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

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

The Scottish Influence At The Villa

On Tuesday I was kindly asked to be interviewed on a Scottish radio sports programme (Rock Sport Radio), ostensibly to talk about George Ramsay as the first Scottish 'Manager' to lead an FA-Cup winning team. Before I went on the show I had a good think, and thus I was reminded just how important the Scots were at the Villa, pre-1890. In 1887 (when the Villa became the first Midlands' club to win the FA Cup), the club's President, Chairman, Manager/Secretary and Captain were all Scots! I was a little shocked even though sub-consciously I was aware of that fact.

That situation quickly changed as the President (the industrialist George Kynoch) resigned the following year and subsequently migrated to South Africa, while the Chairman (William McGregor, who almost single-handedly had steered the Villa from bankruptcy during the 1885-86 season, the first season of professionalism in England) also stood down from the Chairmanship to set up and Chair the new Football League. The Captain (Archie Hunter) had a heart attack while playing at Everton in 1890 and never recovered sufficiently to play again. Although Archie subsequently helped in the administration and team management at the Villa, his health worsened and he died at the age of 34, in 1894. Very poignantly, it is said that Archie asked for his sickbed to be moved nearer to the window so that he could see the crowds streaming to the Villa's ground on a Saturday afternoon.

Archie Hunter's grave has a significant memorial that records just how all those connected with him admired him as the great Captain of Aston Villa. He didn't play for Scotland, but only because at the time he was playing (1878-90) Scotland forbade anyone playing in England from playing in the Scottish team. In the 1990s, he was listed as one of the 100 greatest players to play in the Football League.

In fact, Archie's brother Andy was also a great influence at the Villa as a tactician between 1879 and 1884 before he succumbed to TB, and also died at a young age.

The fourth personality listed in the Villa hierarchy of 1887, the Secretary/Manager George  Ramsay, who had transformed the Villa when he arrived as a player in 1876, retained his post at Villa until he retired in 1926, 40 years after being appointed in that post and 50 years since he arrived as a player. In fact, Ramsay's involvement did not cease in 1926 as he was then made a Vice-President and aided the club in many ways, primarily in public relations, until he died in October, 1935.

There are two more things to quickly add about Ramsay (though he is worthy of a long chapter to tell about his detailed achievements at Villa) in that when he died it was in the course of the season 1935-36, which saw Villa being relegated for the very first time. The Villa were never relegated while he lived!

The second piece to narrate is that the headstone on his grave states "Founder of Aston Villa". That statement is not true, but it illustrates just how much his influence was at the club and the stature he attained, admired by all those connected with the club and many others in the football world. He was a true legend.

Ramsay actually said: "I planted an acorn and an oak tree grew".

It was George Ramsay who brought the dribbling and passing game to the Midlands in 1876, and his trend was ably developed by Archie Hunter. The Villa were also greatly influenced by the all-conquering Queens Park of Glasgow, whose superlative organisation and style persuaded the Villa to move to a system of two full-backs instead of one. 

In the first half of the 1880s, the Villa regularly undertook a tour of Scotland and played the best of the Scottish sides in those days. Those teams, in return, came down to play return fixtures at the Villa's old ground at Perry Barr.

Returning to the Villa's great 1887 FA Cup exploits, in the semi-final the Villa met Glasgow Rangers, which proved to be the last time a Scottish team competed in the FA Cup. The Villa won, playing perhaps their greatest football before World War One, 3-1.

Wonderful Scottish players have been influential at the Villa ever since, particularly James Cowan (a wonderful old-style centre-half, 1889-1902), Johnny Campbell (a marvellous centre-forward, 1895-97), Jimmy Gibson (a 'Wembley Wizard' in 1927 and a member of a grand footballing family), George Cummings (a full-back who invariably kept Stan Matthews and Tom Finney quiet), Alex Massie, Andy Gray, Alex Cropley, Allan Evans and Ken McNaught (centre-backs when Villa won the European Cup in 1982), Des Bremner (also a European Cup winner), Alan McInally, Charlie Aitken (who played the most games for the Villa: 660) and now John McGinn. 

There have been a few others too who have played a useful contribution, including Ron Wylie, who spent a total of about 20 years as a player and coach at the Villa. Ron masterminded Villa's biggest post-war win, an 11-1 beating of Charlton in 1959.

Few know that George Graham started his career with the Villa but was somehow sold to Chelsea for a pittance. And there was also Bruce Rioch (whose father was Scottish!) and brother Neil Rioch, who ran the Aston Villa Former Players' Association for many years. Brian McLair was on Villa's books as a youth player in 1980-81 but went back to Scotland feeling somewhat homesick. Clearly he felt that Manchester United was not too far from Scotland when he signed for them!

Since Ramsay, Scottish managers have not faired  well, however, at the Villa. There have been six such since the first Team Manager was appointed at the Villa in 1934, including Tommy Docherty, Alex McLeish and Paul Lambert. The other three were Jimmy McMullan (skipper of the 1927 'Wembley Wizards' side, manager 1934-35), Alex Massie (1945-49) and George Martin (1950-53).

(c) 2019, John Lerwill


Alex Horsburgh said...

I knew the Villa badge was a lion but didn't know it was based on the Scottish Lion Rampant

John Lerwill said...

I should have talked about that too, Alex. Yes, in about 1878 Villa decided to have a badge on their jerseys and William McGregor got George Ramsay to go to Scotland to get some badges of the Scottish lion. However all he could find were "badges" that were the size of a napkin and these bestraddled the Villa jersey for some 2 or 3 years until they got worn out in the wash. But the lion then (in 1880) became incorporated in the club logo.