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

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Return Of The Cult Hero?

Where once alchemy was regarded as the means towards the creation of gold, the invention of football generated a new means of obtaining gold: the football hero!

Yes, for one game at least, Gabby has achieved cult status with his near-cameo appearance and the destruction of the auld 'enemy'. In a game where mediocre was the operative description of the faire until his appearance on the pitch, Gabby's clear sense of the occasion blew all negativity away as he came on to apply his interpretation of 'Veni, Vidi, Vici'.

I wonder just how many players have achieved such a hero's welcome and responded so well, sweeping the ball home in deft style - though it has to be admitted he could hardly have missed.

I can recall only one other player who came on for Villa as a substitute and had a near equal effect. That player was Bruce Rioch, who came on way back in 1973-74 in a match that was equally mediocre, and one that Villa were losing (at home) by one goal. His appearance also raised the hope of the fans, though possibly in a less demonstrative way back then, just as a free kick had been given on the edge of the opponent's penalty area at the Holte End. And of course, Rioch was assigned to take it, and smashed it home with aplomb for possibly the only worthwhile event of the match. Rioch was immediately made King of Villa Park!

Apart from these two instances, I cannot think of anything exactly comparable, but there were two matches - both in season 1960-61 - when two individual players made a totally unexpected impact. The first was in another derby against Small Heath, when a new boy made his debut: one Alan O'Neill. Just signed from Sunderland as an inside-forward to add more lustre to Villa's attack, he scored inside 60 seconds. And he went on to score another in a 6-2 win over the auld enemy. Even Gerry Hitchens' hat-trick that day was overshadowed by O'Neill's achievement in front of a massive crowd!

The second 'big impact' match that season was the very last match against the Wednesday, who had finished as league runners-up that season with quite a talented side. For this match, Villa brought back the legendary Johnny Dixon for his last first team appearance. Villa won 4-1 that day and the 37-year-old scored a classic goal from a through ball and broke his nose in the process, just as he had in his very first Villa match 16 years before! After his goal, Johnny was cheered back to the centre circle with great feeling by the Villa fans. The Birmingham press hailed that Villa team as being the best on view at Villa Park that season and noted Johnny's huge contribution.

The game of football these days may be nearly all about results and money, but without golden moments such as these, I wonder how long football would last. When I think back, it was the hope of seeing the unexpected that was my main motivation for going to watch the match. Yes, in times gone by with players like Peter McParland and Stan Lynn in the side, you felt sure that something would spark one or the other to do something memorable, as 'SuperMac' did on one occasion. Having done virtually nothing all match, he suddenly got the ball on the halfway line and literally drove through the opposing defence with they not knowing what he was going to do next. They soon realised after the ball had left his foot from 20 yards, and were picking the ball out of the net. Joe Mercer (the manager) had been shouting at Peter to "get rid of it, you twat!" but was left embarrassed once Peter had scored!

And the time when "Stan the Wham" scored a goal by dribbling through the entire opposition defence (including the keeper) before just tapping the ball into the empty net. And Tony Hateley, who scored four goals in a match that had seen Villa pull back a 5-1 half-time deficit to 5-5 at White Hart Lane, with Alan Deakin seeing his shot cleared off the line in the last minute.

There were times such as when Villa were losing 4-0 against Liverpool with 20 minutes to go and brought the match level at 4-4 in the last minutes - with SuperMac even missing the chance of a winner in the last few seconds! Or the match when Villa put eleven (11) goals past Charlton, and also scored ten goals in their next two matches. And the time when Villa put eight past the England keeper - Gordon Banks. And my father told me of that match in 1948 when Villa were losing 5-1 at half-time to Manchester United, then came back to 5-4 before a Villa shot hit the crossbar! But United scored a sixth very late on.

There's always the corollary when Villa were subject to an opponent's hero, such as the time about 15 years ago when van Nistleroy came on for United at a time in the second half when Villa led 2-1 (and should have already made it 3-1). United's player then - almost single-handedly - stole the game away from Villa, who lost 3-2.

Yes, it's times like that, when you leave a match with your heart still pumping hard, that you think that watching footie is worthwhile. Or, if you have seen the flick over the head and the subsequent scoring volley dispatched by Brian Little, or the calm but so timely interception by Paul McGrath, that thrill. That, in fact, is how Villa became so popular because they played a game that entertained, via both teamwork and individuality.

So, c'mon Gabby, you've revived a lost art: please give us some more! And, hopefully, inspire some other Villa players to do the same. Jack Grealish: take note!

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Wanted: This Summer To Arrive

Randy Lerner physically departed less than 12 months ago, but he was spiritually absent well before that. Even though he left so recently we appear to be somewhat impatient that the club is not already showing signs of transforming itself back into the kind of force it was in the mid-70s to early 80s. But recovering from a demise is no easy thing, particularly when the latest downturn was inflicted so harshly.

As a historian (as well as a Villa fan) my feeling is that Villa's demise started with the departure of the people most involved with the growth of the club in its first 50 years - namely George Ramsay (retired 1926) and Fred Rinder (resigned 1925), William McGregor having died in 1911. From that point on, it seems to have been mainly a case of ego dominating the management of the club - people taking over the reins because they felt they were better able to do the job, but usually falling short. Yes, ego was involved from the earliest days as well, but at least it was an enlightened and enterprising ego!

Apart from that time just before the War when Fred Rinder briefly came back onto the board, the only time since that we have had a Villa board that has been truly enterprising in the development of the club was from 1969 onwards (and particularly from 1974) to the return of Doug Ellis in 1982. The problem with the 1974-82 group, however, was that they ran into debt and hence that sealed the return of Ellis and his 'manage with caution' approach as his wily ways beat off the challenge from a rival group.

But that time of resurgence from 1969 (sorry, Christmas, 1968!) happened in such a way for a host of reasons that could not be replicated today. There were still many fans who remembered enough of the great times (some went back to pre-WW1) and the feeling that was in the club during such times. And when the board was re-formed at the start of that revolution it had Harry Parkes as one of its directors, a former player of some 17 years standing as a loyal and valued contributor, and a local man. George Edwards was another former great of Parkes's era who had stood up and said his piece in the effort to have the former board put to graze. Eric Houghton (from 1927-on, a Villa player for near 20 years) later came onto the board. He was possibly even more claret and blue than Parkes and Edwards.

There were people around then who knew from first-hand, or from primary sources, how great the club's contribution had been in the evolution of football and were enthused by that. A tradition and mindset was truly in place and one that conveyed an 'air' about the club. There were so many from the fan-base that were called for and came forward to re-build their club. One ordinary fan (Ted Small) came forward to do some small building repairs and ended up as being the stadium manager.

Until the start of the Premier League at least (1992), the fans' connection with the club and its history was strong. But by that time, the occupancy of the surrounding Aston district had already become much-changed and from 1996 the state of football and its management was to drastically change in this country. Football UK started to lose much of its natural connection with the grass roots, not aided by the digital age. And star footballers no longer connected with the fans as they once did.

It can be argued that it was Doug that helped to breed a new style of club management and that he is to blame for so many things, but the story is much more complex than that. And when he went, another - and foreign - management took over at Villa. Ten years later, that owner departed leaving a shell of a club that once was. The heart had been virtually ripped out of it. And many staff lost their jobs: services that had been run in-house became contracted out to save money. An old Villa fan who knows what goes on there says that the backroom atmosphere at the club is not anywhere near what it was even 10 years ago. Where once fans came in numbers to utilise the various facilities in the ground, there has become a lull. It was once a home-from-home for Villa supporters who also worked at the ground, but no longer - thanks to the running-down of the club up to 2016. And the dissipation in the attitude of too many players, which I believe is still present.

It is virtually 50 years since the previous revolution that helped re-build the club and brought it to a greater level of performance - but then lost its way somewhat. Sadly, the kind of revolution that took place in 1968-69 is hardly possible in the way football is today and the club remains owned by someone without a root connection with the club, although his modus operandi appears to be positively different to that of his predecessor. And he is helped by Brian Little, a further step forward from the attitude of the previous administration who believed they knew all the answers yet failed to apply much of substance that worked.

In 2016, it looked on paper as though a new owner with very substantial amounts of money was coming in to turn things around. And, yes, he did spend, though the situation he found when he first got here was different to what he expected. He got on with the job and appears to have restructured the club's main operations well enough. But the new owner (Dr. Xia) is reported to have recently Tweeted: "we need [to] get the right environment system back first, then build winning mentality, stable performance, and football style." In other words, even now (nearly 12 months later), he hints that there is much work that remains to be done; that re-structuring the club does not mean that everything will suddenly start to work smoothly. He's made a sound start, but to get all the gears properly synchronised does take oil, elbow grease and time.

We - as fans - think that the main issue is what we see on the pitch and look mainly to the team manager as the focal point and the butt of our jibes. In a way that's correct, because it's the success (or not) of the play that brings the needed success of the club. And there are a number of accusations that there is "little or no flair or excitement in the team which is [a] hallmark of Bruce". But for me I believe it's the old mindset that has to be re-found as the higher priority: there was a time (it was said) when the Villa were afraid of no-one and played accordingly. I know of matches of old when Villa finished a match with only 9 or 10 players on the field, and yet won convincingly! There was one match in the 1920s when an 8-man Villa team held Everton to a 1-1 scoreline until 20 minutes from time, but then finally fell to two late goals. I feel that Bruce is the kind of manager that wants to achieve that attitude in his team, and with his record of gaining promotion, he must surely be well qualified for at least that purpose. In other words, what we're seeing just now is not truly reflective of Bruce the manager: he knows he has more work to get through.

A key issue, also, is that a football club is not quite like any other kind of business, particularly in that its main employees (the players) have developed a certain power since the 1990s and can directly influence the way the club operates. The players no longer connect so much with the club they play for, except perhaps those that came through the club's own youth process. Part of the club's (and Bruce's) job is to get the old Villa Way into their skulls, and it can't be done overnight.

Re-formulating a successful system or method at a football club is, of course, not an issue that has affected just Aston Villa. A similar problem has occurred at clubs at all levels up and down the country when a take-over has been necessitated.

One such club was Plymouth Argyle, where the new chairman Paul Stapleton declared (in 2009): "There's a mindset that we used to have in the football club, and we've got to get it back again." For me, he hit the key issue - that the capability of success in the club can only come about from the kind of thinking that exists, and is a rule that is common in all organisations.

For Villa, it's a case of how well and how quickly all its new components and people come together and re-find that 'Villa mindset' of old; particularly the players. The owner is determined it should not take too long; he has set a target of promotion as being no further away than another 12 months, and, being a Chinese businessman of (apparently) some repute, he will do all he has in his power to ensure that target is achieved, with or without flair. And with or without Bruce (if it all starts to go awry), I'm sure.

Yes, 'how' promotion is achieved will be the secondary issue after arriving at the necessary mindset. After all, when the team is 3-1 down you expect them to get off their seats and drive forward in at least an effort to retrieve a point, but we're not seeing that just now, partly because the squad still has some square pegs for round holes. I feel sure the Doc will ensure that the main drive to get that mindset - and promotion - will begin this summer.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

There's Always Tomorrow!

In these days of gnashing of teeth and of wondering when Villa's next triumphs are going to arrive (if ever!), I've been thinking back to days of yore when Villa fans of the time were wondering the same thing. Past times that have been mostly forgotten with the passing of generations, when fans had not gained even a sniff of a major trophy for decades and past times when supporters just couldn't think that things could get better enough to remove the despair - and how they were pleasantly surprised in the following season.

I could go back to a number of instances of fans' frustration in Villa's history, but I will stick to a couple of occasions during my own time as a supporter.

One such situation occurred in season 1955-56, after there had been a huge change-around in the Villa squad as so many old Villa stalwarts had finally succumbed to Old Father Time and retired, and two outstanding Villa players (Blanchflower and Thompson) demanded and got transfers. Villa were basically left with an experienced defence (Jones in goal, Lynn and Aldis at full-back and Con Martin, an ageing but stalwart centre-half) and Johnny Dixon and Vic Crowe. Plus some youngsters - notably attackers Peter McParland and Derek Pace - and a couple of others that were of average ability.

Villa had not done a lot since the end of WW2, apart from season 1951-52 (finishing sixth in a fairly bright season). So the fans had been starved of real successes for quite a long time anyway. Villa had not come close to a big success since 1932-33 (22 years before), when they were league runners-up.

In 1955, having lost the purposeful midfield play of Danny-Boy and Toucher Thompson, Villa (in a rather bizarre way) instead decided that they needed a proven striker. Before the season's start they went out and paid a lot of money for Dave Hickson who was famous on Merseyside, where he played for Everton and, later, Liverpool and Tranmere, scoring lots of goals.

Well, Villa's season started badly and didn't really change in fortune for quite some time. In the first 14 games, Villa won just once but there was a bumper game when Villa drew 4-4 against Busby's Babes, and was the occasion when Hickson scored his one and only goal for Villa. Not long after he was shipped out as a failure, after 12 starts. As in a recent scenario, perhaps it was the lack of midfield capability that had deprived Hickson of scoring chances. A bit like McCormack?

With Christmas approaching, Villa were scrambling at the bottom of the table. Villa then spent another substantial sum on getting Jackie Sewell to Villa, a scoring inside-forward (essentially a midfielder) who only two years before had played for England in that debacle against Hungary at Wembley, and at that time was still the most expensive player in England (due to his previous transfer price tag). That solitary signing did not help too much and in early January a thumping 6-0 defeat at Stan Matthews' Blackpool brought about more change. Out went another oldie - centre-half Con Martin - and in came Jimmy Dugdale from the Albion, a Cup-winner with them in 1954. And with not much being generated from Villa's right-wing, in came Les Smith from Wolves, a player who a few years before had been hailed as a potential world-beater.

Slowly (like today), the wheels started to turn more positively. And, greatly aided by the signing of keeper Nigel Sims in March (who had been Bert Williams' frustrated understudy at Wolves), just enough points were accumulated and Villa avoided the drop by an absolute fraction. A hat-trick by Derek Pace against fellow strugglers Sheffield United was the key turning point and Villa won their final three matches. In fact, Villa lost only two in their last eleven matches.

What happened in 1956-57 - the very next season - was a complete revelation after the previous season's hand-wringing and after decades of being in the trophy wilderness. Villa won the FA Cup (and had a reasonable league season), and almost with the very same team that finished off 1955-56. The major change was at right-half where the name 'Crowe' morphed into 'Crowther' as a result of Crowe's serious injury: Crowther was a 'find' who had only the previous year been playing non-league football. But a big development was the form of Peter McParland, who enjoyed the first of his devastating seasons in 1956-57. One disappointment was Derek Pace, who even lost his Cup Final place. His drop in form (partly due to injury) and that of his alternative (Myerscough) heralded the arrival of Gerry Hitchens the following December.

Villa's play had not been brilliant (fitness and character were their main characteristics), but the trophy success made the fans very happy and released their pent-up emotions in 1957, 37 years since Villa had previously won a major trophy. However, though Villa played in two further semi-finals over the next three years, and won the League Cup in its inaugural year (1961) when few big clubs were contesting it, Villa did not win another trophy of major status for another 18 years after 1957. Trophy wise, the years 1920 to 1975 were very lean times.

So, let's fast-forward to season 1973-74, when Villa were seeking a way out of the second tier after six years removed from the top flight. During that time, Villa had seen two years spent in the third tier, and season 1973-74 was to be the second season since their promotion from that. The fans were expecting promotion back to the top at this point, especially as the previous season Villa had finished just a place short of promotion to the top flight, but conceding that the two promoted sides had been of better quality.

Season 1973-74, however, failed to ignite, not aided by a lengthy injury to Villa's star player, Bruce Rioch. But even with him in the side, Villa did not greatly impress and the club finished below the half-way point in the tier. What was made worse was that Rioch had been loyal to Villa but it came to a point where his career could not remain on hold any longer. By the Spring, Rioch had left for top-tier club Derby, and went on to play for Everton and Scotland with distinction. The fans were not too cheered by the situation.

'Deadly' Doug decided that he also was not going to wait any longer and (admittedly with the consensus of the board) dismissed the loyal management team of Vic Crowe and Ron Wylie. But Doug was also not too happy with the choice of Vic's successor, Ron Saunders, and there was a boardroom debacle about his contract, the result of which Doug stood down from the chairmanship.

Without Rioch, season 1974-75 started with Saunders otherwise using the same squad, bar one new player (Carrodus). But from then until the end of December there were some new signings and flashes of promise, but again the season was not igniting as much as would be hoped. It was only once the new year arrived, and after the changes in personnel had gelled, did an upsurge start to become apparent. For the remainder of the league season (18 matches) Villa incurred only one defeat, and Villa's last eight matches were all wins and produced 26 goals, 10 of them from Brian Litle, the upcoming young star of that time. Promotion had been achieved and there was the added bonus of winning the League Cup that season. Even more so than in 1957, there was a great upsurge of relief amongst Villa's fans in 1975, especially as the previous year the future did not look at all bright. The appointment of Ron Saunders didn't exactly make the fans hopes rise either.

In short, you never know what tomorrow might bring. I'm sure there are those that will argue, "Ah, but that was then; football has since changed a lot." Well, it has changed, but it has changed for everyone. The common denominators between now and then remain: (1) you can rarely be certain of the result of any match between teams of the same league-tier, (2) the players are still not quite robots: they are still subject to human frailties, and (3) a club with a team manager/coach who can motivate will usually obtain progress. And the fact that football is always full of surprises!

If I was a betting man I'd bet (based on the club's previous experiences, two of which are cited above) that season 2017-18 will turn out a bit similar to 1974-75, though I'd expect signs of success to be showing well before Christmas, especially as Bruce will have been around for 12 months by then. Some of you may disagree with my optimism!