Thoughts and issues regarding the past and present of a great football club by "The Chronicler".

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

New Owners?

The talk of the month is about the chance of new owners.

In my view, it should not be a matter of concern whether the ownership of Villa rests with overseas investors unless the owner(s) do not assimilate as well as they are able into the locality. Apart from the necessary financial investment, ownership of the Villa (in my view) carries a co-responsibility of linking with the locality and, importantly, genuinely sharing in the ups and downs of the fans of the club. 

Although Lerner has helped the community in various ways, he, sadly, has not seen fit to share the fans' remorse as the 'club' has lately slipped. His latest press release clearly shows that. Latterly, the 'club' has no longer felt like a club so far as the fans are concerned.

But, to quote the great Bill Shankly: 
    At a football club, there's a holy trinity - the players, the manager and the supporters. Owners and directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.
Eyes will be on any new owners to see who they appoint to operationally run the club and whether they will be professionals in the sport and given a free hand. Whether it becomes a money-making device or not, Villa is not a mere machine to be switched on or off at will, nor to be a club whose interests are restricted to an inner circle, as appears to have been the case of late. Aston Villa tentatively remains the 'Pride of the Midlands', but that is just now more due to the general demise of football in the Midlands.

Most importantly, the club's fans have a right to expect to see Villa well managed and play with method and an in-built determination to win. Self-belief plus teamwork can go a long way in football and we need an owner or owners who recognise that and are willing to invest in the club accordingly.

New owners? You're very welcome! But please bring your Brummie phrase-book with you and be prepared to learn about Brummies! A few hours' session with Prof. Carl Chinn is recommended to become truly enlightened: this is a proud city with proud traditions. Oh, and a knowledge of Urdu is useful in Aston.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

When There Was Great Spirit At The Villa...

Before today's (Crystal Palace) result I had already decided that there is nothing taking place at Villa that causes me to be enthused anymore, and that only by looking into the club's history can we acquire a surge of pride. But although the early-mid 1990s were a period of considerable hope and even provided a sense of being entertained, we have to go back to the 12 years from 1970 to find a period that remained almost constantly upbeat and, what is more, achieving great things. Before that and we have to hark back to pre-War days to find consistent periods of great entertainment. 

But it was the pre-World War One time that really made the Villa famous. So much so that even as late as the 1930s, an English international with another club stated that he had become "fed up" with being asked (on his international travels) on how the Villa were doing! And, also in the 1930s, Villa's Jimmy Crabtree was still spoken of as England's greatest all-round player - and he played for England in the 1890s! 

So it is that time - which is now 100 years ago and more - that I often look to gain a 'high' feeling. A time when Villa were not afraid of anyone and a time (from 1894 to 1914) when they achieved more than any club until Liverpool started on their remarkable run in the 1960s. In those days the Villa gave their fans great cause to have pride in their club. So, to illustrate the level of spirit that then existed, I go back in time. Firstly to a comment that a former Preston North End star made about the Villa of the 1896-97 time. He said: "The Villa would just not allow you to play. They would hold the ball and run circles round you." Villa were then acknowledged as the masters of triangulation (inter-passing between a triangle of players). 

Yes, the peak of Villa's achievements was in the 1893-1900 period (7 trophies won), but the press in those days did not give up much in the way of interviews with personalities - that was something that gradually developed. So I'm going to move forward to another period which I call Villa's "Renaissance" - between 1908 and 1914, when Villa won the League (once), one the Cup (once) and were 4 times League runners-up, and twice Cup semi-finalists. Those were still great achievements for those days. The first account of the period is taken from the wonderful season of 1912-13, when Villa won the Cup but also finished runner-up in the League. That season was nearly a repeat of 1896-97 when Villa achieved the 'double'. The second account is from season 1909-10, when Villa did win the League (the last time until 1981). In October, 1912, Sheffield Wednesday came to Villa Park at a time when Villa had a horrendous injury situation. Former Villa director Charlie Johnstone wrote:
    Before the match, the Villa dressing room looked more like a first-aid establishment than anything else. ‘Owd’ Joe [Grierson] and Charlie Wallace were quite busy putting a patch on here and a bandage on there, and a good many of the men looked as if they had taken part in a … fight, and, thought I, ‘if we get a point out of this match, we shall be lucky!’ Hall was quite unfit with a partial breakdown in the thigh, and under the circumstances his display was marvellous. Hampton was punctured all over with stud marks.
Anyone reading that description of the scene would hardly believe, therefore, that Villa would win that match 10-0, with Hampton getting five of the goals! What makes the result more amazing is that Wednesday were unbeaten until this match and had previously only conceded eight goals in five matches! 

Two years earlier, also against Sheffield Wednesday, Villa won 5-0. Unbelievably, the score was 0-0 at half time, after a half when on half-a-dozen occasions the Villa should have scored. Virtually as soon as the second-half started Villa did score and spread their goals throughout the half. Wednesday throughout looked second-rate to the Villa though they had a strong reputation. The Sheffield centre-half (McConnell) seemed as though he was saving himself for a forthcoming international match. A report stated: “… he looked upon the game at times with arms folded and made no attempt to play”. He also had words with the linesman, who thus complained to the referee. McConnell — who had been the outstanding player a week earlier against England — subsequently explained himself “in his pleasant Irish brogue”:
    I went all out for an hour, but I had no luck at all. The Villa forwards were too clever for us. They danced and jigged around us - made us regular laughing stocks at times — and I am blessed if I could get near the ball, however hard I tried. For one thing, it was very light and lively. At half-time, I asked some of the others in joke how it felt to kick the ball.
When the question came that surely he must have played before against forwards as good as these Villa men, he said: "Not I. They are a wonderful lot, and the marvel to me is that they hadn’t scored five times before half-time. They deserved to." 

On both of these occasions Villa played a Wednesday side that were regarded as no 'push-overs'. It's true that in 1909-10 they finished mid-table, but in 1912-13 they finished the season in third place, just one place behind Villa. 

So, what was it that made the Villa of old? In those days, there was a famous lead writer in the respected Athletic News of the pen-name ‘Tityrus’ who, since the 1880s, had been writing his column. His actual name was J. H. Catton. Even though he wrote for a Manchester journal, he would not shy away from writing about the truth. In 1910, for example, he wrote:
    I have the best reason for believing that Aston Villa owe their position to shrewdness. The club is administered by men who know how to use money like a thrifty housewife. Whenever I have gone to a representative match, there I found a deputation of four or five from Aston Villa. Men like George Ramsay, Howard Spencer and John Devey. … There are other men beside these three Villa heroes. They are so modest, however, that they prefer not to see their names printed. Aston Villa mainly owe their position to the restless activity of their directors. Better football scouts and schemers I have not met. …
Well, times have changed, haven't they? Today's board clearly believe in "leaving it to the professionals" while knowing precious little about the game themselves. But my intention is to make your day more cheerful, not to take you for a walk in the mire. I hope you enjoyed those all too brief accounts from a century ago and more.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Lions roar and have pride. Don't they?

I've been thinking about the lion, the symbol that Aston Villa Football Club goes by; the icon chosen by McGregor and his Scottish friends in days of yore. 

Now a lion is supposed to be a symbol of pride, is it not? And I am sure that`s why it was chosen as those pioneers at the club surely did exhibit great pride and fortitude.

I have at hand an article written in 1924 by one of Villa`s stalwarts of that time, Arthur Dorrell, who refers in deeply felt terms to the degree of affection and respect the players then felt for their Villa forebears. He refers to the sad time when Archie Hunter was on his deathbed and who, one Saturday, asked to be put closer to a window so that he could see the fans on their way to the old Perry Barr ground. Now that event was in 1894, yet 30 years later Dorrell was still talking about it and about the other great events in Villa`s history that continued to inspire the Villa teams of the 1920s.

Like many other Villans who have pride in the club`s history, I have visited Archie Hunter`s grave in Witton Cemetary and have read at first hand the epitaph inscribed on his memorial. I remain affected by that inscription, and at the time I was there (in 2009) I could not conceive of a time when such depth of feeling (about the club and its great representatives) would diminish.

In 2011, I happened to be involved in the initial but non-official meeting to set up a project to restore the grave of William McGregor. The centenary of his death was upon us at that time, and Peter Lupson (who is an ardent restorer of graves of football greats all around the country) was the catalyst to move the project forward. Even he, a latter-day Everton supporter (originally of Norwich City), has acquired some affinity for the history of Aston Villa as a result of that involvement concerning McGregor.

The history of the Villa is fascinating to anyone who takes time to look into it and once upon a time even non-Villans did know about it. Just prior to the F.A. Cup Final of 1905, the editor of the Manchester publication, the Athletic News, went so far as to say that every schoolboy knew the story of Aston Villa and their Wesleyan roots. Not just Birmingham schoolboys, and not even just Midlands` schoolboys, but all schoolboys! Such was the fame of Aston Villa in those days.

I remember very well the sense of pride about the Villa in the early 1950s, even though the club hadn`t won anything for a fair few years. I can remember that Villa, even then, was still a great club in the hearts of the fans. The eventual winning of the FA Cup in 1957 was a time for the release of pent-up emotion. The winning of the European Cup was the pinnacle.

It is that pride - and the honest endeavour of a good many players and administrators that was also based on inherited pride - that was the mainstay and source of direction for the club over more than 130 years. It was the cumulative pride in the club that then decided (as it did in 1968 re: the board of the time) that "enough was enough" and moved for Doug`s exit. And to get something 'better` to replace what was there then, in order to become a top club once more.

Now, the installation of Mr. Lerner brings us back to our friend the lion, the club`s icon. One of the first things that happened after the 2006 event was for the club`s badge to be re-drawn, to reveal what is possibly the tamest looking lion there has ever been. All very arty, but the past four years` results seem to have been a reflection of that design.

We have to recognise that football has changed in many respects since the Premier League started in 1992. Many factors have entered the game that were barely imagined over 20 years ago, but what causes Aston Villa to be in problems that Everton (perhaps Villa`s nearest equivalent club in size, ground attendances and achievements) do not seem to have experienced? Yes, I know that Everton fans were not too happy a couple of years ago but, to be frank, I sometimes feel quite envious of them as a club, from top to bottom.

From chairman to team manager and to the fact they realised that Gareth Barry is an asset, Everton have shown many of the elements that we miss at Villa. Firstly, in chairman Bill Kenwright they have someone who has been close to the club since childhood and is imbued with local tradition as he comes from that area. What is more he has been chairman of the club for not much more than 2 years` longer than Randy. Like Villa, they have not won any trophies in that time, but seem to have made better progress and field a team that is a blend of experience and youth. I see Kenwright as having an awareness of what it is that constitutes the soul of a football club, and that (to me) is a key factor. He appears to be aware of the fans` pride and their expectations.

Let`s please forget about selling Villa to anyone with enough cash to 'buy` Champions` League football. In my view, what is needed is someone who is imbued with the Villa; a Villa equivalent to Bill Kenwright. I am not necessarily suggesting that the person should be another 'K` - Nigel Kennedy - but I think you know what I am saying. Whoever is the chairman of Villa, in my opinion he should breathe passion for the club and drive the club forward. If Everton (and Spurs and Newcastle) can be up amongst the top-8 and striving to win cups, then so can Villa.

Perhaps we have to accept that Villa will never compete financially with the big clubs, but at least let`s have a chairman that can help the lion to re-find its roar! Perhaps Mr. Lerner might come to realise that need, this summer.