In which an old man shares some fond memories with his grandson.
Birmingham, England, July 1982.
“I know you think the current lads are the best Villa team ever,” said the old man, rising to his feet with an effort and crossing to the desk in the corner of his cozy living room on Trinity Road, a stone’s throw from Villa Park, “but when I were a lad, there was a team that was just as good.”
“But, grandad,” protested his twelve year old grandson, Billy, “we won the league last year, and now we’ve just been crowned champions of Europe! What could be better than that?”
The old man fumbled with a drawer, and pulled out an old manila file that was bulging with newspaper clippings browning at the edges. He hobbled painfully back to his chair by the fire.
“Don’t get me wrong, son,” he said in his deep scratchy voice. “Nobody in Brum was prouder ‘n me when Peter Withe popped in that goal that sank Bayern Munich. Never dreamed I’d see such a thing in my lifetime. The team’s had plenty of ups and downs of late. More downs than ups, if truth be told! So it was a wonderful moment when they lifted that European trophy. But I want to tell you about another special team. They called this’un ‘The greatest team that never won anything’!”
“Why’d they call them that, Grandad?” asked Billy in a puzzled voice.
“Because in season 1930/31,” his grandfather answered patiently, “though they lost only once at home, scored a hundred and twenty-eight goals, and ‘ad the league’s top scorer, there was an even better team managed by a genius called Herbert Chapman. That team was Arsenal.”
“Arsenal!” exclaimed Billy incredulously. “But they’re a crap team!”
“Not in them days!” replied his grandfather. “Then they were real champions. But I want to tell you about the Villa team in that season. It were a grand team and no mistake!”
He drew a faded photograph from the folder.
“Come sit next to me, lad, and I’ll show you,” he said.
The boy rose from the sofa, and crossed to squat on the rug by his grandfather’s chair.
“That…is Pongo Waring,” the old man said pointing to a burly figure seated in the front row with a ball at his feet. “Surely you’ve heard of him!”
The boy shook his head, a blank expression on his face.
“Scored forty-nine goals in the league that year!” exclaimed his grandad. “Only Dixie Dean ever scored more in the top division. Pongo were a terror in the penalty box. Big strong tough lad. There’s many a goalie were scared stiff of him! They don’t mek ‘em like that anymore!”
“He’d probably get sent off these days, grandad,” said Billy.
“Aye, more’n likely,” agreed the old man. “Game’s gone soft. Scared to tackle these days they are. And as for a good honest shoulder charge…don’t get me started! But look, kid, this other chap here in the back row! He was real class.”
He pointed to a pleasant-looking man with folded arms.
“Billy Walker,” he said, “one of Villa’s all-time greats. Started out as a striker, but then he dropped back to become the team’s playmaker. Such vision! Such a football brain! He could unlock a defense like a burglar opening a safe! He were a handy manager too. Took Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest to Cup finals.”
“Who’s this one, Grandad?” asked the boy, pointing to a baby-faced player at the edge of the front row.
“That, Billy,” declared his grandad in a tone of pride, “is one of my favorite players of all time, Eric Houghton. Lincolnshire lad he was. Scored thirty times in the 30/31 season. Boy, he could strike a ball! Like a howitzer!”
“What’s a howitzer, Grandad?” queried Billy.
“Why it’s like a big cannon, lad,” answered his grandad smiling. “Houghton scored more than thirty free-kicks, and more than fifty times from the penalty spot. Won seven caps for England, and scored five times for his country. Should’ve been picked many more times. A handy cricketer too! In them days some footballers played both games. Eric played some first class matches for Warwickshire and quite a lot of minor counties games for Lincolnshire. Now, can you imagine Gordon Cowans or Tony Morley playing cricket?”
Billy shook his head.
“Eric finished up with more than one hundred and fifty goals for Villa. When he retired after the war, he managed Notts County to the Third Division title, and then he came back to Villa Park and led the boys to a famous FA Cup Final win over the Busby Babes in 1957.”
“I’ve seen that game, Grandad,” said Billy eagerly. “On a video! Peter McParland scored twice for Villa.”
“That’s right lad,” said his grandfather, smiling.
“Who else was good in this team, Grandad?” Billy asked.
The old man pointed slowly one by one to three of the tallest men in the back row.
“Best half back line in the country that season,” he said. “Jimmy Gibson, Alec Talbot and Joe Tate. We used to call ‘em ‘Wind, Sleet and Rain’! They’d break up the opposition attacks, and then set our forwards going with a long ball or a pass out to the wing! Teams lined up a bit different in them days. Gibson was a Scot, a leggy chap, good ball player and passer. Very experienced. He’d played alongside Alex James and Hughie Gallacher on the Scottish ‘Wembley Wizards’ team that beat England 5-1. Talbot worked down the mines in Cannock before he played for Villa. He was what we used to call a center-half, strong in the air and a fierce tackler. Joe Tate played every game that season. He was mostly a defender alongside Talbot, but he didn’t like to just hoof it clear. He always tried to play a classy pass. Won three caps for England. They were a tough, scrappy trio, but with more’n a touch o’ skill.”
“Wow, Grandad!” exclaimed Billy admiringly. “You certainly know a lot about this team.”
“Stood on the terraces at the Holt End every home game that season,” remarked the old man proudly. “Right in the middle of the loudest fans, singin’ and chantin’ and wavin’ out scarves and rattles. Atmosphere were fantastic. Everyone packed in like sardines. Clouds o’ cigarette smoke and a strong smell o’ beer! Aye, but how they loved old Pongo! Why, he was sent off the field one Saturday for foulin’ the keeper, and the fans cheered him every step to the dressing room!”
“What a pity they didn’t win the title, Grandad!” said Billy.
“It was!” agreed his grandad, “and they missed out again two years later. Finished second again to their old nemesis, Arsenal. But they were always such a joy to watch. Football poetry! Fast, skillful, with plenty of goals to cheer about! You see, it’s not always about winning, lad. Sometimes it’s enough just to sparkle!”
There was a faraway look in the old man’s eyes as his mind drifted back to memories of muddy winter afternoons at Villa Park.
Billy touched him gently on the arm.
“Thanks, Grandad for telling me about your Villa,” he said. “I really enjoyed hearing about the players and the team. They must have been fun to watch.”
“You bet they were,” said the old man. “Now be a good lad, and put the kettle on for tea. And fetch them chocolate biscuits in the red tin!”
Outside in the street it had started to rain.