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!

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