Triumphs of the football field (Aston Villa / Archie Hunter)


Saturday, November 1 – 1890
Narrated by Archie Hunter (the famous Aston Villa captain).
Chapter IV – “The rise of the Aston Villa”.

“As I was saying when you interrupted me so sharply,” said Archie Hunter, as he settled himself down for a chat, “I came to Birmingham on August 8th 1878. It was the first time I had crossed the border, and I wasn’t in the best of spirits. Remember, I was still under 20. The journey down was a long and dull one, and when I got out of the station I saw none but strange people. I hadn’t a single friend to meet me, and I knew no one belonging to the firm by whom I had been engaged.

Archie Hunter.
Archie Hunter

It was Saturday, and, of course, the town was busy and bustling, and every man had got enough to do without taking any notice of a lonely Scot. I walked out of the railway station, not knowing where to go, or where any of the streets led to. But I wandered on, past the Parish Church, and though Digbeth, until at last I came to a park – Adderley Park I afterwards found was its name. There was a cricket match being played there, so I walked in and watched it all the afternoon, and so my first day in Birmingham passed away. Of course, things brightened up afterwards, and I soon made many friends, and got to like the town. But I must say that my first impression of Birmingham was not a very good one.

“While I was in Scotland I had become acquainted with the Calthorpe Football Club, which used to come up and play the second team of the Queen’s Park. There were some very fair players in the Calthorpe, and I made up my mind on arriving in Birmingham to join them. But one of my fellow-worksmen, George Uzzell, mentioned Aston Villa to me as a club that had come rapidly to the fore, and asked me to become a member of it. I hesitated for some time, but at last my friend told me that a ‘brighter 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. He was himself a good right-wing forward, and was well supported by W.B. Mason. So to Mr. Ramsay I went, and we at once became good friend, and remain so to this day.

“Mr. Ramsay was practically the founder of the Aston Villa Club. He had had good tuition in the game while in Scotland, and as a member of the ‘Oxford’ Club he had gained plenty of experience, and taken part in several first-class matches. A short time before he left, his club had tied three times with the Glasgow Rangers for the Scotch Cup. He was keeping goal, and he relates that on the last occasion he saved his goal at the expense of a broken nose.

George Ramsay
George Ramsay

Mr. Ramsay was a capital all-round player, and could take any position and give a good account of himself. Coming to Birmingham he found football here in a very backward state. The three principal clubs were St. Mary’s, Aston Unity, Calthorpe, and the Birmingham. One day Mr. Ramsay saw a few lads playing together in the big public park facing Park-road, Aston, and he watched them with some amount of curiosity and amusement. They were connected with the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel, and only had the most primitive ideas of the game. Mr. Ramsay describes their play as ‘a dash at the man and a big kick at the ball;’ they were entirely ignorant of dribbling, and were evidently in the most rudimentary stage of knowledge – quite ‘juvenile,’ as Mr Ramsay said. Well, when he had watched the lads some time he spoke to a bystander, and suggested that they two should join in the game. Then he called to one of the players, William Weiss by name, and proposed that he should be allowed to play on one side and his chance acquaintance on the other.

When his broad Scotch had after much trouble been understood, the proposal was agreed to, and Mr. Ramsay began to play. He soon showed that science was superior to all their big kicks, and easily dribbled the ball past he men who had never seen a display of the kind before. They were amazed when they saw how he played, and when all was over they surrounded the player, who had footed the ball so neatly, and asked him a hundred questions. So pleased were they with the newcomer’s performance that they besought him to play for them in their next match, which was arranged for the following week. This was against Stafford Road, which had beaten the young Villans in a previous contest by seven goals to none; and the latter were anxious to have their revenge. Mr. Ramsay set himself the task of teaching his comrades, how to play the scientific game, a labour of some difficulty; but he was so far successful that when the match came off the Stafford Road had to struggle hard for the victory, and only scored a single goal.”

“Mr. Ramsay – or ‘Scotty’ as he was called – had so far distinguished himself that he began to receive invitations from all the clubs in the district to play for them. But he had taken a strong liking for his first friends, and had an idea that he could make something of them. They elected him their captain, and he set to work to teach them dribbling. His material consisted of such men as W.B. Mason (now Birmingham representative to the National Association), Such, Lees, Hughes, Smith, Price, Weiss, Scattergood, Midgley, and others – very few of whom still don the jersey.

Later on they were joined by the Lindsays (two Scotchmen), Stevens, Law, O’Connor, Johnstone, Apperley, and Pank, who with perseverance and careful study of the most scientific game, had formed themselves into a very decent little team, and begun to make a name for themselves. They began to want a field of their own to play in; a meeting was held, and it was decided to look out for suitable ground. Although it was by no means in a perfect condition, the ground at Perry Barr was taken, and Mr. Ramsay gives an amusing account of how, after an hour’s hot debating, he offered £5 for the use of the field for that season; how £10 was demanded and another long discussion took place, and was ultimately ended by the two sides agreeing to split the difference. The first gate resulted in the sum of 5s. 3d – (five shillings and threepence) – being added to the fund of the club. But still the club went on and made for itself a name.

Sometimes a gate of nearly £10 was obtained, but this was exceptional. In the meantime expenses were increasing. The ground was taken on a three years’ lease, rising from £7 10s to £15, and then to £20. This lease had scarcely run out when the ground was threatened to be taken for building purposes. A meeting of the club was called and, a statement of affairs drawn up, when it was found the finances were rapidly increasing, and it was resolved to make a dreadful plunge and go straight to headquarters, which was done, with the result that the ground was taken on a seven years’ lease at £100 per annum.

In the meantime,” continued Archie, “I had come down, and had joined the club under the circumstances I told you.”

“The first match in which I played for the Villa –and the first I ever played in England – was rather remarkable. It was called a ‘friendly’ match, but that term must only be considered in the professional sense. It was the most unfriendly affair in which I ever took part. Our opponents were the Burton Robin Hoods, and we Villa men journeyed to Burton to meet them. It was quite evident to us from the beginning that nobody in Burton wanted us to win that match, and that they were determined to do their best to prevent our succeeding. We didn’t have a very good reception, and whenever we played up well there was a bowl of disapprobation from the spectators. We went on all the same, and were not going to be intimidated; and, as a matter of fact, we soon showed that we were superior to our rivals. When we scored our first goal the blood of the Robin Hoods began to get up. They played a rough game, but we put it down to excitement and went on. I can’t say it was altogether enjoyable, because it is one thing to have a hard fight and another thing to fight like savages.

Well, presently we scored a second goal, and that stirred up the rage of the Robin Hoods more than ever, and the wrath of the spectators was as a consuming fire. What do you think the people did? They got between the goal posts – some hundreds of them – forming a solid background, and presently when a goal shot was made the ball rebounded back into play, and the Robin Hoods claimed that no goal had been scored. That was all very well for them, but we disagreed. It was ‘Evergreen’ Sammy Law, the centre forward, who had made the winning kick, and we rallied round him; but the umpire would not allow the goal, so as a protest, we left the field. I was not sorry to get away, for during the course of the game one of the Burton players had so far lost control of himself that he made sudden dashes in my directions, and chased me all over the field. He had his sleeves turned up, and every time he came near me he doubled up his fists in a very ominous manner. I thought he meant business, but fortunately I was able to avoid him, and escaped with my life.”

“What had you done to incur his anger?”
“Well, I suppose I hadn’t let him take the ball from me, you see, and had been making rings round him. He was evidently a disappointed man, and wanted to show me the evil consequences of playing as well as I could for my own side. But I wasn’t disposed to take a lesson. Yes, it was a very queer match altogether, especially for a ‘friendly’ one. But it was the only one of the sort I played. Being my first match in England of course it gave me a rather bad impression of how things went on over here, but subsequently events caused me to alter my opinion.

“The Villa now entered upon a very important era. Our season was a brilliant one, and we were only beaten twice – first, by the second team of the Queen’s Park, which was then captained by David Anderson, by three goals to two, which match had been arranged through the personal influence of Mr. Ramsay, who knew Glasgow men well, and who was then upon a holiday. He tried to get their first team down, but Captain Charles Campbell told him they had better to take the second team first, and if we could beat them he would arrange for their first team to visit us the following year. Our second defeat was by the Aston Unity, in the first round of the Birmingham Cup, by one goal to nothing. We considered the Aston Unity our big opponents at that time. The team was captained by Butler, who played a splendid game as full back; but, unhappily, he was overtaken by a terrific infliction, resulting in the total loss of his eyesight, and it is said that he will never recover from his blindness.

Before him Hundy was captain, and the club remained very strong, and, as I have said, they beat in the first cup tie. I ought to tell you something more about the ground at Perry Barr which we played on in those days. It was covered pretty thickly with trees, and the players had to run ‘round about, and in and out’ of them in order to get at the ball. It was amusing, but it didn’t always conduce to scientific play. When we first played there were two trees on each side of the ground which served as goal posts, and there were trees on the touch-line. As the Villa Club rose funds were obtained to clear the ground, and once it was thought of making it into a running track. The trees were cut down and the roots blown up by dynamite, and what was left of them after that soon disappeared. I suppose the timer came in very useful as firewood for the people in the locality. We played about six matches in connection with the Cup-tie, and won very easily. For example, in the match against the Small Heath Swifts we won by 22 goals to none; and some humourist fetched our goalkeeper, Copley, a chair to sit upon, as he had nothing at all to do, and was getting tired of standing and never having a chance of a kick.

But the Aston Unity were too strong for us. I may mention one incident in our match with them which shows how players are sometimes carried away by excitement. While I shot for goal the ball skimmed the bar, and the Unity goalkeeper immediately caught me round the neck, held me fast, and seemed about to deliver a tremendous blow at my face. Everybody saw it; but my rival recovered himself in time, and afterwards offered me the fullest explanation of his action. I am quite convinced that he had no deliberate intention of doing me any personal injury; he simply lost his self-control for a moment, and was unable to restrain himself. In football there are many temptations of this sort, and it require a great amount of good heartedness and coolness to restrain from taking advantage of the proximity of an opponent. But the best players see their faces very sternly against roughness of all kinds, and some of the finest footballers I know are the most generous and good-natured of men on the field. I don’t think much advantage is ever gained by bad temper or spiteful play. If one man is rough, another recriminates; and if one side shows bad blood, the other side is sure to have its bad blood stirred up also. You can play to win, and play with perfect fairness; that is my experience.

“In 1880 we won our first cup – viz., the Birmingham Challenge Cup, Mr. Ramsay kicking the only goal (after a terribly hard struggle) three minutes before the finish, and wasn’t there a scene? Hats, sticks, and umbrellas were flying about in all directions, almost darkening the air.

“The next season I was elected captain, Mr. Ramsay nominating me to fill his position. He resigned on account of business engagements, which prevented him devoting the necessary time to football. He was then presented with a handsome gold Albert chain in appreciation of his past invaluable services. He had been playing football for 13 years, and during that time he had played in every position in the field. He was good at football races also, and won a special prize in a quarter mile race in connection with the Birmingham Club Sports.

Archie Hunter.
Archie Hunter 2

He played against Wales in 1878, when he captained the Birmingham team, and in nearly all the Association matches between 1877 and 1879. His interest in the club has always been maintained, and his record is remarkable. He may justly claim to have been the founder of the Aston Villa, and to have taught the game to its first members. At one time he was chairman of the committee, the Villa representative on the Association, the leader in many deputations, and for the last four years the club’s secretary. We owe a great deal to Mr. Ramsay as a club and as individuals, and his name is indissolubly connected with the history of the club.

I was playing centre forward at this time, and only on two occasions took up my old position as back – once against Stafford Road and once against Stoke. My play on each of these occasions gave great satisfaction. In the match against Stafford Road we won by one goal to nought, and the match against Stoke resulted in a draw. One of the football writers said: – ‘It was only Archie Hunter’s splendid defence and indomitable energy which saved the team from defeat.’

We now began to be more talked about than ever, and very great things were expected and prophesied of the Villa. The club had grown greatly in strength, and had naturally become ambitious.

My brother Andy, who had been playing with the Third Lanark Volunteers, came down from Scotland, and Eli Davies, Teddy Lee, Tom Pank, Sammy Law, Howard Vaughton, Arthur Brown, and W. Crossland were the other members of the team. We had a most exciting year, and gained a remarkable record, winning 19 matches, and losing only one.

We had every reason to be proud of our successes, for we finished by carrying off the Birmingham Cup, defeating Saltley College in the final; and we were within an ace of winning the Staffordshire Cup also, but were beaten right at the finish.

All the team were playing well together at this time, and worked hard, and the next season we determined, if possible, to beat even the splendid record we had just made. Next week I will you what we did.”
To be continued.
(Nottingham Evening Post, 01-11-1890)

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