And the band played on

John Russell recalls the Winter of ’47.

I was watching a programme about the winter of 1947 t’other day when a thought struck me. What happened to football in general and Villa in particular when the sky came down?

Truth to tell I was only six years old at the time so my memory cells were not yet fully developed. My biggest recollection is of making my way to school through a path carved through the snow with the white stuff coming up to my shoulders, although I was practically the smallest in the class. But the important thing is we did actually still go to school. No thoughts of being told to stay at home because it was cold – we kept our coats on.

School was from 9 o’clock until noon then a two hour dinner break until resuming from two to four for the infant classes or four thirty for those nine plus. I remember feeling very grown up about that extra half hour. A two hour break was needed because most people lived within spitting distance of the school and so went home to dinner where most mothers had now abdicated their wartime occupations. Pity was extended to those few pupils obliged to ‘stay for dinner’ chiefly because after eating their lunch they were left having to spend the better part of two hours waiting for lessons to resume.

I was a ten minute run from school and my challenge was to time my exertions to coincide with my father who cycled home from the GEC every day for his sixty minute break. If I was lucky I could get a ride home on his crossbar for the last few hundred yards. The other big question was whether we would get a hot meal when we got home. It was essential to keep the factories going so mid-morning power cuts were not unknown for domestic users Anyway. enough background information – you want to read about what happened to the Villa

I will start with Saturday 21st December 1946 because I want to tell you a wonderful story.

Before the game at Liverpool it was arranged that Villa were to be presented with the ball from the famous double-winning 1897 FA Cup final. After that game the ball was retrieved by Hartley the Everton centre-forward, who defied all efforts by Villa to get him to hand it over. Somehow or other the sphere came into the possession of Geary, who had played for the Toffees in the 1880’s. Perhaps it was now a twinge of conscience but he had decided the time had now come to had it over. Though why at Anfield when Villa were due at Goodison on New Years Day is not obvious.

But the handover did not go well because Villa were delayed by ninety minutes on the way to the ground. Whether by weather-related problems or railway delays is not recorded. In the event while the players were getting changed the ball was handed over to director Norman Smith behind closed doors so to speak. Begging the question where is this valuable artefact now?

On a frostbound pitch – there is no mention of snow – we lost 1-4 as fog threatened to bring a premature ending to the game. The game was also notable for the fact that it was recorded that Villa, who played in white jerseys, also wore BLACK knickers for the very first time rather than white.

An 11 o’clock kick-off at Villa Park on Christmas Day probably incurred the wrath of the Bishop of Aston. Memorable mostly for Amos Moss, who made his Villa debut alongside his brother Frank. The reporter did not mention the weather or the state of the pitch but thought it pertinent to mention that two Huddersfield players had their shorts ripped. Significant that back then clothes coupons were like liquid gold so their replacement would have necessitated a whip round. Unfortunately from an attendance point of view Huddersfield Town were still without Peter Doherty, whose expected transfer from Derby County had not yet gone through. We drew 2-2.

Just over twenty-four hours later both teams had somehow made their way to Huddersfield where 39,606 – a massive crowd for the Yorkshire club – were still expecting to see Doherty, whose name was in the programme but he was still with Derby. Nobody got their money back. Still no mention of snow.

Next we skipped across the Pennines for our first visit to Teesside since 1938, Middlesbrough, where in front of 41,300 in winning 2-1 we avenged our opening day defeat. But not without an element of what the directors would have considered a degree of disgrace on the great name of Aston Villa. We had a player SENT OFF. Frank Moss.

Still no mention of the weather.

Frank may have feared the worst because in August 1928 his father, Frank senior, previously captain of England was sent off against Manchester United. He was immediately sacked by the club by being placed on the transfer list. Clubs were reluctant to sign such a miscreant before he eventually signed for Cardiff City at Christmas.

The table read:
1st Wolverhampton P24 Pts35
2nd Liverpool P23 Pts30
3rd Blackpool P24 Pts30
12th Villa P23 Pts25

Next, the aforementioned trip to Everton. After 3the minutes the home team were awarded a penalty which Rutherford saved TWICE. The first time when he was adjudged to have moved. Stevenson and Dodds spoilt our day 0-2. 49,600, an average post-war gate.

Still no mention of the weather.

Barely twelve months after the record 76,588 came to see Derby County 50,000 turned out at Villa Park to see them again. By now Doherty had finally moved on to be replaced for the visitors by a Villa hero, Frank Broome The weather was described as ‘cold’. 2-0 was as good as it gets.

Then came one of our greatest transfer coups of all time, the capture of Trevor Ford from Swansea Town But he was not eligible to play at Burnley in the cup. If I remember rightly my father went to Burnley, not an easy place to get to. I think he went by Stockland Coaches, a fraught journey at a time when coaches still had a twenty miles per hour sticker on the back.

In those days the cup was ‘the thing’ and probably the only time when visiting supporters travelled en masse. My father and the many Villa fans in the crowd were less than pleased with their day out when second division Burnley slaughtered us 1-5. We would meet them in the first division next season. In heavy rain there were puddles on the pitch but still no mention of snow. Meanwhile our disgrace was eased somewhat when Burnley went on to reach the final before losing 0-1 to Charlton Athletic.

Next Saturday 18th January, on the morning of the match Ford travelled up by train from South Wales to meet his new colleagues at Highbury. In glorious sunshine coupled with a keen wind he had the satisfaction of being on the winning side, albeit without scoring. Leslie Smith the elder (3) and Dorsett (15) brought home the bacon.

On fourth round day Villa v Blackpool was the only first division match played. Snow which was piled high on the running track had been cleared off the pitch during the morning – probably by army locals at a time when a large percentage of Villa fans actually lived in the borough. Making his home debut Ford had the satisfaction of scoring the equaliser after Mortenson (21) but it had taken him until the 80th minute. We are now seventh – P27 Pts 30.

Our Central League game at Maine Road was cancelled – snow – so it must be around somewhere.

On the Friday ahead of the game at Brentford the locals had been out with their brushes and brooms but an inch of snow overnight threatened proceedings except it actually provided a safe cushion to counteract the frozen ground beneath. Back on his old stamping ground Leslie Smith was given a rousing reception by the 20,000 who were gathered. Ford (59 and 80) hinted at the birth of a new Villa legend.

Once again the reserves got to play so the weather cannot have been all that bad except that Sheffield United fans going to Stoke had to abandon their journey because the Pennine roads were impassable They missed seeing their side win 1-0. Meanwhile German prisoners of war who hadn’t gone home yet cleared the pitch at Luton.

Ironically two days after our visit to Griffin Park Brentford got to turn out at Villa Park for an FA Cup fourth round second replay ,when on a Monday afternoon 25,000 saw Leicester City beat them 4-2. With no interest in the FA Cup on fifth round day we fixed up a friendly v Hibernians at Villa Park. But this did fall foul of the weather and was cancelled in midweek.

Meanwhile it did not snow at the seaside where Blackpool, keen to win the Central League, sent out most of their first team to meet our reserves. It was virtually all over when the Seasiders scored twice in the opening five minutes then declared.

Our league match from fifth round day versus Blackburn Rovers was rearranged for a Wednesday afternoon but again snow won.

As at Blackpool there was no snow in Portsmouth, where on a hard but dry pitch we were leading 2-1 with five minutes to go. But the pitch was not as innocent as it looked and when Dorsett slipped the scene was set for a double disaster and double disaster was what we got 2-3

Was there ever a more depressing ground than the Valley? 15,000 spread out where there was room for 75,00 most of whom had to stand. The pitch was covered with two inches of snow and more was a threat throughout the match but against all odds the match went its full quota- Having won at the other three London grounds, Arsenal, Chelsea and Brentford we were keen to complete the quartet at the would be cup finalists But after nine minutes Robinson had other ideas. That is until with fifteen minutes to go Dawson punched the ball into the net. No penalty, no name-taking, no sending-off. Goal, 1-1.

With no opponents available for sixth round day the weather was obviously still not a factor because we fixed up for Celtic tocome to what was often then referred to as the Hall of Memory. The sun shone but although clear of snow treacherous ice was to be seen in places. Dorsett opened our account after a pre-match band from Coventry was still putting their instruments away. But goals in the 31st and 72nd ensured a victory for a large contingent of Scottish Brummies.

My mother’s birthday, 8th March was the worst Saturday of the season. 27 of the 44 league matches were postponed. We might have wished that our game at Maine Road had been amongst them. But melting snow was giving way to slush and Villa did not do slush. The fact that we were playing Manchester United because Old Trafford was still closed for repairs did not help matters. Even so Dorsett gave us the lead (37) following a clever backheel by Graham, deputising for he of the tousled hair. Backheels were seen as almost like cheating and were so rare they were always guaranteed to get reported. Two goals in two minutes (62 & 64) and our only satisfaction was another fixture fulfilled.

Travel arrangements for midweek matches were proving so contentious for some that there was talk of banning them. Stanley Matthews, then still with his original club, had been due to turn out for Stoke City against us at Villa Park on Saturday March 15th but got stuck on a train somewhere. He was probably quite pleased to have missed out on the wretched bone-hard conditions, all the more so when a blizzard called a halt to the match after 57 minutes with the score 2-2.

Having rarely managed to get a game, Johnny Dixon put in a transfer request and was expected to join Chelsea.

Every team seemed to have a personality centre-forward. Nat Lofthouse and Bolton next. The pitch had a bit of give in it and was as perfect as perfect could be. Nathaniel gave Bolton the lead (28) only for his direct opponent Con Martin to head the Villa equaliser (31). In bright sunshine Moir scored the Bolton winner.

Finally Dixon got a recall, unless being as it was against Chelsea it was to put him in the shop window. As is the way of things he was declared man of the match long before nominating a man of the match came into vogue. Ford (9) Dorsett (40) despite the efforts of Tommy Lawton.

The table read:
1st Wolverhampton P32 Pts46
2nd Blackpool P36 Pts44
3rd Liverpool P32 Pts41
8th Villa P33 Pts35

Misfortune overcame Villa at Sunderland on Good Friday. Albert Kerr was down to make a rare appearance at outside-right but somehow twisted his knee en route. Then George Cummings suffered a hernia at half time.-Sunderland took the lead after forty seconds and added a second that was demonstrably handball. Dixon, who had once guested for Sunderland during the hostilities, raised our hopes (33) but after Ford suffered a muscle pull it became a damage limitation exercise.

The fixtures were a bit kinder to us than usual and we merely moved down to Sheffield United overnight. In blustery wind and drizzling rain it was a cheerless place. In contrast to the adjacent cricket pitch the pitch was described as a stretch of ironed-out mud. To make matters worse United scored in the first minute and prompted by their star Jimmy Hagan constantly looked like adding to their quota. Until, that is, Dorsett headed home a corner by Brummie Arthur Haynes who later had the misfortune to be carried off the field on the hour, joining Dixon on the side lines. It is not often nine men come back to win but somehow we survived everything the Blades could throw at us and Dorsett achieved an unlikely brace.

It was almost a tradition that reverse fixtures at Christmas and Easter lead to reverse results so it will come as no surprise that on Easter Tuesday on a quagmire pitch and in pouring rain we overran Sunderland 4-0, Ford (33 & 64) Iverson Dorsett (43)

It may seem unusual to think of Grimsby Town as being in the first division and even more surprising to learn that they went away from Villa Park coming back from 0-3 down at half time and finishing 3-3 after a last-minute equaliser. Perhaps the warm spring sunshine was to blame!

Leeds United had already been relegated when we turned up at Elland Road minus Ford, injured playing for Wales in Belfast. Again in bright sunlight 30,000 was not a bad turn out to watch a relegated team. It was a typical end of season affair settled for them by Clarke (48) and for us by Dorsett (77). 1-1.

Until television, Stanley Matthews and Wembley in 1953 league fixtures were arranged for cup final day. Villa were originally down to play Liverpool at home but they became involved in a semi-final replay so thinking they may get to the final we arranged a friendly against Glasgow Rangers instead. But after they lost to Burnley Liverpool, who were still in with a chance of the championship, were obliged to fulfil the original league fixture so Rangers went to Manchester City instead.

William Evans, a real Astonite, made his debut at centre forward, and a dream debut it was when he opening the scoring with a header after six minutes. But joy was short lived as ‘Pool came back within three minutes. The coup de grace came in the twentieth minute and at the end (1-2) Liverpool were still in with a shout.

At this point the season should have been over but we still had three make up fixtures to play. Nevertheless the Cornwall County Football Association had been keen to attract the famous Aston Villa and we had a longstanding arrangement to play there. Consequently the players enjoyed an end of season five day break ahead of the end of season and attracted 11,000 to a match at St Austell. Villa did not disappoint their admirers with a 5-0 exhibition although they were later beaten in a 2-5 golf match at Bin Down.

Back home a meeting with Blackburn Rovers was always going to be an anti-climax. On the Villa Park mudheap the game was unworthy of these historic rivals. 22,412 at a time when the average gate was over 40,000 puts things in perspective. 2-1.

Preston North End minus Tom Finney away on an end of season tour with England nearly doubled the attendance of Blackburn Rovers and contributed to a fun match. Fun especially for Evans, who notched two goals. Dorsett missed a penalty towards the end which would have given the result a more accurate perspective. 4-2 but there is still more to come.

The match against Stoke City was rearranged from 15th March. It was not yet all over for Stoke if Liverpool could be beaten at the death. With the first division title possibly to be decided at Villa Park again the 42,000 were in a festive mood, except that what should have been a classic was spoilt by the wind and a bouncing ball and possibly by the defensive tactics employed by Stoke after they took the lead in the third minute. 0-1

The table ended:
1st Liverpool P42 Pts57
2nd Man Utd P42 Pts56
3rd Wolverhampton P42 Pts56
4th Stoke City P42 Pts55
8th Villa P42 Pts45

As can be seen from these reports Villa did not suffer from the harsh winter anywhere near as badly as suggested by the television documentaries which gave the impression that we spent the winter trapped in our homes, freezing to death under several feet of snow.

The title is a throwback to the band at the sinking of the Titanic and the fact that a little bit of weather was not going to come between the fan and his football.