Well, a new campaign is about to start, Aston Villa emerging (we hope) from perhaps the bleakest period in the club’s history. During last season we actually wondered whether any of the players actually cared about the club and its long-suffering fans, but here we are, mentally refreshed and buoyed-up a tad by the arrival of a new owner and a new manager.
But the question to me is – for the time being at least – do these present-day players care enough? It made me think.
I recently took my mind back to the days following the Second World War, and though I didn’t see a match before 1950, I recall comments made by my father who was one of that huge crowd that watched a magnificent cup-tie against the first Busby Man U side in 1948 when Villa took the lead but had to come roaring back to 4-5 from being 1-5 down at half-time. Villa’s Trevor Ford then hit the crossbar. A very late Man U goal sealed the win to them at 4-6; a match that was vividly remembered by all who were there.
However, 1945 to 1955 was a pretty bleak time in some respects. Villa didn’t win a bean, and some of the players who played in WW2 friendlies and the wartime league were only just coming up to their retirement in the latter part of that decade. But though they didn’t win trophies, the players were such characters in those days that the crowd loved ’em! In those days the entertainment was often more important than winning!
Just as now, there was some frustration in those times that Villa didn’t make progress. Bought-in high-class stars decided to leave because of their disillusionment: Trevor Ford (1950), Danny Blanchflower (1954) and Tommy Thompson (1955). And those that didn’t leave (like Johnny Dixon) stayed to renew the great days. In Johnny’s case his stay was fully justified that day in 1957 when he led Villa to winning a (then) record 7th FA Cup win.
So, who were the main post-war players who shone (in character and ability) on the Villa Park turf between 1945 and 1955, yet didn’t come close to any trophy? Here’s my list for what it’s worth (in order of joining Villa):
George Cummings (1936-49). A Scottish international left-back built like a tank. Captain of Villa from 1945 to 1949. He famously got the better of wingers like Stan Matthews and Tom Finney, usually forcing them to move infield to avoid his rigorous attention. If they didn’t, their reward would sometimes be to find themselves shoulder-charged over the perimeter railings!
George Edwards (1938-51). A mesmerising winger or centre-forward who, in the last season of wartime football, was beaten to the national scoring record only by Trevor Ford (then of Swansea). Wartime badly interfered with his career; doubtless he would otherwise have been a full international. Some said that he was a great player. He had to give up football in the end due to a severe illness, but was still highly regarded as a player when in his 30s. He helped to campaign for the ousting of the Villa board in 1968.
Frank Moss jnr. (1938-56). A Brummie and a centre-half or wing-half of great reputation (Tommy Lawton was just one great striker who talked him up) who happens to have been a second cousin of mine. His father played for Villa as well and captained England. Frank jnr. had two footballing brothers: Amos (who also played for Villa), and Dennis, the best of the three (it is said), who gave up senior football as a youngster to enter business. There could have been a Villa Moss Bros. half-back line of Moss, Moss and Moss! When Frank retired he took up pig farming in Cornwall. A bit of a toughie was Frank, who was sometimes heard to shout obscenities to any colleague who wasn’t performing properly.
Harry Parkes (ca. 1942-1955). A Brummie and a fine all-round player who missed being capped for England only by injury. Eventually settled down at full-back, but is the only known Villa player to have played in every position, including once taking over as an emergency keeper. Was well known for his sports shops in Birmingham, and also very well known as the team joker! He was a Villa director for awhile in the early 1970s and vehemently opposed Doug Ellis. Parkes was believed to be leading a consortium to take over Villa in 1982, just as Doug Ellis performed a conjuring trick in share acquisition.
Johnny Dixon (1946-1961). Captain of Villa’s cup-winning team in 1957. Had the distinction of breaking his nose in the first match he played for Villa, and also in the last (in 1961) when he made a goal and scored one in a 4-1 win, at the age of 37. Close to being an England international, he had his best scoring season in 1951-52 with 26 goals. Villa skipper 1955-58 and a trainer until 1967. A tea-totaller, he played his last game for the Villa Old Stars when about 70 years-of-age!
Dickie Dorsett (1946-55). A tough all-round player with a thumping shot and Villa’s penalty taker. Opposing keepers were advised to stand out of the way! An occasional Villa skipper. On retirement he became a reserve team trainer for awhile before becoming a coach at Liverpool. Scored for Wolves in the 1939 FA Cup Final. In 1951 he came close to death when involved in a motor car accident.
Les Smith (1946-52). A smart and reliable left-winger: a wartime England international when with Brentford. He was an electrician by trade and ran a shop before restarting the Villa Old Stars’ teams in 1961 to raise money for charity. Not to be confused with another Villa winger named Les Smith who played at Wembley in 1957.
Trevor Ford (1946-50). This Welsh international centre-forward of fiery temperament was a prolific goalscorer, and left for the then great Sunderland side in order to win trophies – but didn’t achieve his ambition. A highly controversial player throughout his career.
Eddie Lowe (1946-50). A local boy who rose from Villa’s ‘nursery’ teams to become a member of the 1947 England team which annihilated Portugal 10-0. A very cultured wing-half, but once manager Alex Massie left (1949) he was considered a luxury: they said his defensive abilities were minimal. He was sold to Fulham where he regained his form and went on to play for them 511 times and where he retired from playing in 1963. He played in the company of Johnny Haynes, Jimmy Hill, Bobby Robson, Jim Langley and other Fulham stars of the 1950s when Fulham’s team was very good. It is extraordinary that Villa sold him as it was only a year later Villa paid a then large sum of money for Danny Blanchflower, whose defensive inclinations were none too strong!
Ivor Powell (1948-51). This Welsh international wing-half’s career ended through injury, but in that short time he was a force to be reckoned with. Even though a small player he could get to high balls. Captain 1949-51. A friend of Stanley Matthews, he finally retired from football coaching at the age of 93 (!) after receiving an MBE for services to football.
Con Martin (1948-56). This tall Irish international was amazing – he occasionally played for club and country as a goalkeeper even though his main position was as a defender, usually at centre-half.
Tommy Thompson (1950-55). A regular scorer and worked in close harmony with Johnny Dixon, both of whom came from the north-east. Nicknamed ‘Toucher’ on account of the style of his play. In 1955 he signed for Preston where he partnered Tom Finney in attack; together they scored 200 goals in 4 seasons. Twice played for England.
Stan Lynn (1950-1961). A full-back in the George Cummings mould, he took over from Dickie Dorsett as the player with a thumping shot and Villa’s penalty taker. The only Villa full-back to score a hat-trick (in 1958) and holds the full-back club scoring record for one season (9, 1957-58). He finished his working life in the stores at Joseph Lucas under the supervision of an old schoolmate and Villa friend of mine.
Danny Blanchflower (1951-54). Out of ambition, this fine NI international wing-half moved to Spurs in late 1954 and became their captain in winning the League and FA Cup double in 1961, the FA Cup in 1962 and then the European Cup Winners Cup in 1963. Managed Northern Ireland for a time. Always controversial in his views on football and wrote quite a bit for the press.
Peter Aldis (1951-59). A Brummie from Kings Heath who was the artist of the pair of Villa full-backs that graced Wembley’s turf in 1957, Lynn being the other full-back. Close to becoming an England international. He only ever scored one goal for Villa. It was in 1952, and he scored it with a header that still stands as Villa’s record for the furthest headed goal – 35 yards! Villa’s skipper in the 1958-59 season. As he lived fairly local to me I saw him out running in our local streets: he inspired me to start my own keep-fit routine.
There were other players that made a significant contribution during that period including the very long-serving and tricky winger Billy Goffin and another winger, Colin Gibson. Also to mention the later headteacher John Martin and pre-war international Ronnie Starling, both fine ball-playing inside-forwards whose playing careers had been interrupted by war, but who continued to provide valuable support until 1948.
With players of character such as those described above, most of whom had an unswerving love for the club, the inevitable question is just how come they didn’t win anything? But they didn’t even come close to a trophy from 1945 to 1955 and, as in recent years, they were often in relegation battles but without actually getting relegated. In two such seasons when relegation threatened its head at Christmas time, the Villa summoned great reserves of determination (and money to buy in some playing help) to recover, and each time finished sixth in the league. Such is the mystery of football!
The end of the 1953-54 season is one vivid example of Villa’s trials and tribulations in that decade. Villa experienced a tough season, but Peter McParland and several other youngsters made their mark later in the season to the extent that Cup Winners and League Runner-up West Bromwich Albion were trounced 6-1! Villa also put five past a high-placed Burnley to recover and finish in 13th place.
The year 1955 was a year of almost complete change at Villa Park. Fred Normansell, the Villa chairman, died, Billy Smith the club secretary (who had taken over from George Ramsay in 1926) had to retire through ill-health, and a whole host of very experienced players left. Danny Blanchflower had left before the preceding Christmas, Tommy Thompson moved in the summer of 1955, and long-time stalwarts Harry Parkes, Frank Moss and Dicky Dorsett all retired. Con Martin, Amos Moss and Colin Gibson would soon follow them into retirement. Villa sorely missed them, but the management had not planned a solution for this glaringly obvious exodus and relegation was only escaped by the narrowest of margins in 1955-56. The start of that season saw Villa signing Dave Hickson, the highly thought of striker from Merseyside (he played for Everton, Liverpool and Tranmere as well as Huddersfield). He clearly did not settle in the Midlands and was discharged from his duties having only scored one goal in 12 matches (and that in a pulsating 4-4 home draw with Man U).
In 1955-56 a new generation of fine players were to be seen at Villa Park, including later Welsh international, skipper and then manager Vic Crowe and Ireland international Pat Saward, but some of them were emergency buys to keep relegation at bay: keeper Nigel Sims, centre-half Jimmy Dugdale, former record sale Jackie Sewell and winger (the new) Les Smith arrived. Also, by that time Peter McParland had made himself a feared entity on Villa’s left-wing after trials as an inside-forward. Peter actually joined Villa as a left-half! It so happens that a winger named Norman Lockhart appeared at Villa about this time, and for a season was competing with Peter McParland for the left-wing slot in the Northern Ireland team. A young Ron Atkinson was on Villa’s books but did not make the first team: he went on to star for Oxford United. Young centre-forward Derek ‘Doc’ Pace was another for whom there were hopes, but he was sold to pave the way for Gerry Hitchens in 1958 and subsequently gave Villa continual reminders of his scoring ability whenever he returned to Villa Park in an opposition shirt.
Villa was plagued with the loss of several very promising players in the early/mid 1950s: the interestingly-named young Herefordshire centre-forward Miller Craddock was thought of as a replacement for Trevor Ford and a future ‘great’, but was soon diagnosed with heart disease. He had to retire from football and died, still at a young age, in 1960. Injuries ended the hopes of the fine young forwards K. O. Roberts and Ken Roberts, and (later in the 50s) the young and brilliant Brummie keeper Arthur Sabin actually died of a disease shortly after making two highly-acclaimed first-team appearances. Bill Baxter, a useful wing-half, also had to retire through injury but continued for some years as a trainer.
So, that was the 1945 to 1955 era in a nutshell. A period in which the trophy cupboard remained bare, but was nevertheless a time of great enjoyment watching players who played as though the club’s motto was stamped on their hearts and at times seeming to indicate that great days were just around the corner. And in 1957 we briefly thought that time had finally come.
The players loved playing for the Villa, and loved the old tradition of the club. But the training sessions were a laughing stock until former player Eric Houghton arrived as manager in 1953 and not long after brought in Bill Moore to provide discipline and method in training. This fine trainer was treated abysmally by the Villa board after the 1957 Cup win, and he soon left the club to manage Walsall, much to Houghton’s chagrin. Houghton himself was sacked only 18 months after that Cup win but he left a fine legacy of young players that had been fostered by the great coach Jimmy Hogan, another Houghton appointee. Houghton eventually returned as a member of the Villa board in the 1970s and remained involved with the club as an ambassador for nearly the rest of his life. His death was the last tangible link with pre-war Aston Villa and, as a winger, he was the last player to have been coached on the field of play by his inside-forward partner, Billy Walker.
The great days, however, didn’t really return until nearly 20 years after the FA Cup success. In fact, to add salt to the wound, my father (who had seen the Villa greats of the early 1930s, like Billy Walker, Pongo Waring and Jimmy Gibson) made his last visit to Villa Park in 1962 to see Villa beat Liverpool and to witness a fine youngster by the name of George Graham, who scored in that match. George was soon after sold by Villa to Chelsea for a pittance and immediately proceeded to make a big name for himself. He later became a bigger name with Arsenal and then Man U. Meanwhile, despite a remarkably high-scoring end to the 1961-62 season and then the arrival of Tony Hateley, Villa sank to new low levels before their phoenix revival started. And that is but another great story in this club’s history told remarkably well in the book “Children of the Revolution” by the Times journalist, Richard Whitehead.
Do the present players care? Well, probably not as much; and of course many now have the lure of the kind of money that 60 and 70 years ago – and even 30 years ago – footballers could only dream about. The priorities of players and the way football is conducted have profoundly changed.