew what they were doing. The best thing about the game was the result, 0-0.

Given how many Blues fans were there on Monday night the only thing needed to explain how 51,166 came to turn up five days later can be summed up with one name, Stanley Matthews. Hickson was a poor comparison with Mortenson but Peter Aldis seemed to save his best Villa games for the appearance of Matthews. Kelly involuntarily gave us a goal start but bang on 4 o’clock Perry ensured that we were now becoming bankers on the Treble Chance pools. All the more so when we played out a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge. Still three points on the pools but only one where it mattered most. Much was made of the fact that a coachload of Villa supporters went to the game. As I have frequently remarked, traveling to away games was not then a particularly attractive pastime.

It became five draws in a row when we crossed the city again or took a ride on the number 8 bus. Manager Eric Houghton continued to mess about with the team in the efforts to find a winning combination but it was becoming apparent that he actually had a problem with the automatic shoe in, the number nine. 33,462 on a Wednesday night in Bordesley Green is more than to be expected What was not to be expected was a goal from Hickson so we did not get to see one. Centre-forward Eddie Brown had the gimmick of rushing to shake hands with the corner flag whenever he scored and he did just that in the 22nd minute

If he thought that was amusing then much mirth was attached to the Villa equaliser on the stroke of half-time. A shot from Southren eluded the diving Gil Merrick, tball struck the post only to rebound against the prostrate goalkeeper and bounce back into the net. Laugh, as we certainly did at the reactions of the Blues defenders. Astall threatened misery in the 66th but Baxter (69) ensured that nobody had cause to gloat.

Nat Lofthouse was still something of a crowd puller and a major threat when up come Bolton Wanderers. 28,416, more than usual. Lofthouse 2 Hickson 0. Otherwise the most significant event was an injury to referee Coultas who was replaced by a linesman, who in turn was replaced for a few minutes by a Bolton reserve. Then a Birmingham Works referee stepped forward for his fifteen minutes of fame. Imagine that.

I was still a regular reserve team attendee when we were given a treat, two games in one day at Villa Park. The FA Youth Cup was a recent innovation organised mainly for the benefit of Manchester United, or that was the way it seemed. Thus it was that a team from Walsall stepped out into the late morning sunlight in a first round cup tie. The only player of note was Terry Morrall but it will perhaps come as a surprise to learn that even so we suffered an embarrassing 0-2 to a team from Bescot. Home for lunch then things got better in the afternoon when we beat Chesterfield Reserves 2-0 with a team most of whom became first team regulars, though you will be hard-pressed to find goalkeeper Webster. Meanwhile we fulfilled our obligations at Highbury where 0-1 was almost a minor triumph were it not for the fact that they were one place beneath us in the death zone.

37,243 at the Hawthorns was considered ‘disappointing’ taking into account the fact that the Baggies were top of the league at the time. Nicholls crashed the ball passed Jones in the 26th and that was it. The fact that Hickson was pushed out to the wing in the second half whilst Dixon tried ihs hardest to restore equanimity tells you everything you need to know about our none scoring number nine Made worse because bustling Derek Pace was now scoring for fun in the reserves but being a mite on the short side he was not everyone’s idea of a traditional centre forward.

Manchester United were now joint leaders but failed to attract 30,000. The absentees missed a classic – and a collectors item. A goal by Hickson. Furthermore two goals from Johnny Dixon saw us 2-0 up by twenty past thre e.But if that seemed too good to be true is was because by 3.45 it was 2-3. Blanchflower (25), Webster (31) and Pegg (37) doing the damage. When Pegg made it 2-4 after 54 it was game over. But finally on the hour Dave Hickson ended his drought and brought the crowd to its feet with a shot from the edge of the box and to the accompaniment of a long silent ‘Villa roar’ we scented that shades of 1948 were afoot. Confirmed when Pat Saward, recently signed from Millwall, scored the ultimate debut goal. Barely 64 minutes and 4-4. Far too much excitement for one afternoon. And despite the frantic efforts from both sides it was almost as if the exhausted captains had prematurely shaken hands on a draw.

After the Lord Mayor’s Show, it might be thought a coronation was next. Captaining the team, or at least leading the players out, Dave Hickson received the sort of ovation at Goodson Park for which he may have wondered why he left. The crowd almost willed him to score a goal as their centre-forward Harris tried to demonstrate why Hickson had been let go. Everton completely overran us for a half-hour and Harris proved his point, scoring twice. It was almost as if Everton declared because we joined in after the girl had distributed the toffees at half time. Dixon (60) gave us hope but that is all it was. Seven draws and only nine points – things were not looking good. That is until, enter Newcastle United.

It is reported that we rested McParland, which looking back is luxury indeed. We went ahead within thirty seconds. Simpson failed to field a shot from Hickson and Dixon netted. We threatened to fall victim to the offside trap until after a half-time team talk as Vic Crowe found a way through to score his first Villa goal. If we really did rest McParland for Lockhart it paid dividends when Norman made it 3-0 and everyone went home happy. 18th, one place above Arsenal.

There is really no point in ever going to Burnley. The outcome has long been predicted in the stars. McParland returned but only because Southren had a ‘cold’. McKay 52 and 72 was enough to guarantee the expected home win.

Then England came to Villa Park and Hickson scored again. But there was nobody there to see it, or nearly nobody because it was a thirty minutes each way game behind closed doors as England prepared to play Spain and were taking things more seriously than normal. Tom Finney equalised the Hickson strike then Con Martin can say he scored for England, which was not such a good idea, before McParland restored the reputation of the Irish. 2-2.

Luton Town were holding their own in the upper echelons despite their overall lack of support. Defences held sway until Dixon went runabout and converted a pin-point centre from Lockhart. Still no McParland. It was soon to be no Hickson because his sad experience for all concerned ended when he decided to join Huddersfield Town and at least we got our money back. We wished him well, but not too well because they were bottom of the league and we still needed a couple of teams worse than us.

Our annual visit to Aldershot seemingly produced a closer than usual game against the equivalent of a ‘B’ international squad. But fog reduced the game to thirty minutes each way and led to a frustrating journey home. It might have been easier if we had gone straight to the Valley where Charlton were in third place only one point behind leaders Blackpool. It stayed that way. After only four minutes Lockhart netted following a scrimmage and with Pace now leading the charge things were looking promising. Then suddenly Charlton sensed we were easy pickings and were all over us. We were fortunate to leave south London with only a 1-3 deficit.

Grateful to be safely back home but it was to be for a four point fixture. Despite having Danny Blanchflower to lead them Tottenham Hotspur were in sorry straits in twenty-first place. Time to set the records straight and put an end to the Tottenham hoodoo and start the climb up the table. But Villa Park was now the traditional mud heap. Tottenham copped better and went onto score a sixth consecutive win at the ground. There was a bit of luck about their two goals but you need a bit of luck when you are desperate.

Exit Hickson, enter Sewell. At £35,000 he had been the most expensive footballer in the land when moving from Notts County to Sheffield Wednesday. His greatest misfortune was to have been in the two England teams which were humiliated by the Hungarians so by that definition he cannot have been up to much. But the link with Eric Houghton needs no explanation.

We were desperate in having to face Sheffield United at their cricket ground. There is nothing better than scoring a debut goal, which Sewell did in the 38th. Things improved even more when Pace brought more groans from the home terraces as we went two up after 63. But our frailties were exposed when two goals in minutes 68 and 70. meant draw number eight.

The table now read:-
18 Villa P20 Pts14
19 Cardiff P19 Pts14
20 Sheff Utd P19 Pts13
21 Tottenham P19 Pts13
22 Huddersfield P18 Pts10

Meanwhile fans at home saw Bobby Charlton appear in B6. Not for the high-flying first team but the high-flying reserves. Our reserves were in mid-table and seemed potential winners until the Blanchflower brother took charge.

It is just as well that Preston North End were next at Villa Pak. Like Burnley, we always beat Preston at home. Surely. Tommy Thompson led them out accompanied by Tom Finney and Tommy Docherty. The ground conditions were in our favour. Surely. Two minutes 1-0 Baxter. 32 minutes and the most unlikely goalscorer in the most unlikely manner. Amos Moss, a header. Lockhart (52) and 27,414 had visions of a rout. But this is Aston Villa, masters at losing games from winning positions. Not quite but Lewis (60) and Tommy Thompson (79) had the crowd whistling for the end as the Witton Lane clock reached four o’clock. It had been a 2.15 kick off.

Ditto seven days later for the arrival of Manchester City. Only one place above they were not expected to be much trouble so no prizes for guessing that they completely overran us. It started in the first minute, continued in the nineteenth and when we went in three-nil down at the break the noise from the traditional foot stamping in the Trinity Road stand was deafening. This left Villa as the only side in the first division without an away win to their name.

Christmas Eve, a Saturday, and not the best day to be visiting Wales. Manager Houghton threw the names into a hat but failed to come up with a winning combination. The really sad thing is to have to report that the winning goal came from a certain Gerry Hitchens (75). If only we had known to take a bus ride to Kidderminster a few months earlier how different things would have been.

Cardiff then back home to face Portsmouth on the official Boxing Day only to have to go to Portsmouth on the Tuesday was not ideal for team or supporters alike. Even less so for Portsmouth, who went to Blackpool on Christmas Eve. Even in those days the easy way to beat the Villa was to run about especially when you have Amos Moss in your team and Portsmouth ran about. They were far too clever for us by half and 1-3 was not exactly seasonal fare for the 21,404 and to think, we probably have to through all this again tomorrow. Not quite.

Like Harry Parkes on the train back from Middlesbrough a couple of years earlier we must have had a crisis meeting on the train south with the result that we fought hard to gain a ninth draw after being two goals down at the interval.

But the table now read:-
19 Tottenham P24 Pts17
20 Sheff Utd P24 Pts17
21 Villa P25 Pts17
22 Huddersfield P23 Pts16

And Huddersfield were our next opponents. I do not know if Dave Hickson led out their team but the one thing is certain; he did not receive the customary adulation afforded to returnees. Suffice to say that he played better for them than he did for us but was no more successful. Truth to record the game was all over after only six minutes courtesy of two strikes by Dixon. 25,746 began to relax until in the 64th minute came one of the greatest goals ever scored at Villa Park, if not THE greatest. Opinions differ.

Collecting the ball at the edge of his penalty area at the Aston End Stan Lynn probably could not see anyone worthwhile to pass it to so he set off upfield. As no-one attempted to tackle him he ran passed player after player, many from his own side, Then the crowd started to sense that something exceptional was about to happen. And it did. Lynn quite simply kept going and just when it seemed he had to shoot to get by goalkeeper Wheeler he nonchalantly went around him and tapped the ball into an empty net. The roof lifted. Later in the evening this sensational feat earned Stan a rare live appearance on television. All is well with the world. Not.

It goes without saying that I had also attended most of the reserve team games when the occasion arose. Invariably when doing so I enjoyed a half-time Bovril for free because the lady next from next door was in charge of handing them out. Unfortunately I have been unable to include the effect of the weather in these match reports. In particular that of a strong wind blowing from the Witton End to the Aston End of the ground and thus the choice of ends when winning the toss. Plus the untold misery of having to stand out on the terraces in the pouring rain.

If I had always walked to the game alongside the River Tame I always dashed to get home by the number eleven. It was the only way to be certain of being at home to hear the first reading of the football results at five o’clock. Miss them and your only chance was to wait until six o’clock or Sport in the Midlands at 6.30. Except that by 6.15 I had to dash to the newsagents to first to collect the Argus off the delivery driver.