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Grierson, 1924: Aston Villa 1890s

Author: Isaque Argolo | Creation Date: 2023-01-18 18:28:53


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GREAT CUP FIGHTS AND FIGHTERS
— Joe Grierson | 13/01/1924 —

Most likely many Sunday Mercury and Sunday News readers, specially those with the football bump well developed, will have Cup tie fare for breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper to-day. I other word, they will be discussing the results of yesterday's ties in the first round of the Cup. Although I am in what is commonly known as the getting-on-in-life stage, Cup ties still have a fascination for me, and I daresay I shall enjoy as much as anyone a taste of the aforementioned fare.
Forty years form a big span of a man's life. During that portion of mine I was deeply interested and concerned in many Cup ties — some of the most historic. For nearly 30 years — from 1893 to 1914 — I was trainer to the Aston Villa team, and in that period we won the Cup four times — 1895, 1897, 1905, and 1913.
From 1893 to 1914 Villa figured in many Cup ties — nearer 80 than 70. Some were lost, but the majority were won. All were keen games, thrilling games but the one which stands out as a beacon light in my memory was the 1897 Final, in which Villa beat Everton, at Crystal Palace, by three goals to two.
The distance of time lends enchantment to that Final, which remains in Cup history as the greatest exhibition ever seen. Being responsible for the condition of the Aston Villa players on that memorable day, I suppose I ought to be able to supply the best and most accurate and detailed picture of the game; but to tell the truth I was too engrossed in my duties to be able to properly weigh up the exchanges. I know this. I saw great work by both sides, and if Villa were brilliant winners, Everton were brilliant losers.
Every Villa man was a giant that day. Jimmy Whitehouse guarded his goal as a lioness tends her cub; Howard Spencer and Albert Evans were two sure-footed, stout-hearted backs; Jack Reynolds, Jimmy Cowan, and Jimmy Crabtree were a glorious trio of half-backs; and Charlie Athersmith, John Devey, John Campbell, Fred Wheldon, and John Cowan formed the perfect forward machine.
The mention of Crabtree reminds me forcibly of the task I had to prepare the great half-back for that Final. The 1896-7 season was, and still is, the greatest in Villa history. We not only won the Cup, but the League Championship as well — the "Double Event". It was a strenoeus eight months and only the best trained and best living body of men could have achieved such great success.
Crabtree lived a good life and was well-trained, but the wear and tear of the hard work weakened some ligaments at the back of his thigh and his appearance in the Final became a matter of doubt. He was bursting to play, and the others, realising his value, were seriously perturbed at the thought of his absence.
I worked for dear life at those weak parts, and as the faulty limb strengthened he and all of us became more optimistic. But even on the morning of the match his presence in the team was doubtful. He played — and played on one leg! And a brilliant display he put up. No one, not even the Everton men, could have imagined that Crabtree was suffering from any physical disability.
Jimmy Crabtree was a player and a half. Nothing will over efface from my mind his wonderful play. He was the greatest player of my time or any time. Although he served Villa at back, I consider he was greatest at left-half, the position he occupied at Burnley prior to joining Villa. But he was worth his place in any position, excepting, perhaps, in goal.
Ah! How I recall his attempt at goalkeeping. Protesting that he had figured in every other position in a team, he wanted to play goal and had his whim gratified in a friendly match with Burnley, at Burnley — his native place. I forget the number of times the ball was sent whizzing past him; it was either eight or nine.
Crabtree was, in my view, the greatest Cup fighter Villa ever had. The second best — and very little behind — was Jimmy Cowan, the finest centre-half the game has produced. Whenever I think of Cowan I must always recall that little spoof he played upon me and the Villa management.
It was just prior to Christmas, 1896. As we were returning from a match in Lancashire — I think it was against Preston North End — Jimmy complained to me that something was wrong with his ankle. I examined and tested the offending limb, and though I confess there did not seem very much the matter, Jimmy went on with his complaining.
Posing as an acute sufferer, he appealed to be allowed a few days leave in order to go to his home in Scotland to rest the ankle. The "invalid" was allowed to depart. Judge of our astonishment a few days later when the news was flashed across the country that James Cowan had won the Powderhall sprint. At 10 to 1 against, too! James spoofed others beside us.
Of course, there was an "inquest". Villa training regulations in those days did not permit of players figuring in professional running events, and some of us, besire Cowan, were wrongly accused of being "in the know". He was suspended by Villa for a month, but, for the sake of the team, they were glad to remit the sentence to a week. At that time Villa hadn't a very reliable centre-half. Hence the leniency.
While I was trainer to Villa we certainly had some "characters" on the staff. Alec Leake was one of them. He was the most comical of all. There was always some devilment afoot when Alec was about. He fancied himself as a sprinter, and, returning from a northern Cup tie, he challenged me to a test of speed for 2s. 6d. When all the Villa bigwigs were otherwise engaged Alec and I brought off the test — on Crewe railway platform. Alec lost his money.
When Alec left Small Heath to go to Villa Park he was termed an "old man". he was particularly anxious to dispel the myth, and appealed to me to speed him up. I completely changed his method of training, and soon made him a valuable member of the Villa team that beat Newcastle United and won the Cup in 1905. In the same season Alec was good enough to play for England against Ireland, Wales and Scotland. He had the heart and pluck of a lion.
I recall the 1895 final, in which we beat West Bromwich Albion by a goal to nil. Bobby Chatt was credited with scoring the goal that gave Villa their narrow win. I know more about that goal than most people, and certainly more about it than the people who stated that Chatt scored. He didn't. As a matter of fact the goal was an accident on the part of "Joe" Reader, the Albion goalkeeper, who was responsible for touching the ball over the line from Chatt's shot.
More than once Villa were surprised in Cup ties. I should say the greatest was when Millwall beat us by two to one in a replay at Reading, after two previous draws at Millwall and Villa Park. Villa lost that match because the management insisted upon strict discipline.
The week-end prior to the replay was turned to poor account by several of the Villa players, who were said to have imbibed too freely and unwisely at the "house" of one of the players. They were called on the "carpet" and were suspended. Deputies turned out at Reading and defeat was our portion.
Next to the Everton v. Villa final of 1897 the next best, in my judgment, was the Villa v. Newcastle final of 1905. Newcastle were a great side that season, and outside Birmingham our chances were regarded as very thin. But Villa more than maintained their tradition for rising to the occasion. We won by two goals to nil and made Newcastle look anything but a great side.
Before I conclude — on this occasion — let me mention another great Villa Cup fighter. This was Freddy Wheldon, another ex-Small Heath player destined to make a name and fame in Villa colours. When he joined us it was hinted that he was a physical wreck and suffering with a touch of consumption. The "invalid" won a Cup medal and more than one international cap!
Isaque Argolo: Joseph "Joe" Grierson was a former Aston Villa trainer.
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