Aston Villa are one of those clubs that in modern times at least, have never really been given the credit they deserve. Whilst never being the most fashionable of clubs they have often had their hands on the top trophies both at home and in Europe.
Villa or The Villains as they are often known were formed back in 1874, and like many other British clubs, the clergy had a hand in their formation.
In Villa’s case it was the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel in Handsworth. Like Sheffield Wednesday, the club was formed as a result of a cricket club looking for something to do during the winter months. Handsworth is a town just outside of Birmingham city centre and it was there that Frederick Matthews, William Scattergood, Jack Hughes and Walter Price (Price being the co-founder who would go on to be the first ever team captain of Aston Villa), founded Aston Villa Football Club in the March of 1874.
Villa’s first home ground was Aston Park; the club played their home fixtures there until 1876. The clubs first game was played against the rugby team of St Mary’s Church of Aston Brook, interestingly the game would only take place on the condition that the second half of the match would be played as a rugby match! In 1876 the club moved to Wellington Road in Perry Barr, Villa were there until 1897.
Facilities for fans had to be built only after Villa had moved in to the ground, as initially there was nowhere for fans to watch the matches. The players didn’t have it easy either, they had to use a nearby blacksmiths shed as a dressing room. Eventually as time went on a grandstand was added to Wellington Road, as well as two pavilions. The first trophy Villa would put on their mantelpiece was the Birmingham Senior Cup in 1880. The then Aston Villa captain was George Ramsey who played for the club for eight years from 1874 to 1882. Ramsey was more than just a player for the Birmingham club; he was a driving force for Aston Villa during the clubs early years.
Ramsey was a native of Glasgow, born in 1855. He arrived in Birmingham in 1871 as a sixteen year old to work as a clerk in a brass foundry, Birmingham then a thriving industrial metropolis. Ramsey began playing for the club upon its founding; he was their star man who would go on to gain a reputation as an excellent footballer.
It was Ramsey who put forward the idea that Villa move to Wellington Road and together with John Linsay put it to the Villa board that the club should begin to charge admission to matches. It was a decision the club would not regret. Ramsey would be a Villa man for many years, eventually working as Aston Villa’s team manager and club secretary. Once he hung his boots up in 1882 he remained in the role of club secretary, a position he held for forty two years until 1926.
It was under Ramsey’s guidance that Villa would enjoy their most successful years as a football club. Ramsey would steer Aston Villa to six league titles and six FA Cups, a record second only to Sir Alex Ferguson’s record at Manchester United. Even then Ramsey wasn’t finished. Now aged seventy one years of age he retired as club secretary taking on the role of vice president and honorary advisor to Aston Villa Football Club. Archie Hunter is another important name in the history of Aston Villa. Archie was another Scot, hailing from a place by the name of Joppa in south Ayrshire. Archie Hunter holds the distinction of being the first Aston Villa captain to hold aloft the FA Cup, doing so in 1887. Hunter signed for Villa in 1878; he had previously turned out for Third Lanark and Ayr Thistle. Once in England he became a household name, like Ramsey a gifted footballer. Hunter almost never turned up at Aston Villa; he had originally traveled south of the border to sign for Calthorpe Football Club, however Hunter would have second thoughts…
“Aston Villa to me was a club that had come rapidly to the fore and I was asked 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.” Archie Hunter.
As I’ve already mentioned Archie Hunter was the first Villa captain to lift the FA Cup, that’s not the only distinction he holds, Hunter is also the first player to score in every round of the FA Cup.
“Archie Hunter was a prince of dribblers. It was not an unusual performance of his to start at the half way mark, and dribble through the whole of the opposing team! He would not lose the ball until he had literally dribbled it between the posts.” Association Football And The Men Who Made It. 1906.
In 1897 Aston Villa moved to their present home of Villa Park, it’s interesting to note that there is no official listing of the name Villa Park, it’s a name given to the ground by the fans back in those days. Its actual name is Aston Lower Ground. It was in that year that the club won its first double of the league title and the FA Cup, becoming the second club to do the double, the first club being Preston North End about a decade previously. As the twentieth century began Villa tasted FA Cup glory for the fourth time during the 1904 – 1905 season, beating Newcastle United 2 – 0 in the final which was held at Crystal Palace before a crowd of over a hundred thousand people, both goals scored by “Happy” Harry Hampton also known as “The Wellington Whirlwind”.
Another important name in the history of Aston Villa is William McGregor, another Scot who moved south of the border to leave a lasting impression on English football. It’s McGregor who can be credited with the formation of the football league, it was his idea and vision that today sees English football playing in the divisional format that we take for granted.
As we know Villa’s colours are claret and blue. Of course they aren’t the only club to play in that colour scheme, but Villa were the first to adopt these colours as their official club colours. The first Villa kits consisted of claret and blue horizontal stripes with white shorts and blue socks. As the years went on they would change into black and white horizontal striped shirts, even full black shirts with a motif of a lion of the front. The inclusion of the lion on the shirts is a Scottish influence; it’s actually the lion from the Scottish coat of arms. William McGregor had to travel up to Scotland to purchase new lion motifs after the original motifs faded in the wash, upon his return the sister of George Ramsey was charged with task of sewing them on the shirts. It was an eye catching design, bold and different to say the least. Talking year’s later, Villa player Charles Johnstone spoke of the incident…
“Our lion had no chance with the washing lady! He became pale and anemic so Mac (William McGregor) was deputed to send to Scotland for thirteen lions on shields proper, which could be attached and detached at will….When they were duly attached you could hardly see the man for the lion – we were each as self-conscious as a bride in a wedding dress. We went on the field but the gorgeous lion got us down. We had a most awful whacking and the lion was relegated to the club notepaper and flags.”
As the years went on Aston Villa would experiment with different designs for their football kits, one such design was a piebald design which was sensibly dropped and didn’t last long. They finally decided to keep the claret and blue colour scheme of their first kit in 1887, apart from the seven or so years from 1901 to 1908 when they played in a red shirt and white shorts. Another league title was won during the 1909 – 1910 season, Villa finishing in first place with fifty three points, five points ahead of Liverpool, with Blackburn Rovers in third, Newcastle in forth and Manchester United in fifth place. The club wouldn’t see another piece of silverware until the 1919 – 1920 season when they lifted their sixth FA Cup.
The years after that cup win saw something of a steady drop in form for the club; however the 1930 – 1931 season saw Villa play some great football and hit the heights of years gone by to some extent when they finished runners up to Arsenal. There was no silverware for Villa to speak of but they did make the record books when they scored a hundred and twenty eight goals that season, a record they still hold to this day.
Another feather in Villa’s cap came during the 1960 – 1961 season when they became the first team to lift the Football League Cup. They were then managed by Joe Mercer who had been at the club since 1958 being brought in from Sheffield United. As mentioned the 60 – 61 season was the beginning for one of the best known of footballs cup competitions, the fledgling cup tournament wasn’t without its problems and detractors but its endured to be an attractive tournament that’s thrown up some great games and quite a few surprises. In its inaugural season Villa had beaten Huddersfield Town, Preston North End, Plymouth Argyle, Wrexham and Burnley to earn themselves a place in the final, to played against Yorkshire’s Rotherham United. For the first few League Cup finals the final would be contested over two legs. Villa emerged victorious in the first final after a 3 – 2 aggregate win over their Yorkshire opponents.
Villa would go on to win the competition a further four times. Aston Villa’s finest hour came at the start of the 1980’s. They were then managed by Ron Saunders. It’s fair to say that Saunders has been Villa’s greatest ever manager, a manager who guided the club to its finest victories. He was made Villa team manager in 1974 after impressing as manager of Norwich City. He took Norwich to the Division Two title and promotion to Division One for the first time in the clubs history at the end of the 1971 – 1972 season. The following season he steered them to the League Cup final, unfortunately for them they were beaten in the final by Tottenham Hotspur.
When Saunders was appointed Villa team boss the club was languishing in Division Two, in his first season at the helm Saunders guided them back to Division One, when they finished runners up to Manchester United in Division Two. Saunders also took them to another League Cup Final victory when they beat Norwich City 1 – 0 , the winning Villa goal scored by Ray Graydon who incidentally would soon go to play his football in the North American Soccer League with Washington Diplomats. Another League Cup final beckoned two years later.
This time they faced Gordon Lee’s Everton in the final. It was a hard fought cup win for Villa; it went to a second replay. The first final at Wembley Stadium finished goalless. A week later the teams reconvened at Sheffield Wednesdays home ground, Hillsborough, it finished 1 – 1. Villa could count themselves lucky as their goal was an own goal which was scored by the luckless Everton defender Roger Kenyon. A second replay would be needed; it took place about a month later at Manchester United’s Old Trafford Stadium. This time Villa made sure with a 3 – 2 victory in extra time, their goals courtesy of Brian Little who scored himself a couple and Chris Nicholl. It was great game to watch for the neutral, end to end stuff with both teams going for it. At the end of the 1979 – 1980 season Villa finished in seventh place, they were a decent team, no strangers to lifting silverware but no one could have guessed that this Villa team was about to grab the football world by the scruff of the neck and record some impressive results.
The season after it was all about Aston Villa and Ipswich Town. Villa began well with a 2 – 1 away win at Leeds United, they would go on to record impressive wins at Goodison Park, the City Ground and at The Dell. At home they dispatched Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham and Everton, that season quickly turned into a two horse title race between Villa and Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town. It was Villa who came out on top. Despite a last game of the season 2 – 0 defeat at Arsenal Ron Saunder’s Aston Villa finished with sixty points, four points ahead of Ipswich to claim the Division One title. That meant Villa would be England’s entrant into the following seasons European Cup. After victories over Valur of Iceland, Dinamo Berlin of East Germany and Dynamo Kiev of Ukraine the Midlands side found themselves in the semifinal, facing them was Anderlecht of Belgium. Villa won through 1 – 0 on aggregate thanks to a goal from Tony Morley at Villa Park, in Belgium the game finished goalless. Awaiting them in the final were West German giants Bayern Munich.
It was Bayern who were the hot favourites, captained by German football legend Paul Breitner, the match to take place in Holland at Feyenoord’s De Kuip Stadium. However Villa were going to have to do it without Ron Saunders who had resigned from his position at the quarter final stage following a disagreement with the Villa board of directors. In came the number two to Saunders, Tony Barton, to take the managerial reins. The first half was close. It was a half that flowed in troughs and peaks, from end to end action to quite a pedestrian game. That being said the final had an interesting start.
The Villa goalie Jimmy Rimmer had to be replaced after only about ten minutes when the unlucky Rimmer sustained a shoulder injury, on came Nigel Spink who would have the game of his life. It was Villa who drew first blood about half way through the second half when Peter With scored from close range following a pass from Tony Morley. To be honest, as the second half wore on Villa were being outplayed by their German opponents, Bayern were turning the screw. Bayern actually put the ball into the Villa net but the goal was deemed off side.
The young Villa side hung on to the final whistle, the European Cup was theirs. Aston Villa’s European exploits were not yet over, as a few months later they went on to lift the Super Cup after beating Barcelona 3 – 1 on aggregate. As the 1980’s progressed Villa would see their chances to achieve silverware dwindle somewhat. The 1985 – 1986 season saw them reach the semifinal of the League Cup; sadly they were beaten by eventual winners Oxford United. Villa’s FA Cup aspirations ended in the fourth round with defeat to Millwall. At least the Villa fans could take pride in their kit.
That mid ’80’s kit the team wore was one the best they ever had in recent times, a kit that consisted of a claret shirt with blue stripes around the sleeves. The sponsor was Mita, a company that manufactured document copiers. They finished the ’85 – ’86 season in sixteenth place with forty four points, only three points away from relegation. It got worse for Villa the season after when they finished bottom of the old First Division. Happier times were ahead for Aston Villa as they won promotion back to Division One at the first time of asking after they finished in second place to Millwall in Division Two.