In 1874 a group of young members of the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel Cricket Team established the Aston Villa Football Club. Two years later, the 21 year-old George Ramsay, who had played the game in Scotland, saw a Villa practice session while out walking in Aston Park. Ramsay joined in the game and his excellent football skills resulting in him being invited to join the team. It was clear that Ramsay knew much more about football than the rest of the players and was appointed as their new captain. Ramsay later commented that the team's approach to football at the time was "a dash at the man and a big kick of the ball."
In 1876 George Ramsay persuaded Archie Hunter to join Aston Villa. Hunter, who had played football for Third Lanark, was a very talented centre-forward. Ramsay and Hunter introduced what was known as the "passing game". This was the main style used in Scotland whereas in England most teams relied on what was known as the "dribbling game".
Archie Hunter later described the important role that Ramsay played in the development of Aston Villa: Mr. Ramsay was practically the founder of the Aston Villa Football Club. He had had good tuition in the game while in Scotland and as a member of the Oxford Club he had gained plenty of experience and taken part in several first-class matches. Mr. Ramsay was a capital all-round player and could take any position and give a good account of himself."
As Graham McColl pointed out in his book, Aston Villa: 1874-1998: "The influence of Ramsay, then Hunter, led Villa to develop an intricate passing game, a revolutionary move for an English club in the late 1870s. It was a style of play modelled on that which was prevalent in Scotland at the time which was prevalent in Scotland at the time and which had been pioneered by Queen's Park, the Glasgow side. This type of sophisticated teamwork had rarely been employed in England. Instead, individuals would try to take the ball as far as they could on their own until stopped by an opponent."
Another Scotsman, William McGregor, joined Aston Villa in 1877. Although he was only a moderate footballer he was a great organizer. With his encouragement, Aston Villa entered the Football Association Challenge Cup in the 1879-80 season. Aston Villa won the first round tie against Stafford Road Works 3-1 but withdrew from the next round game against Oxford University.
In August 1879 Eli Davis joined Aston Villa. He quickly developed a fine partnership with Archie Hunter. As Hunter pointed out in his book, Triumphs of the Football Field: "Another special favourite with the spectators was Eli Davis, who worked the left wing and was noted for the really wonderful way in which he screwed the ball from the corner with his left foot. As everybody knows, a forward is not much good unless he can take the ball up and centre it in goal, and in doing this Eli excelled. He was a very brilliant and a very sure player."
In the 1880-81 season Aston Villa won 21 of their 25 games. They also won the Staffordshire Cup that year. George Ramsay was in outstanding form. William McGregor later recalled: "I can see now the little dapper, well-built laddie, with a black-and-red striped cap, red-and-blue hooped jersey, and the same coloured stockings, getting hold of the ball on the extreme wing, well within his own territory, and going off like streaked lightning, wiggling, waggling past opponents one after another and finally landing the ball between the sticks."
On 18th February, 1882, Howard Vaughton and Arthur Brown became the first two Aston Villa players to play for their country. Also in the team that day was Doc Greenwood and Fred Hargreaves, who both played for Blackburn Rovers. England beat Ireland 13-0. Vaughton (5) and Brown (4) scored 9 of the 13 goals.
Unfortunately, a serious injury forced George Ramsay to retire from first-class football in June, 1882. Archie Hunter replaced Ramsay as captain of the club. Ramsay now became club secretary. Under the guidance of Hunter, Ramsay and William McGregor, the club reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in 1883 and 1884.
In 1884 the great Scottish team, Queen's Park, was invited to Birmingham to play a friendly game against Aston Villa. Archie Hunter later recalled "no sooner had we begun to take up our positions (for the match) than pigeons could be seen flying from all parts bearing away the news that the battle had begun." Aston Villa won 2-1 and Hunter commented that "I was followed home by a multitude roaring as if I had won the Battle of Waterloo".
In January, 1884, Preston North End played the London side, Upton Park, in the FA Cup. After the game Upton Park complained to the Football Association that Preston was a professional, rather than an amateur team. Sudell admitted that his players were being paid but argued that this was common practice and did not breach regulations. However, the FA disagreed and expelled them from the competition. Major William Sudell, the secretary/manager of Preston North End admitted that he had improved the quality of the team by importing top players from other areas. This included several players from Scotland. As well as paying them money for playing for the team, Sudell also found them highly paid work in Preston.
Preston North End now joined forces with other clubs who were paying their players, such as Aston Villa and Sunderland. In October, 1884, these clubs threatened to form a break-away British Football Association. The Football Association responded by establishing a sub-committee, which included William Sudell, to look into this issue. On 20th July, 1885, the FA announced that it was "in the interests of Association Football, to legalise the employment of professional football players, but only under certain restrictions". Clubs were allowed to pay players provided that they had either been born or had lived for two years within a six-mile radius of the ground.
Aston Villa did very well in the 1886-87 season. They lost very few games and scored over 130 goals in the process. Stars of the team included Archie Hunter, Richmond Davis, Albert Brown, Arthur Brown, Dennis Hodgetts and Howard Vaughton. Aston Villa also had a good run in the 1886-87 FA Cup. They beat Wolverhampton Wanderers (2-0), Horncastle (5-0), Darwen (3-2) and Glasgow Rangers (3-1) to reach the final for the first time. Their local rivals, West Bromwich Albion, also reached the final.
The final was to be played at the Kennington Oval. The experienced Archie Hunter believed that this ground would be to the advantage of Aston Villa: "Our style of play is suited to a big ground, and the Albion with their long passing have the advantage on a small field. On the Oval we both shall have an equal chance, and where things are equal the short passing game is always the best. These are my reasons for thinking we will win on Saturday."
West Bromwich Albion was the better team in the first-half. However, in the second-half Aston Villa took control and it was no surprise when Richmond Davis, the team's outside-right, crossed for Dennis Hodgetts to sidefoot the ball in the net. WBA players claimed that Hodgetts was offside but the referee, Francis Marindin, who was also president of the Football Association, refused to change his mind.
In the 89th minute Archie Hunter raced through the West Bromwich Albion defence. He appeared to have pushed the ball too far ahead of him and the WBA goalkeeper, Bob Roberts, dashed forward but Hunter, stretching to the full, managed to get one final touch on the ball. As Hunter and Roberts collided the ball trickled over the line. Hunter was the first player to score in every round of the FA Cup competition.
The decision to pay players increased club's wage bills. It was therefore necessary to arrange more matches that could be played in front of large crowds. On 2nd March, 1888, William McGregor circulated a letter to Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, and West Bromwich Albion suggesting that "ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home and away fixtures each season."
J. J. Bentley of Bolton Wanderers and Tom Mitchell of Blackburn Rovers responded very positively to the suggestion. They suggested that other clubs should be invited to the meeting being held on 23rd March, 1888. This included Accrington, Burnley, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Old Carthusians, and Everton should be invited to the meeting.
The following month the Football League was formed. It consisted of six clubs from Lancashire (Preston North End, Accrington, Blackburn Rovers, Burnley, Bolton Wanderers and Everton) and six from the Midlands (Aston Villa, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers). The main reason Sunderland was excluded was because the other clubs in the league objected to the costs of travelling to the North-East. McGregor also wanted to restrict the league to twelve clubs. Therefore, the applications of Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, Darwen and Bootle were rejected.
The first season of the Football League began in September, 1888. Preston North End won the first championship that year without losing a single match and acquired the name the "Invincibles". Eighteen wins and four draws gave them a 11 point lead at the top of the table. Aston Villa finished in second place with 29 points.
Aston Villa finished in 8th place in the 1889-90 season. Dennis Hodgetts was top scorer with 8 goals in 19 games. He also got three goals in only two games in the FA Cup that year. As Tony Matthews points out in his book, Who's Who of Aston Villa: "Hodgetts was a born footballer, very powerful, who could also play both inside and outside left, but preferring the latter. With his immaculately waxed moustache and parted hair, he was a star performer, adored by the fans. Strong, decisive, clever with many original ideas, he could use both feet, was difficult to dispossess and could unleash a terrific shot."
On 4th January, 1890, Archie Hunter collapsed of a heart attack while playing for Aston Villa against Everton. He accepted medical advice and retired from football. Hunter had scored 42 goals in 73 first-class games, 33 of which came in the FA Cup. Hunter died of heart failure four years later at the age of 35.
In their book, The Essential Aston Villa, Adam Ward and Jeremy Griffin pointed out: "Archie Hunter was a Victorian sporting celebrity. He was Aston Villa's first truly great footballer and was the idol of the Perry Barr supporters for more than a decade. Archie was a forward who played the game with a rare blend of power and skill, and his strength was a particularly useful quality at a time when barging and kicking were often considered legitimate defensive tactics."
Aston Villa finished in 9th place in the 1890-91 season. New signing, Charlie Athersmith, scored a hat-trick on his debut against local rivals, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Albert Brown was top scorer with 11 goals in 16 games.
In the 1891-92 season Aston Villa finished in 4th place to Sunderland. Villa's new striker, John Devey, had a great season ending up as top scorer with 29 goals in 25 games. Charlie Athersmith with 10 goals in 26 games was second in the list of top Villa scorers that season. According to Adam Ward and Jeremy Griffin, the authors of The Essential Aston Villa: "Charlie Athersmith is arguably the fastest player ever to have played for Aston Villa. His speed was legendary, and the Bloxwich-born winner formed a formidable right-flank partnership with John Devey."
Aston Villa also had a good run in the FA Cup beating Heanor Town (4-1), Darwen (2-0), Wolverhampton Wanderers (3-1) and Sunderland (4-1) to reach the final against West Bromwich Albion. In his book, Association Football in Victorian England, Philip Gibbons argues that: "Villa dominated the early proceedings, with Athersmith and John Devey exerting pressure on the Albion fullbacks. However, the West Bromwich side soon responded as Billy Bassett passed to Roddy McLeod, who crossed the ball to the waiting Geddes. He shot towards the Villa goal and Warner failed to collect the ball clearly. It rolled between the Villa goalposts to secure a surprising one-goal lead for the Albion team."
Billy Bassett was also involved in WBA's second goal. He won the ball on the halfway line and after running at the Aston Villa defence he passed to Alf Geddes. His shot was saved but the goalkeeper could not hold onto the ball and Sammy Nicholls had the simple task of scoring from the rebound. Jack Reynolds scored the third with a shot from 25-yards.
Aston Villa finished in 4th place in the 1892-93 season. Once again John Devey was the top scorer with 19 goals in 30 matches. As Tony Matthews points out in his book, Who's Who of Aston Villa: "He (Devey) could play in any forward position and there is no doubt that he was one of the finest goalscorers in the country in the 1890s... He never lacked initiative, but was a strong believer in combination, bringing in his fellow forwards and half-backs into the game as often as possible. He was exceptionally clever with his head as he was with both feet and often scored goals from distance when he caught the opposing goalkeeper off guard."
In 1893 Aston Villa signed Jack Reynolds and Willie Groves from West Bromwich Albion. WBA was furious about what they considered to be the poaching of two of their best players. WBA appealed to the Football Association and Villa was eventually fined £25 for approaching Reynolds and Groves without the consent of WBA. They were also forced to pay £100 for the transfer of Groves and £50 for Reynolds. Tony Matthews described Reynolds in his book, Who's Who of Aston Villa as "a marvellously competitive player, Reynolds mastered every trick in the book and, aided by some remarkable ball skills, his footwork was, at times, exceptionally brilliant."
Aston Villa won the First Division of the Football League championship in the 1893-94 season. The club scored 84 goals in 30 games. The main contributors included John Devey (20), Dennis Hodgetts (12) and Charlie Athersmith (10). Defenders, James Cowan (centre-half), Jack Reynolds (right-half) and Willie Groves (left-half) were also key members of the team.
In the 1894-95 season Aston Villa finished in 3rd place in the First Division of the Football League. The club scored 82 goals in 30 games. Top scorers were John Devey (19) Stephen Smith (13), Dennis Hodgetts (11), Robert Chatt (10) and Charlie Athersmith (9).
Aston Villa had victories over Derby County (2-1), Newcastle United (7-1), Nottingham Forest (6-2), Sunderland (2-1) to reach the 1895 FA Cup Final against West Bromwich Albion. The Villa outside-left, Robert Chatt, scored the only goal of the game after 39 seconds.
In August 1895, Jimmy Crabtree was transferred to Aston Villa for a fee of £250. It has been claimed that this was the first-time that money had changed hands between football clubs for a professional player. However, this is untrue, two years earlier, Jack Southworth was transferred from Blackburn Rovers to Everton for £400.
Tony Matthews described Jimmy Crabtree in his book, Who's Who of Aston Villa as: "A hard tackler, clever at close quarters and equally reliable in open play, he was cool, resourceful and brainy. He excelled in the finer points of the game and was one of the most versatile players in the country, being unrivalled in the left-half position for many years."
In December, 1895, James Cowan missed five league games when he went into training for the Powderhall Sprint. He earned £80 in prize money when he won the race. However, he was fined four weeks' wages and suspended by the Aston Villa committee.
Aston Villa won the First Division title in 1895-96. For the first time since he joined the club, John Devey was not top scorer. He only scored 16 goals, whereas Johnny Campbell, who had been signed from Celtic, managed to net 26. Other members of these outstanding team included Dennis Hodgetts, Charlie Athersmith, James Cowan, John Cowan, Jack Reynolds, Jimmy Crabtree, Howard Spencer and Stephen Smith.
As Philip Gibbons pointed out in Association Football in Victorian England: "Aston Villa had twice won the League Championship, as well as the FA Cup, during the three previous seasons, with a team generally acknowledged as the finest in the land."
In June 1896, George Wheldon was transferred to Aston Villa for the record fee of £350. He was a great success and was instrumental in helping Aston Villa winning the First Division title in 1896-97. Second-place Sheffield United finished an amazing 11 points behind Villa. The club scored 73 goals in the league that season. The main contributors included George Wheldon (18), John Devey (17), Johnny Campbell (13), Charlie Athersmith (8), John Cowan (7) Stephen Smith (3) and Jack Reynolds (2).
On 30th January, 1897, Aston Villa beat Newcastle United 5-0 in the third round of the FA Cup. Aston Villa went onto beat Notts County (2-0), Preston North End (3-2) and Liverpool (3-0) to reach the final against Everton. A crowd of 60,000 arrived at Crystal Palace to watch the final. Charlie Athersmith scored the opening goal but Everton hit back with goals from Jack Bell and Richard Boyle. Aston Villa continued to dominate the game and added two more from George Wheldon and Jimmy Crabtree. That finished the scoring and therefore Aston Villa had emulated the great Preston North End side that had achieved the FA Cup and Football League double in 1888-89 season.
Before the beginning of the 1897-98 season, Aston Villa lost the services of Johnny Campbell and Jack Reynolds, who both decided to join Celtic in the Scottish League. During the opening month of the campaign, Howard Spencer sustained a serious leg injury that kept him out of the team for the rest of the season. Aston Villa missed these three key players and could only finish in 6th place in the league. They was also knocked out of the FA in the first round by Derby County.
Aston Villa was back in form the following year. Two new players emerged that season: George Johnson (9 goals in 24 games) and Billy Garraty (6 goals in 9 games). However, it was John Devey who was the star of the side scoring 21 goals in 30 games. George Wheldon also did well with 16 in 33. Villa once again won the league title, with Liverpool taking the runners-up spot.
In May 1899 Aston Villa paid a fee of £250 for Bobby Templeton. Tony Matthews argues in his book, Who's Who of Aston Villa, that Templeton was "a tremendously gifted player... who was tall and thin, selfish but brilliant."
Aston Villa confirmed it was the best club in England during the 1890s when it won the First Division championship in the 1899-1900 season. This was their fifth league title in seven years. During this period they had also won the FA Cup twice (1895 and 1897). Billy Garraty had a great season and was the top scorer in league games in the 1899-1900 season with 27 goals in 33 games. In fact, he was the top scorer in the whole country. Aston Villa's other forwards also did well that season: John Devey (13), George Wheldon (11), Stephen Smith (7), George Johnson (5), Bobby Templeton (4) and Charlie Athersmith (4).
On the 5th April 1902 Bobby Templeton won his first international cap for Scotland against England. It was during this game that the newly built West Tribune Stand collapsed. Supporters fell up to 40 feet (12 m) to the ground below. 25 people died and 517 were injured. Afterwards it was claimed that Templeton was partly responsible for this disaster as had the ball on the wing at the time and the vast crowd swayed to see his dribbling skills.
On the final day of the 1904-05 season, Manchester City needed to beat Aston Villa to win the First Division championship. Sandy Turnbull gave Alex Leake, the Villa captain, a torrid time during the game. Leake threw some mud at him and he responded with a two-fingered gesture. Leake then punched Turnbull. According to some journalists, at the end of the game, Turnbull was dragged into the Villa dressing-room and beaten-up.
Aston Villa won the game 3-1 and Manchester City finished third, two points behind Newcastle United. After the game Alex Leake claimed that Billy Meredith had offered him £10 to throw the game. Meredith was found guilty of this offence by the Football Association and was fined and suspended from playing football for a year.
Aston Villa finished 4th that season. Top scorers were Harry Hampton (15), Joe Bache (12) and Billy Garraty (8). That season Villa reached the FA Cup Final. Over 100,000 people watched Villa beat Newcastle United 2-0. Both goals were scored by Hampton.
Harry Hampton continued to be a regular goalscorer for Aston Villa: 1905-06 (20), 1906-07 (21) and 1907-08 (19). Hampton formed a great partnership with Joe Bache who also scored a lot of goals for Aston Villa during this period. They reached their peak in the 1909-10 season when Aston Villa won the First Division title. That season Hampton scored 29 goals in 35 games, whereas Bache managed 22 in 35.
In the 1907-8 season Aston Villa finished as runners-up to Manchester United. The team included Alex Leake, George Tranter, Harry Hampton, Howard Spencer and Joe Bache. Hampton was again the top scorer with 21 goals in 35 games. Tony Matthews described Hampton in his book, Who's Who of Aston Villa as: "Afraid of no one, his strong, forceful, determined and appreciated by plenty. The idol of the Villa Park faithful, Hampton was robust in the extreme. He often barged the goalkeeper... and the ball (if he had it in his possession) into the back of the net, sometimes taking a co-defender along for good measure with one almighty shoulder-charge." It is recorded that on one occasion Hampton was able to barge the 22 stone William Foulke over the line.
In their book, The Essential Aston Villa, Adam Ward and Jeremy Griffin pointed out: "In an age when burly centre forwards ruled the football fields of Britain and goalkeepers lived in fear of the lawful shoulder charge, Harry Hampton was the most deadly marksman in the Football League.... He was an aggressive, whole-hearted competitor who, though often unpopular with opposing fans, was adored by the Villa faithful."
In 1909-10 Aston Villa won the First Division title for the sixth time in their history. The club scored 84 league goals that season. Harry Hampton (26) and Joe Bache (20) were the club's top marksmen that year.
Aston Villa signed the England goalkeeper, Sam Hardy for £600 in May 1912. Jesse Pennington, the England full-back, claimed that Hardy was "one of the greatest goalkeepers I ever saw play." Charlie Buchan went further: "Hardy, I consider the finest goalkeeper I played against. By uncanny anticipation and wonderful positional sense he seemed to act like a magnet to the ball. I never saw him dive full length to make a save. He advanced a yard or two and so narrowed the shooting angle that forwards usually sent the ball straight at him."
Andy Ducat was signed from Woolwich Arsenal for £1,000 in June 1912 but three months later he broke his leg in a game against Manchester City. Tony Matthews argued in his book Who's Who of Aston Villa that: "An outstanding wing-half of the unflurried, academic type and a great sportsman, he was rarely spoken to by the referee, never booked or sent off and played the game with passion and total commitment." He eventually went on to captain the side.
In the 1912-13 season Aston Villa finished as runners-up to Sunderland. The club scored 86 goals with the main contributors being Harry Hampton (25), Harold Halse (21), Clem Stephenson (14) and Joe Bache (10).
Aston Villa beat Derby County (3-1), West Ham United (5-0), Crystal Palace (5-0), Bradford City (5-0), Oldham (1-1) to reach the FA Cup Final against Sunderland in 1913. Over 120,000 saw Aston Villa win the game 1-0.
Frank Barson joined Aston Villa for a record fee of £2,850 in October 1919. Barson was a great success at his new club. In their book, The Essential Aston Villa, Adam Ward and Jeremy Griffin argue that: "When Frank Barson arrived at Villa Park in the winter of 1919 he provided much-needed backbone to a team that was floundering hopelessly at the foot of Division One. Barson was a 1920s Stuart Pearce - feared for his biting tackles and competitive spirit, but admired for his ability on the ball." Barson developed a reputation for dirty play and was often booed and bated by opposing supporters.
In the 1919-20 season Aston Villa enjoyed a successful run in the FA Cup beating QPR (2-1), Manchester United (2-1), Sunderland (1-0), Tottenham Hotspur (1-0) and Chelsea (3-1). The club played Huddersfield Town in the final at Stamford Bridge. The referee, Jack Howcraft, entered the Villa dressing-room before the game and warned Frank Barson that he would be sent off for any indiscretion. According to the authors of The Essential Aston Villa, "the normally unflappable Barson was taken aback and his performance was uncharacteristically cautious for much of the game." Billy Kirton got the only goal of the game and Villa won the cup for the sixth time in its history.
While I was in Scotland I had become acquainted with the Calthorpe Football Club, which used to come up and play the second team of Queen's Park. There were some very fair players in the Calthorpe and I made up my mind, on arriving in Birmingham, to join them. But one of my fellow-workmen, George Uzzell, mentioned Aston Villa to me as a club that had come rapidly to the fore and asked me to become a member of it. I hesitated for some time, but at last my friend told me that a "brother Scot," Mr. George Ramsay, was the Villa captain and that decided me. Mr. Ramsay was a Glasgow man and had exerted himself very considerably to bring the Villa team into the front rank. He was himself a good right-wing forward and was well supported by W. B. Mason. So to Mr. Ramsay I went and we at once became good friends and remain so to this day.
Mr. Ramsay was a capital all-round player and could take any position and give a good account of himself. Coming to Birmingham he found football here in a very backward state. The four principal clubs were St. Mary's, Aston Unity, Calthorpe and the Birmingham. One day Mr. Ramsay saw a few lads playing together in the big public park facing Park Road, Aston and he watched them with some amount of curiosity and amusement. They were connected with the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel and only had the most primitive ideas of the game. Mr. Ramsay describes their play as "a dash at the man and a big kick at the ball;" they were entirely ignorant of dribbling and were evidently in the most rudimentary stage of knowledge - quite "juvenile," as Mr. Ramsay said.
Well, when he had watched the lads some time he spoke to a bystander and suggested that they two should join in the game. Then he called to one of the players, William Weiss by name and proposed that he should be allowed to play on one side and his chance acquaintance on the other. When his broad Scotch had, after much trouble, been understood, the proposal was agreed to and Mr. Ramsay began to play. He soon showed that science was superior to all their big kicks and easily dribbled the ball past the men who had never seen a display of the kind before. They were amazed when they saw how he played and when all was over they surrounded the player, who had footed the ball.
The same year that Beecroft became president of Aston Villa FC, a 31year-old Scotsman who was to change the whole course of football history became a member of the committee. William McGregor had left his native Perthshire in 1870 to take advantage of the business opportunities that Birmingham presented. He bought a linen draper's shop on the corner of Brearley Street and Summer Lane (in Aston) where he was to remain in business for the rest of his life. McGregor had got to know fellow Scot George Ramsay and the two men had become firm friends. Ramsay managed to persuade McGregor to become involved with Aston Villa. It proved to be an astute move because McGregor was a visionary and energetic leader and he helped make Villa the most successful and prestigious club in the country. Even today there is a visible reminder of his influence: it was at his suggestion that the Scottish national symbol of a lion rampant was adopted as the club's badge. But his name in football will forever be associated with something even greater than the famous club itself. He was the creator of the Football League.
McGregor was a committed Christian widely respected for his honesty and integrity. The Reverend W. G. Percival, a pastor at the Congregational church in Wheeler Street, Aston, where McGregor worshipped for over 40 years, said at his funeral service that the best thing about him "was not so much the genial, kindly, honest sports man, but it was the Christian behind it all". He described him as "a man of absolutely unblemished personal character". Charles Crump, president of the Birmingham County Football Association, stated in the local press that he `stood for all that was best and cleanest in the great game of football: People found it impossible to dislike him even if they disagreed with him, and it was said of him that he never made an enemy and never lost a friend.
It did not take long for McGregor to make his presence felt at Aston Villa. One particular problem that faced the committee was the players' drinking habits. Many of them were regularly giving training a miss, preferring to spend their time in local pubs, and some even turned up drunk for matches. Something had to be done. Determined to instill new habits in the players, McGregor, a lifelong teetotaller, decided to rent a room at a coffee house in Aston High Street and to compel them to attend social gatherings and musical events each Monday during the season. It might be more than just a coincidence that Villa enjoyed considerable success not long afterwards.
McGregor and Ramsay were a formidable partnership. Within three years of McGregor's arrival they had established the club as a force to be reckoned with in local football. A 22-0 win against Small Heath (the forerunners of Birmingham City) gives some indication of their strength at the time. The recruitment in 1878 of 19-year-old Archie Hunter, another Scot who had come to Birmingham in search of work, was a particularly inspired move. Hunter, whose impressive playing style and sense of sportsmanship made him a favourite with the fans, was considered to be the best centre-forward of his day and he was one of football's first superstars. His influence in the side was considerable and when Ramsay retired from playing in 1880 through injury, Hunter took over the captaincy.
The influence of Ramsay, then Hunter, led Villa to develop an intricate passing game, a revolutionary move for an English club in the late 1870s. It was a style of play modelled on that which was prevalent in Scotland at the time which was prevalent in Scotland at the time and which had been pioneered by Queen's Park, the Glasgow side. This type of sophisticated teamwork had rarely been employed in England. Instead, individuals would try to take the ball as far as they could on their own until stopped by an opponent.
Howard Vaughton... the peoples favourite, and one of Archie Hunter's pet pupils. An adept at every form of indoor and outdoor sport, he dribbled like an angel, and shot like a demon. Not nearly so deadly as his comrade, Whateley, he scored his share of goals. Whatever he did he did well, and was neatness personified. Could scarcely be played in wrong position, and was saturated through and through with the Aston Villa spirit. Scored the only goal in the famous cup tie against Queen Park in Glasgow, in 1884. Made a famous wing in company with Eli Davis. A keen judge of most games, a thorough sportsman, he has enriched sport in many directions.
We lost the toss and had to play uphill with a stiff wind against us. I kicked off and we invaded the Queen's Park territory. A corner kick fell to the visitors, but Riddell cleared; a long kick by Miller, however, kept the ball hovering in our quarters. Some fine passing by Whateley and the two Browns made affairs look perilous for the Scotchmen, but McDougall got the ball back and a shot from another player sent the ball into Harvey's hands. He returned the ball into play and Albert Brown went away with a rush, but Harvey in brilliant style tackled him and the ball went out. Simmonds next had some hard work to do and saved some hard shots. Two corners fell to the visitors and the second one made the prospect look dark for us; but Harvey was equal to the occasion and punched the leather out of goal admirably. Whateley took the ball up field and passed to me, but McDougall was waiting and we were again repulsed. A few minutes later a splendid exhibition of passing by Albert Brown, Vaughton and Whateley carried the ball into the enemy's quarters and roused intense enthusiasm. The younger Brown then sent the ball flying into McCullum's hands, but the latter saved his goal and some scientific play which followed drew forth the acclamations of the crowd. Christie next put us on our defence and after some hot shots the visitors gained another corner kick. This was placed right in the mouth of our goal, but Freddy Dawson came to the rescue and the now baffled 'Spiders' came down on us with renewed vigour and attempted to score. A scrimmage ensued and out of this Anderson put the leather through, scoring the first goal, five minutes before half-time.
The spectators greeted the success of the visitors with a loud round of applause as the excitement now reached fever heat. No further score was effected when ends were changed and having the wind in our favour we now played a more aggressive game than before. We were urged on by the shouts of our supporters, who expected us to make a bold bid for success. Davis and Vaughton took the ball down the field and a long and continuous attack on the Queen's Park timbers resulted. Obtaining possession on the right wing I put the ball into McCullum's hands and from his return the ball struck Arthur Brown's knee and rebounded through goal, the score thus being equalised.
The applause was uproarious and hats and sticks were thrown into the air by the enthusiastic crowd. Our hearts beat wildly when the ball was started again. Christie put in a magnificent run and centred which evoked cheers, but Riddell repulsed him. Nevertheless we were severely pressed, for the Queen's Park men were making strenuous exertions to score the winning point. Harvey was kept busy and did his work manfully and the critical nature of the game affected the onlookers considerably. Putting on an extra spurt we took the ball into the opposition territory and were several times within an ace of scoring. Darkness, however, was coming on rapidly and each side played a desperate game. Misjudged kicks were not uncommon, for it was hard to keep cool. At last we secured a corner, the first we had had that day and though it was unproductive, we kept the ball in the opposition territory. A final shot of mine caused the ball to strike the post and it rebounded into play. Vaughton kicked over in self-defence; Eli Davis took the corner grandly and a rush on our part resulted in the ball going through off Albert Brown. This was the winning point.
Only a few minutes remained and then Major Marindin sounded the whistle and the Villa had won at last - won by two goals to one. I cannot attempt to describe the scene that followed, the vociferous cheers that greeted us cannot be described in words. The people rushed over the field shouting as long as they had voices left; they shook us by the hand until our joints were in danger; they patted us on the backs until we were sore. I doubt whether many people went home that day with the same hats they brought out and lost property in the shape of walking-sticks and umbrellas would have made a good stock for a second-hand dealer. At night people went about singing a ballad, with a refrain, "The Villa have licked Oueen's Park" and I was followed home by a multitude roaring as if I had won the battle of Waterloo.
There was one old gentleman who was in the habit of rushing forward at the end of a game and holding my hand in a tight grip until I had walked off the field. Nothing could induce him to loose it. Then there were those who thought that the highest compliment they could pay us was to deliver thumps upon the back and their aim was not always true, but fell upon the neck or head, or anywhere. I have been carried shoulder-high, too, but how that came about belongs to another occasion.
The history of the 1886-7 season is the history of much hard work, some exciting struggles and many victories. Our record I have already given you and you will have observed that we only lost four matches out of the fifty-six played, only one of those four was of any importance. The West Bromwich Albion knocked us out in the first round of the Birmingham Cup Tie and that, of course, was a reverse which we felt; but the remaining three defeats were not in connection with events of much consideration. Our teams this year had undergone some changes and it was just at this time that the professional element was being introduced. Some of the old members, myself among the number, who had been playing as amateurs, had a great reluctance to be paid for our services. Our diffidence may or may not have been reasonable, but it was sincere. When we finally ceased to be amateurs I may say that we left it entirely with the committee to arrange terms; and I never have much sympathy with players who put pecuniary conditions first and think of the sport afterwards. But professionalism is so strong and competition for good players so great that a "pro" may ask for a good round sum as a retaining fee in addition to a high salary and stand every chance of obtaining both.
A good member of our team whom we missed this season was Eli Davis, who had taken part in so many of our encounters and shared with us all our varying experiences. We had some difficulty at first in getting a successor to him. Our attention had been directed to a very promising young player named Loach, who had distinguished himself while a member of the West Bromwich Albion. He was considered one of their best forwards and was induced to join the Villa. In the first two matches in which he took part he played well and we had great hopes of' him, but afterwards he sprained his knee and fell off and had ultimately to be replaced. One of our new members, who is still playing well, was Freddy Dawson, a capital centre half-back. One or two more new names will be introduced as we get further into the season.
I may also mention that this year the leopards changed their spots - or rather, the Villa changed their colours, which is, perhaps, a simpler matter. In November we decided to put aside the piebald uniform, which was inartistic and never popular and we donned in its place the light blue and cardinal vertically-striped jerseys which afterwards became so well known. There was another advantage in the change of colours. The old uniform was associated with some notable reverses and we were determined, if possible, in this season to turn over a new leaf and alter everything for the better.
We travelled from Nottingham to Birmingham and obtained the necessary apparel for training and went on the same night to Droitwich. Outside the station a brake was waiting for us and on a pitch dark night a dozen of us rode through the quiet country lanes to a little unfrequented place on the river Severn called Holt Fleet.
Here we arrived at midnight and being tired with the day's exertions and drowsy with the ride, we tumbled off to bed. The hotel accommodation in those days at Holt Fleet was of a limited character and the host was not accustomed to such large parties asking for accommodation. He was not prepared for us and the first night we had to rough it. Six of us slept in a top attic in which three beds had been placed. I say we slept, but this is not quite correct. We were put there to sleep, but the pestilence that stalks by night was opposed to us.
All this, of course, was remedied later on by the obliging host, who did his utmost to make us comfortable. But you will wonder why we chose this place for our purpose. It was not our discovery, but was recommended to us by W. G. George, the champion mile-runner. It was his custom to walk, when training, from Bromsgrove to Droitwich and Holt Fleet lies between these two places. The district is very favourable for athletes. There is a fine stretch of open country and there is the river, which affords every facility for boating and swimming. Then the walks all around are delightful and the brine baths at Droitwich are, of course, very convenient.
Since we were there other football teams have experienced its advantages, the Wolverhampton Wanderers in particular. Well, here we stayed for a week with our trainer, Billy Gorman. He was a famous sprint runner and had won a special handicap; and when he ceased to take part in public contests himself he devoted himself to training athletes and a capital fellow he was.
We got up each morning at eight o'clock prompt and breakfasted. Afterwards we strolled about as we pleased for an hour or so. Then we put our uniform on and by permission, which was kindly granted by Lord Dudley's overseer, we were allowed the use of the ground behind the hotel for sprint running and long distance running. It was curious to observe the difference which practice speedily made in some or our physical abilities. There was Dennis Hodgetts, for example, who was called our slow man. Up to this time he was indeed lacking in that desirable quality of fastness which is so serviceable on the field. But after this training he wonderfully developed into one of the speediest of the set and was only excelled by Richard Davis (late of the Walsall Swifts) who had the reputation of being the fastest player for short distances. All the others were very quick: Albert Brown, Joey Simmonds, Jack Burton, Freddy Dawson, Howard Vaughton, Harry Yates and Albert Allen, but the sprint running improved their form tremendously.
As for me, I went in for long distance running, with Warner our goalkeeper, who had no particular need to go in for this training and Coulton, for my companions. Albert Allen, I should here explain, was our reserve man who was in readiness to take Dawson's place if necessary, for Freddy had seriously hurt his knee and we were very uncertain whether he would be able to play. However, when the right time came the question was put to all the team and they decided that he was fit, so Allen was not needed after all.
Well, so the morning went. Sometimes the team walked along the delightful lanes for eight or ten miles, in charge of one or two of the members of the committee and myself and then we returned to dinner.
After dinner we were allowed to lounge about again and then the team were called together for football practice, a gentleman on another side of the river having placed at our disposal a suitable patch of ground. Here we worked hard for an hour and a half, perfecting ourselves in all the science of the game and mastering every trick that could be thought of. It was sport, but we were very much in earnest and though we enjoyed ourselves we spared no pains to learn everything that was to be learnt.
Returning, we were rubbed down and examined by the trainer and then sat down to tea. After partaking of that meal we frequently took a mile and a half walk; and by ten each evening the Villa team were in bed. Such was our training day by day.
For breakfast we had ham and eggs, or fish and we drank tea or coffee. We had no lunch, except perhaps a glass of beer if we were accustomed to it. For dinner we had fish, mostly, salmon or lampreys. Not infrequently our host would bring us in a freshly-caught salmon and on one or two occasions we enjoyed ourselves by going on fishing expeditions also. Sometimes we had a little roast beef or mutton and occasionally fowl; but fish constituted dinner most frequently. Tea consisted of chops and steaks and we went to bed without supper.
Of course, every day was not alike and we had small adventures which formed an agreeable variation to the routine. It was our special delight to come across our fine old trainer seated by the riverside, rod in hand, waiting patiently for the fish that never came, while there was no lack of diversion at night. Pillow-fights were quite the order of the time and as most of us were used to the advantages of town life it was only natural that we should endeavour to find as much amusement as possible in that quiet out-of-the world spot. On some of the nights we were kept at the hotel entertained by the county hop-pickers out of work, who to earn an honest penny dressed themselves up like Red Indians, stuck feathers in their caps, blacked their faces and performed all sorts of wild antics, dancing and singing.
On changing ends we had the wind in our favour and at once commenced a rattling game. Getting hold of the ball I ran down the field with it and passed to Richard Davis, who raced along with the leather at his toe, eluding the backs and the half-backs. I was close behind him and as he centred the ball beautifully across the mouth of goal I followed him up, met the leather as it came across and with a peculiar screw sent it spinning over my shoulder, completely out of the power of the goalkeeper to stop it. This caused a sensation, I can assure you and the applause which followed was simply deafening. Another goal followed and at the end we had won the fray by three goals to one. The victory was hailed with rapturous cheers and I shall never forget how elated we all were when the news reached us on the field that just at the same time the West Bromwich Albion had defeated Preston North End by the same number of goals. For now the National Cup was secured for the Midlands and whether we or the Albion actually won it was, for the moment, a very secondary matter. It was a red-letter day for us and everybody seemed to know it. We were cheered as we left the field, followed by a cheering multitude to the station and when we arrived in Birmingham we found an immense crowd assembled to welcome us.
The Rangers took their defeat rather badly and sore disappointment was felt by their followers. But I honestly think we overplayed them altogether. Although the game was equal in the first part we felt that we had them at an advantage and in the second part the facts proved that we were much their superiors. Richard Davis and Vaughton distinguished themselves on our side and I think I may claim that this was another of my `days out. But let me tell you what a critic remarked at the time: `There was little doubt,' he said, 'after the first half what the result of the struggle would be. The Rangers had not the combination that was such a conspicuous feature of the Villa play and it is scarcely surprising when the Rangers were virtually an eleven of the whole of Scotland. As a body of men they were, however, full of life and vigour and the forward division was essentially perfect. Their weakness lay in the contingent round the goal. The last half was all in favour of the Villa and fifteen minutes before the call of time it was evident that the Rangers were hopelessly beaten.
The victory of the Albion over Preston North End was unexpected. We had fully counted upon meeting the North End in the final and it has remained one of the most startling surprises recorded in the history of football how the Albion managed to beat them. The Albion scored the two winning goals just on the call of time and doubtless their victory was due to the famous trick of their forwards' breaking away' suddenly, pressing the other side hard and unexpectedly rushing the ball through goal. This was always a great feature in the Albion's matches and one that our previous experience had prepared us for. I ought to add before turning to the next match that on returning from Crewe we were received at every station with cheers in which even the railway officials joined and at one point a signalman was observed to be making a vigorous demonstration in his lofty box. As for the final reception, it was to be remembered.
The teams engaged to play in the match were as follows:
Aston Villa: James Warner, goal; F. Coulton and J. Simmonds, backs; H. Yates, F. Dawson and ,J. Burton, half-backs; Albert Brown and Richard Davis, right wing; Howard Vaughton and Dennis Hodgetts, left wing; Archie Hunter, centre (captain) forwards.
West Bromwich: R. Roberts, goal; H. Green and A. T. Aldridge, backs; E. Horton, G. Timmins and C. Perry, half-backs; G. Woodhall and T. Green, right wing; T. Pearson and W. Paddock, left wing; W. Bayliss, centre (captain), forwards.
We started for London on Friday and took up our quarters at Charterhouse Square. In the evening we had a short stroll and then retired at ten o'clock. We were up betimes in the morning, all in good spirits and happily all in good health. We met our committee and a few friends and proceeded to Kennington Oval, where presently we were joined by the members of the Albion, who were also in excellent form and very sanguine as to the result of the match. All the well-known supporters of both clubs were present in good force, including Mr. Hundly, our genial host at Holt Fleet and early in the morning heavily laden trains poured into the stations and discharged their living freight of football enthusiasts. Our chocolate-and-blue colours could be seen everywhere in the morning, especially along the Strand and all the principal thoroughfares. At half-past two there was a general stampede towards Kennington Oval and cabs, cars, carriages, traps and a thick line of pedestrians could be seen moving down the road. Arriving on the ground, it was at once manifest how great an interest the encounter had awakened. There was a dense multitude of from fifteen to twenty thousand, many familiar faces being among the number. At the last moment,5-to-4 on the Albion could be obtained and the betting in their favour was very brisk.
A few minutes before three we entered the field and were greeted with a hearty round of cheering. I had given the Villa team special instructions how to play this match; briefly they were these - every man was to stick to his position and look after the opponent he was facing. This, of course, does not give such opportunities of brilliant play, but it is a measure of safety which I strongly commend. Let every player single out his man and determine to beat him and if he is equal to the effort the game is won. This course demands an amount of unselfishness on the part of the players which is very hard to exercise, but I have so often seen brilliance and danger combined that on such an occasion as the one I speak of we could not afford to run any such risk. Consequently the match from beginning to end was less scientific than the match with the Rangers. In this respect it was doubtless disappointing. But as a hard, fierce struggle it is not to be surpassed.
Bayliss won the toss and I kicked off exactly at half-past three. As I did so a subdued hum of excitement could be heard and we knew that everybody's nerves were strung to the utmost. I don't know whether I am equal to describing all the details of the match. So far as play went I was coot enough, but so intent upon the game that when it was all over I could only remember a confused multitude of incidents in no particular order, but all warm, vigorous and exciting. I remember how we scampered up and down the field, what wild rushes were made, how the ball bounded here and there, the desperate charges that followed, the frenzied scrimmages, the impulsive shooting, the grand work of the goalkeepers, the attack and defence, the dangers and the relief, the terrific and prolonged struggle and yet, up to half-time, not a single goal! I recall with a thrill how we saw at one point that the Albion were getting the better of us and how we saw them with dismay closing round our citadel. Then how exhilarating it was to see the danger past, to know that the attack had been unavailing and to find ourselves racing away with the ball towards the opposite goal. How often Warner and Roberts saved I cannot tell. Time after time the shots went in scorching hot and always the men between the timbers were equal to the emergency and this was why when half the game was over there was no score.
Changing ends, the Albion cut out the work and Hodgetts and Vaughton on our side commenced putting in an immense amount of good work. A determined attack by them was repelled by Tom Green, who got away up the field and was stopped by Coulton, who returned. From this kick Davis with a long shot centred to Hodgetts, who was close in goal and he with consummate ease, put the ball through, completely baffling Roberts. Then what a cheer arose! The Villa had scored and the jubilation of our supporters was boundless. By the time they had settled down again we were in the midst of a fast and dashing game. It seemed, however, as if no further points would be gained. Both sides were playing desperately and every man was working as if his life depended upon the victory. We were constantly in front of goal and a foul being given to the Albion there, matters looked dangerous. But it was only at the end of the game that the finishing stroke was to be given to our victory. I got possession of the ball and eluding the backs got right in front; but the ball was going at such a furious pace that I perceived I could not reach it. Roberts saw reach the ball and give it the necessary push. If I had not adopted this expedient I could not possibly have scored. The cheers had scarcely subsided when the whistle blew and the Villa had won the Cup by two goals to none.
Major Marindin, President of the Football Association, who acted as referee, was good enough to say that the match was not won be science but "by Archie Hunter's captaincy." As soon as the whistle blew I was surrounded by the enthusiastic crowd and for a few moments I thought I should be torn in pieces. They nearly wrung my hand off and those who could not get near enough put all the heart they could into shouting "Bravo, Archie" and "Well done, Villa." Finally, I was lifted shoulder-high and amid the wildest demonstrations carried all round the field, nor would my zealous friends release me until the moment came when I was called upon to receive the Cup.
Every year it is becoming more and more difficult for football clubs of any standing to meet their friendly engagements and even arrange friendly matches. The consequence is that at the last moment, through cup-tie interference, clubs are compelled to take on teams who will not attract the public.
I beg to tender the following suggestion as a means of getting over the difficulty: that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season, the said fixtures to be arranged at a friendly conference about the same time as the International Conference.
This combination might be known as the Association Football Union, and could be managed by representative from each club. Of course, this is in no way to interfere with the National Association; even the suggested matches might be played under cup-tie rules. However, this is a detail.
My object in writing to you at present is merely to draw your attention to the subject, and to suggest a friendly conference to discuss the matter more fully. I would take it as a favour if you would kindly think the matter over, and make whatever suggestions you deem necessary.
I am only writing to the following - Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion, and Aston Villa, and would like to hear what other clubs you would suggest.
I am, yours very truly, William McGregor (Aston Villa F.C.)
When Aston Villa won the League championship and the Association Cup in 1896-97 1 went to their headquarters, at the Tavistock Hotel, London, the day after they had received The Cup. While I congratulated them I rashly remarked that I could not help feeling sorry that they had deprived Preston North End of their unique record of having captured both the same honours in 1888-89.
The Villa players naturally objected to this observation. The discussion became heated and even reached the stage of a threat to drop me out of the window into the courtyard.
The prospect, for a moment or two, was not pleasant, but presumably they remembered that there were twelve or thirteen to one-and such a very little one, so small indeed that even "Fanny" Walden smiled when he first met me and said with his soft voice and winning way that it was not often he had the pleasure of gripping the hand of a man on whom he could look down! Clever.
Probably the "Villans" relented and repented when they looked me up and down and considered my miniature proportions in relation to my daring. So they did not pitch me out of the window, but one of them, I think it was John Campbell, the Scotsman and the centre-forward, retorted: "Preston? Ha! Football was in its infancy then. They had no one to beat."
Villa dominated the early proceedings, with Athersmith and John Devey exerting pressure on the Albion fullbacks. However, the West Bromwich side soon responded as Billy Bassett passed to Roddy McLeod, who crossed the ball to the waiting Geddes. He shot towards the Villa goal and Warner failed to collect the ball clearly. It rolled between the Villa goalposts to secure a surprising one-goal lead for the Albion team.
He (Devey) could play in any forward position and there is no doubt that he was one of the finest goalscorers in the country in the 1890s. A close dribbler with good pace (when required), Devey was alive to every movement on the field and possessed the rare gift of "intelligent anticipation". He never lacked initiative, but was a strong believer in combination, bringing in his fellow forwards and half-backs into the game as often as possible. He was exceptionally clever with his head as he was with both feet and often scored goals from distance when he caught the opposing goalkeeper off guard.
There can be few men left alive who ever saw Sam Hardy keep goal for Aston Villa but those who remain will probably contend that the popular custodian was the greatest net minder in the club's history... Hardy was a goalkeeper not given to acrobatics and he never embellished his work with unnecessary leaps and rolls. Instead, he kept goal with an economy of effort that had the effect of making him look as though he was always playing well within himself.
The club had just been relegated, but they knew exactly what they wanted to revive their fortunes: a tough man to put some steel back into the side and inspire the men around him to win promotion. Barson was the right man. Just the fearsome sight of him was enough to demotivate some opponents: at 6 feet tall Barson loomed over most opponents and he had the sharp features and narrow, menacing eyes of an Aztec warrior.
Frank Barson was probably the most controversial footballer of his day. Barrel-chested and with a broken, twisted nose he was a giant amongst centre-halves. A blacksmith by trade, his one failing was that he hardly knew his own strength and was apt to be over impetuous. His desire to always be in the thick of the fray brought him into many conflicts with the game's authorities.