A Villa Fan's Memoirs

2. From 1956/57

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I was at my most enthusiastic as a Villa supporter as a 12-year old in 1956, through to 1963, firstly as a Holte-end supporter, and later at The Trinity Road standing enclosure near the half-way line, placed close to any BBC cameras that happened to be present to show the highlights on TV that night. I still went to matches fairly often in subsequent years (home and away) right up to 1976. Then I came to London, when my ability to watch matches has been limited to those on TV plus some at Selhurst Park, the home of Crystal Palace and Wimbledon, as I lived within easy travelling distance of that ground for 11 years
In 56/57, I went to nearly all the Cup games.... those at home plus the match at Burnley in the days when that other claret-and-blue team of Jimmy McIlroy and Jimmy Adamson were a real force. I missed the home replay, though, and also the semi-final replay after Villa's battling draw at Molineaux with the 'Baggies' - old rivals West Bromwich Albion, who were also a very good team. Villa had been re-built under the stewardship of manager (and former Villa star) Eric Houghton. His major signings were Nigel Sims (goal) from the Wolves, and Jimmy Dugdale (centre-half) from West Brom, both of whom were pillars of the defence for the next 3 or 4 seasons. An additional and very useful signing was Jackie Sewell, a scoring inside-forward from Sheff. Wednesday, who only 3 or 4 years before had been the most expensive player in England. Houghton signed the soon-to-be-legendary centre-forward Gerry Hitchens also (in late 1957), but as Hitchens was still serving his National Service, was not yet the player that he turned out to be. Houghton was a very unlucky manager, sacked within two years of bringing a long-awaited trophy to Villa Park, as his signings were usually very good....Ron Wylie was another, and was a stalwart for several years.

Jimmy McIlroy of Burnley wrote the following account of their 1957 sixth round encounter: "Against the Villa, we took an early lead, and without playing really well, held it until a few minutes from the end of the game. Then, the most dangerous man in soccer at converting the pass to the far-post, Peter McParland, popped up to head the equaliser from his favourite position. But there should never have been any replay. In the first ten minutes or so, I squared two passes across the face of the goal, both taken by Ian Lawson in his stride. From very close range, Ian side-footed the ball wide each time.

The pitch at Villa Park [in the replay] was in a shocking state. There were pools of water on the surface, and where there was no water, there was mud - gallons of the stuff! In one corner, in fact, there was a patch of filth giving off a most nauseating odour, causing us to wonder if this famous football ground had been used for sewage disposal. Thus was the stage set in terrible conditions for one of the most vital Cup-ties in the history of either club. Aston Villa at that time were being assailed on all sides for their vigourous style of football. They tackled hard, used their weight to the maximum advantage, and generally bothered little with the frills of soccer: although their manager Mr Eric Houghton repeatedly refuted charges that Villa were over-robust, there is no denying they were formidable opposition. In marked contrast, Burnley were a team of flyweights, with one of the smallest forward lines in the entire League.

The Midlanders, who later went on to win the FA Cup, beat us 2-0, with goals coming from Johnny Dixon and inevitably, my old Irish pal Peter McParland. I say inevitably, because Peter makes a habit of scoring whenever he plays against me. Indeed, he has scored more goals while playing against me than as my partner in the Irish team...even though we have played many more times together than as opponents. Burnley were out of the Cup, well beaten on a terrible pitch by an efficient, workmanlike team. The match was not a classic, my main recollection of it being the rather odd-looking playing strip sported by the Burnley players. We wore navy blue shirts and navy blue shorts, and with the referee in his customary all-black outfit it was not surprising that he was given more passes than anyone in our team! We wondered at the time why return passes never came. Fortunately, he changed into a purple shirt at half-time, although I am still not certain whether this simplified or further confused the issue!"

However, McIlroy did not provide the whole story for the dark outfits they wore. Peter McParland takes up the story:

"It was a foul afternoon," he recalls. "Wet and dark. A really filthy day. So Burnley decided to wear black! With almost no natural light and against the dark background of the crowd it was impossible to make their players out. Eric Houghton, our manager, came into our dressing-room before the kick-off raging. He went to see the referee and complain but all the ref did was ask to borrow one of our purple away-shirts to wear!"

Having watched Houghton's men battling through the gloom, the board was convinced that floodlights were necessary. (Seventeen months later, at half-time of Portsmouth's visit to Villa Park, came the historic moment. With the match level at 1-1 and the late summer light fading, chief electrician Eric Farmer threw the switch on the brand new 31,280 system.)

After Burnley, it was McParland again (with two goals) who forced local rivals West Brom to a replay in the semi-final, which Villa went on to win - just! The semi-finals that year also saw the presence of Birmingham City (who were in the 1956 final), who lost to Man Utd. Three Birmingham sides in the semi-finals in one year!

So, in 1957 it was on to Wembley and the match with Manchester United. The great 'Busby Babes'. I'd seen Villa lose at home to the Babes, 3-1 that season, in the league, but Villa had drawn at Old Trafford as their confidence picked up on a long cup run. So, the scene was set for a great Final (we hoped). Villa's rather corny cup song that season (to the tune 'It's a long way to Tipperary') was:-

It's a long way to get to Wembley,
It's a long way to go,
It's a long way to get to Wembley,
But we'll get there, I know!
Goodbye Bristol City,
Goodbye Middlesbrough,
It's a long, long way to get to Wembley,
But we'll get there, I know!

.....however, Ron Atkinson was at that time a not-very-successful player at Villa, and some 25 years later (when their manager) he was heard to be teaching Manchester United supporters that very same theme !! (different clubs mentioned though, of course!).

The Final came round, and we prepared to watch it on 'black and white' T.V. Manchester United had already won the league, and were going for the 'double'. Villa had been the last club to win the double way back in 1896/97 (exactly 60 years before), and so we hoped that United would be stopped in their tracks. Peter McParland was at the height of his game at that time and had scored some explosive goals that season...would he win it? Well, he did...he scored both Villa's goals in the 2-1 win, BUT, very sadly, accidentally put out United's goalkeeper after only 15 minutes of the match. United were effectively down to 10 men for 75% of the match. Nevertheless, Villa played some good football in the second half, and made their pressure tell. Captain Johnny Dixon was a worthy winner.

So, we thought that a new era was starting ! But not entirely in the right direction, as things turned out....! But, first, there was the matter of the Munich air crash, and the demise of several of the Busby Babes. Everyone cried as a result of that event. Villa sold wing-half Stan Crowther to United to bolster their team, and they even got to the Cup Final again in '58 - but lost again.

By 1957, a formidable full-back by the name of Stan Lynn ("Stan the Wham") was a regular in the Villa side, and in 57/58 equalled the record number of goals by a Villa full-back. He had been scoring regularly for a few years and scored 9 in 57/58 (mostly penalties)....all driven with great force! However, the memory of Stan the Wham will always be mainly concerned with how he used to stand off the winger he was to mark, and if the ball would go to that winger, in would come Stan with his sliding tackle and take the ball and player over the touchline! Stan later played for Birmingham City, as did Bobby Thomson, Ron Wylie and John Sleeuwenhoek.

Within two seasons, relegation again ! Joe Mercer had been recruited as new manager, but too late to stop the slide. Even so, Villa did manage to get to the Cup semi-final. Great away wins at Chelsea and Everton being the highlight of that run, and again Jimmy McIlroy of Burnley had his Wembley dreams sabotaged by Villa. He talks about the match and his Irish international colleague Peter McParland, in connection with the meeting of the two clubs in the sixth round of the cup that year (a replay at Burnley after finishing 0-0 at Villa Park): "I am sure nobody with any interest at all in Burnley Football Club will forget the anguish of the Aston Villa replay in March 1959. In the first-half, we played extremely well, giving the Villa defence a terrible drubbing. Just one thing was missing - goals. Despite the Burnley pressure, we could not get the ball past the capable Nigel Sims. Peter McParland, meanwhile, was having a very poor outing. Yet so unpredictable is this goalscoring winger, he can never be left alone at any stage of a game. This lesson was brought home to us in the most amazing fashion.

With the score sheet still blank in the second-half, McParland took possession of a ball near the half-way line and set out on a diagonal run towards the opposite wing. He wanted, I am sure, to pass to his right-winger, but he kept running with the ball getting nearer and nearer to our goal. David Smith, the Burnley left-back, moved out to cover the Villa outside-right, so that he could be positioned to intercept McParland's pass. That pass never came, and all the time, big Peter kept running with the ball at his feet. Before anyone could appreciate the danger, he shot from the inside-right position from about 20 yards. It was a goal from the moment the ball left his foot, and my hopes of Wembley again died.

I was told later that, right from the start of Peter McParland's run, his manager Joe Mercer had been shouting: "Release it. Release it." But Peter McParland, never a footballer to do the obvious thing, did not release that ball. He kept it - and scored a goal that cast the whole of Burnley into Cup mourning. McParland added a second later, just to add to our misery, but the damage had really been done with his first."

But it was left to Villa to win the last league match of the season at West Bromwich Albion to stay up. Gerry Hitchens scored first, but Albion equalised, and so Villa were relegated. Some of Villa's players were in despair - particularly Pat Saward.

1959/60 in Division 2 was, however, a fairly bright season. Villa won the division at the first attempt, and again got to the semi-final of the Cup (the third time in four seasons, but their last semi-final appearance for 35 years). Again I went to several cup matches and for the first time was keen enough to wait all-night for the gates to be opened on Sunday morning in order to purchase a ticket! 12 hours of standing in not warm conditions was worth it, I thought, as Villa edged further towards the semi-final!

In the League, the most fantastic highlight of the season was in November, when Villa beat Charlton A. 11-1 (Gerry Hitchens scoring 5 !), followed by Bristol City (away) 5-0, then Scunthorpe, also 5-0. 21-1 in 3 matches, Hitchens scoring 10 !! The sequence is a club record, but the 11-1 win does not match two 10-0 wins in Division 1 35 and more years before. There was, though, another extraordinary game at Villa Park when Liverpool were the visitors. Villa were 0-4 down with 20 minutes to go.....yet finished 4-4 !! In fact, McParland (who had scored) could have scored the winner in the last minute !! (There was another extraordinary match between Villa and Spurs at purple Hart Lane a few years later - about 1965 - which finished 5-5 after Villa were 1-5 down. Some say that was one of the greatest games seen.). Villa's only home defeat of that promotion season was against Sheffield United, 1-3. All 3 were scored by Derek Pace, who was a Villa favourite only 2 years before, and just failed to get a Cup Final place in '57. Pace was always a thorn in Villa's side after his transfer !! I think it was that season that I saw my only and last view of the great Tom Finney. In around 1965, I saw Stanley Matthews play one of his last games for Stoke City, where he retired aged 50 !

1959/60 finished with Gerry Hitchens and Peter McParland each scoring 25 goals, with Bobby Thomson on 22. Then came Stan the Wham with another 7 from the full-back position! Joe Mercer (the manager) had created a base that gave us even more optomism than in '57, and for the next four years or so his management seemed to be making progress. By 1964 it was becoming apparent, however, that Villa were losing touch with the other big clubs in terms of effective financial control and true ambition, and the club then seemed to slide out of control. That Joe Mercer was relieved of his job that year (after failing health) may well have been the real start of the slide.

In their next season (1960/61, back in Division 1), the major highlights were Villa beating Birmingham City 6-2, and Hitchens scoring 42 goals in all competitions prior to being the first Villa player to be capped for England for some 10 years (and the last for nearly another 20 years !). But Villa sold him to Inter-Milan for 85,000 (then a big sum). He went to Italy at the same time as Jimmy Greaves, Joe Baker and Dennis Law, and was the only one of the four to adjust to the life and playing standards there, although the great John Charles had been there some time, and remained there. Hitchens was successful (my Italian barber, from Milan, remembered him 20 years later !), and he eventually came back to finish his playing days with Worcester City, although there had been talk of him returning to the Villa, particularly as Villa were on a slide and needed a reminder of some glory to help them come back up again.

In 1960/61 great crowds could still fill Villa Park. I was present in a 60,000+ crowd to see Villa sneek a cheeky Cup win against Peterborough United, they not long having been elected to the Football League. Harry Burrows' winner came from a misplaced centre rather than a shot ! 1960/61 was the season that a wonderful Spurs team (including ex-Villa star Danny Blanchflower) won the double - the first to do so since Villa in 1896/97. Spurs had to beat Villa on the way to winning the Cup, but were vastly in control over Villa in the Villa Park match. The last Villa game of the 1960/61 season was against league runners-up Sheffield Wednesday and England goalkeper Ron Springett. Villa won 4-1, and, as it proved, it was the last appearance for Hitchens (who scored 2), and also for Johnny Dixon who had reached the age of 37. He also scored a good goal (the crowd gave him an outstanding ovation on his return to the centre circle that went on and on...), and the Sports Argus considered that Villa had in fact played their best attacking formation of the season ! But two were now to go....!! The match was also memorable for the first appearance of young full-back Charlie Aitken, who went on to play through to 1975. A record number of first-team games. However, Billy Walker (1920-34) has probably the better record as that consisted all of matches in the top flight.

Villa were one of the very few 'top' English teams to enter the new Football League Cup that season (60/61), and won this trophy at the first attempt in a 2-leg final (the final was not to be held at Wembley for several years). Villa have won that trophy (in sponsored-form) four times since.

Hitchens was to die, very sadly, in his mid-40s. This, as it proved, became an uncomfortably regular thing for some former Villa players, as I recall some other great stalwarts also expiring at a very early age.....Trevor Hockey and John Sleeuwenhoek (the son of a Dutch paratrooper) being two I can bring to mind. John had come through Villa's youth ranks via the team that came close to winning the F.A. Youth Cup in 1959/60, a team that also included later first-team stalwarts Charlie Aitken, Alan Deakin, Mike Tindall and Alan Baker. I was a work colleague of their goalkeeper, John Pratt, who I remember agonised on whether to become a Villa professional or whether to become a P.E. teacher. He chose the latter, despite the fact that he was a very agile keeper. If he'd been able to predict the outcome concerning players' pay (by '61), then perhaps he might have decided differently ! Other talented young players coming through Villa's youth ranks included winger Harry Burrows, and (later) Bobby Park and Lew Chatterley. The greatest error, perhaps, was the sale of a young George Graham to Chelsea ! He later went on to make his mark also with Arsenal and Manchester United (and later as a manager). My father saw Graham play in one of his last visits to Villa Park, and thought Graham to be a fine prospect.

Around 1962 time, manager Joe Mercer's first team had become labelled "Mercer's Minors" as a riposte to the "Busby Babes", both terms indicating the youth of the respective teams. 1961/62 saw some brighter times with successive defeats of Leicester City (8-3) and Notts Forest (5-0)....a small reminder of November, 1959, and those 21 goals in 3 matches! Ex-Wolves player Bobby Thomson, in fact, played in all those 1959 and 1962 matches and scored a good proportion of those 34 goals (possibly 12 or more of them), including a hat-trick in the 8-3 win over Leicester! An under-rated and versatile player, he was a "Mister Reliable". Thomson later played as a wing-half (midfielder), as did Ron Wylie, a core playmaker for Villa for several years.

In 1962/63, "Mercer's Minors" were not doing too badly, having achieved double wins over Arsenal, and drawn at Man U (and lost at Small Heath!), accumulating 10 league wins, 6 defeats and 5 draws before their home match with Blackburn Rovers on 19th January '63. That happened to be the start of the "big freeze" of 1963, when playing conditions were abominable, and I saw the match being played on an ice rink. It finished 0-0. But what was worse was that the "big freeze" prevented further matches until 13th Feb. (0-4 at Liverpool), and then the next match after that was a cup match on 7th March. The next league match was 2 days afterwards, so in nearly two months, that was the sum of the matches played!

On the 16th March occurred a beautiful 4-0 win over Small Heath at VP......but then - ELEVEN successive league defeats, AV not winning again until 8th May (May was full of backlogged fixtures that year). That sequence of defeats is, I believe, a club record.

Oh.....there was further bad news! Small Heath won the League Cup that year. WE were the beaten finalists!

It was in November 1963 when I saw a well-motivated Villa side beat a Charlton and Law Manchester United 4-0, but the match included the sending-off (then a rare event!) of Dennis Law as a result of his kicking Alan Deakin in the face after the latter had beautifully (but firmly) slide-tackled him.

Derek Dougan (from Blackburn Rovers as Hitchens' replacement in 1961) was very popular with the fans, but was a little eccentric and this caused him to be off-loaded to newly-elected Peterborough United after a couple of years. Clearly, however, he had some top-level talent as he subsequently had a first-class career with Leicester City and then Wolves in the top-flight, and was considered a dangerous opponent. Villa certainly failed to make good with this player! I do remember several of his games, and particularly one of his last for Villa (at Leicester City's ground) when Villa drew 3-3 after having led 3-1 against the then England goallie Gordon Banks, a screamer from Harry Burrows having easily beaten Banks' right-hand. Harry Burrows was another very useful player with a great shooting ability, and whose ability was such enabled Villa to sell the great Peter McParland to Wolves in 1962. However, Harry Burrows soon after went to Stoke City and became very successful with them at the time when Stanley Matthews was finishing his career with them, and they had a very useful side.

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