How Aston Villa Entered My Life

By some fortunate coincidence, a mere half-mile from my front door was one of the most renowned soccer stadiums in England, Villa Park.  From the vantage of the other side of Aston Hall you could see the impressive red brick façade of one of the founding football clubs in the history of the game, anywhere.  Established in 1874, they moved to their current location in 1897.  Until I was 10, that view from the hill was probably as close as I got to the stadium.

Villa Park Stadium
Villa Park Stadium

This was not surprising under the circumstances.  Football crowds could be rowdy with many fans entering the grounds after an extended pre-match lunch at the nearby pubs.  My father had no interest in any sport that I can remember, and we owned no television.  I had probably not seen a professional game of soccer and my friends were similarly ignorant.

That all changed in May of 1957 when Aston Villa made the finals of the Football Association Cup.  In front of a sold-out crowd (100,000 at Wembley Stadium), they faced the ever-daunting Manchester United – this rendition being dubbed the Busby Babes.  The long odds that the Villa faced changed dramatically in the 6th minute when Villa’s powerful Northern Ireland born forward, Peter McParland, raced in from the left to meet the ball coming over from the right at exactly the same time as the Manchester goalkeeper, Ray Wood.

Wood collapsed in a heap, unconscious and concussed. With no substitutes allowed, Villa squeaked a victory (2-1) with McParland completing his contribution by netting both Villa goals.  My first sight of this momentous event (the last time the Villa won the cup) would have been in the Pathé News segment at the movie theater.  That would not have been a great loss as the footage showed a single camera’s coverage struggling to keep up with the play.

Meanwhile, they had won and there was the parade to think about.  Even my father got caught up in the collective excitement and, the very next day, we were taking the bus into town where the open topped double-decker was to wend its way from the train station to City Hall.  It was my first time ever in a crowd, I was just 10, and as it cruised by, I saw Johnny Dixon, the captain, hoisting the impressive silver trophy aloft with a huge Irish smile on his face.  I was in boyhood ecstasy.

Devoted fandom followed that has had its ebbs and flows, but never erred.  I have developed appreciation for other teams because of grittiness (West Bromwich Albion), or great players (Arsenal with Georgie Best), or flare (Danny Blanchflower’s Tottenham Hotspur), but have lived and died with the Villa – mostly the latter.

That the Villa stadium was the same vintage as the house I was born in and was built of the same red bricks made it personal.  In fact, I moved in for a while.  The next season I started going to the games, first to the reserve games.  The cost was pennies and the crowds small so my father, who went to one or two with me to start with, could slip me a sixpence out of the sight of my mother and I would be off with a skip in my step.

That solidified my friendship with Frankie Tidswell who lived next door with his older sister, her husband and their two toddlers.  He alternated between there and his father’s flat about a mile away.  He went to the Protestant school, so we did not see much of each other during the week, but we became close as Villa fans.

Over the next couple of years, I got a part-time job doing garden chores for “Old Man Reid” up at the corner and became a regular fan at all the first team home games. There were no seats in the “Terraces”, a tiered incline that allowed maximum standing room concentration.  At first, we could sneak our way to the front, behind an excuse of a metal fence – no more than 18” high – and there was my hero, Peter McParland, six feet of solid muscle.  I was enthralled by his thighs – they appeared bigger than my chest – and powered him as he would race down the touchline before booming over crosses with apparent ease.

Two years after their cup success, Gerry Hitchens became the new hero, with a mop of dirty blond hair, a cheeky smile, and that innate ability to know where the ball was going to be deposited in the goal – no fuss, no muss.  In fact, he set a record of scoring all five goals in a game, a record that stood for decades.  Villa Park was in a frenzy.  I raced home and was barely coherent as I tried to give the message to my parents scaring them in the process.  They were relieved to find I had not witnessed a terrible accident.

Frankie and I soon discovered that there was money to be made.  There were no parking lots around Villa Park, not surprising given its 1900 vintage, and the gradual auto-boom of the 1950s had to do with street parking.  Pretty soon, especially for big games, the spaces were quickly taken.  A couple of pre-teens like ourselves could run up and down the side-streets and espy spaces, one of us would protect while the other stand at the corner and wave at drivers peering intently.  We’d be there when the grateful fan left his vehicle and with cheeky hands out, we suggest that for a consideration we would “keep an eye on it”.  Even then I believe we were assuming that the promise was also a threat and the coinage usually followed.

That led to another level of larceny.  Villa Park, as one of the largest stadiums in the country (holding 75,000) and its location in the middle of England became the preferred venue for North-South rivalries.  With Manchester United already a dominant team in the fifties under Matt Busby’s management, they frequently made it to the F.A. Cup final and, more often than not, would face one of the many London teams in the semi-final. As host ground, the Villa would be allotted a few thousand tickets.

When United were matched up against Fulham, Frankie and I took all of our meager savings and lined up for hours one Saturday morning. With six tickets each we were set.  Two weeks later we found a spot near the entrance gates and flashed our cache.  In no time at all we had made enough to cover our investment, to make a nice profit and to see the game.  It was a thrilling encounter with Johnny Haynes bringing Fulham back from behind to tie the game near the end.  With no shoot-outs, a replay was scheduled for the following Wednesday, but I was still a winner.  On a sunny Spring Day, we had watched the Red shirted United and White shirted Fulham duke it out, back and forth with the traveling fans around us screaming and yelling, alternately elated and devastated, then finally relieved/frustrated.  They would live to fight again.

Many of my fellow Brits retain that level of emotional connection with their team – similar to, but overall, more extreme than sports fans in North America.  If I had stayed living in Birmingham it is likely that, I too, would have lived vicariously through Villa’s fortunes.  Instead, an initial move out of Aston loosened the ties and my move across the pond turned me into a different kind of fan – still loyal and enthusiastic, but more objective.  A move from Canada to the US was another half-step away.

That changed dramatically when the Villa were promoted back into the Premier League in 2019 and almost immediately dropped back to the Championship as they suffered a succession of injuries to key players.

At just the right moment, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the season to an abrupt halt and the Villa coaching staff made the most of the break to steady the ship enough to avoid the drop by a whisker.  Then, courtesy of an infusion of transfer money post-season, they addressed their major weaknesses and started the 20/21 season with four successive wins.

That was enough to inspire me to combine two of my loves, soccer and writing, and start an odyssey of Aston Villa game-reporting.  The rest may not be history, but it is a way to take my appreciation of the beautiful game to another, deeper, level.