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James Cowan, 1912: Some memories
Author: Isaque Argolo | Creation Date: 2023-01-29 19:29:23
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REMINISCENCES OF AN EXCITING CAREER
— James Cowan | 23/11/1912 —
I have often wondered if Aston Villa will ever again possess a team to equal the record of the side which made history by winning the League Championship and the Cup in season 1896-7. It was a remarkable season, and I may be pardoned if I give the team which accomplished the dual feat. It was as follows: Whitehouse (goal); Spencer and Evans (backs); Reynolds, Cowan, and Crabtree (half-backs); Athersmith, Devey, Campbell, Wheldon, and Smith or Jack Cowan (my brother was then with the Villa, and he partnered Wheldon in the semi-final and final that memorable season). That was the team which beat a great Everton side in the final by 3 goals to 2. Everton then had men like Jack Bell (what a game he played against us), Johnny Holt, Jock Taylor, Millward, and E. Chadwick. The match has often been referred to as the finest exhibition of football ever seen in the Final. My opinion is that that Villa team was the most perfect combination the club has ever possessed. Everyone of us understood each other's play to a nicety, and when you glance at the International records you will perhaps appreciate how the team accomplished what it did. There were nine Internationals in that team.
A PERTINENT QUESTION.
Many and many times I have been asked by folk who saw the Villa that season why it is that we seldom see football like theirs now? I have often wondered, too. I incline to the view that nowadays there is less method in football. Many teams of the present day also seem to lack inspiration. Ture there is ever so much more competition for the best players, and clubs have fewer opportunities of getting together a perfectly balanced side, clever in every department. Then, if I may put it delicately, the reward for footballers to-day is not so great. That, I think, has a good deal to do with it. The Villa never had cause to regret to their players, and when we went on to the field determined to do our best we always knew that our efforts would be appreciated in the proper way. Who has not heard the story of a certain Vill professional selecting a grand piano as a small memento of the part he took in assisting his team to win the Cup? The play in this Final, and especially that of the Villa, caused many of the best critics at the time to draw a comparison with that remarkable Preston North End team in 1887. Be that as it may, I am conscious of the honour of being a humble performer in a team which achieved such a remarkable record.
PRIDE OF PLACE.
It is, perhaps, only natural that many of the Villa players should hold price of place in all my football reflections, but there were many footballers on opposing sides of whom I still hold vivid memory. Ernest Needham was always a man who fascinated me; in fact, whenever he was on the opposing side I always endeavoured to make myself a more conspicuous agent of destruction of forward plans than he. But I only rarely succeeded. I certainly think he was the cleverest half-back I ever saw at placing the ball advantageously when surrounded and in a tight corner. There may have been more personality about Crabtree's skill, but for all that Needham was not one whit inferior to the Villa's great master. Ernest was a man after my own heart. He never allowed himself to get inflated with his many successes, and the most difficult task of all was to get him to talk about the game he so much adorned. David Calderhead of Notts County was another half-back who made me often wonder if I could equal in point of skill. I remember once the County gave the Villa a terrible trouncing. It was more due to David than anyone else.
GREAT MEN OF THE PAST.
Several times, too, I played against the wonderful G.O. Smith. Now I think John Goodall in his Preston days, my old team companion Jack Campbell, and John Southworth of Everton were the three greatest professional centre-forwards I ever saw, but "G.O." holds pride of place amongst the number of amateurs I met. None of the three professionals named had the scientific precision of "G.O." He was without doubt the most scientific leader that England ever had on the football field. That is my opinion. I always think, too, of "G.O." as probably the most elusive forward I ever set out to stop. To catch that slim, almost effeminate frame fairly was impossible. I have seen R.S. M'Coll, the Scotch player, of Queen's Park, equalled to him, but lover as I am of my country's bairns, I do not think that the Scot possessed the same wizard style of tge great Englishman. John Goodall never showed the dash of Southworth nor the vigour of Campbell, for John's football was of a different school — the subtle, Scottish school wherein the pupils are taught to master the art of swift, short passing. Goodall excelled as a strategist. In the great days of Preston every man in his attack seemed to know by instinct what their leader would do with the ball when it was at his toe. He was an artist, too, in deceiving defence. I speak from experience.
BLOOMER THE ENIGMA.
The greatest product of Goodall's school it will be generally agreed was Stephen Bloomer, although later Bloomer seemed to me to depart from the tenets of his instructor. He did not value combination so much as Goodall did. On the field Bloomer was always an enigma to me. He would do absolutely nothing for some minutes, and often he has deceived me into believing that he would be in this subdued mood for the rest of the game. Then suddenly he would wake up, so to speak, and it would then be necessary for some unfortunate half-back or back — sometimes both — to stop a man who, on his day, could rival G.O. Smith himself. Athersmith and Bloomer were the greatest English right wing that played against Scotland in my time.
"THE PALE-FACED BOY".
In two Internationals between the Rose and the Thistle it was part of my duty to keep a watch on Bloomer. Steve wanted some watching, too. He could wheel about as quickly as any man. I have seen, and one's only chance stopping him was to go for the ball the second he reached it. Bobbie Walker was in many respects like Bloomer, but Bobbie, with all his consummate skill, did not score goals like Bloomer used to. The pale-faced boy from Derby County (as he was in my time) had perhaps the greatest foot I ever saw for planting a ball into the net at a point where the goalkeeper could not possibly get at it. Walker was different. He preferred to give the responsibility of getting the actual goal to his centre-forward. He would, however, with his own marvellous ball jugglery, make that a simple matter. I have seen him many a time conflict a defence by his swerving dribbles and that deceptive glance in one direction as if he intended to dispatch the ball that way. But the charm of Walker's play was that he always did exactly the opposite of what he threatened to do.
NEVER READ THE PAPERS.
In my time the Villa probably had two of the finest inside lefts in the country in Dennis Hodgetts and then Fred Wheldon. I have often puzzled myself asto which of the two was the greater footballer. Dennis I had a longer acquaintance with, and that, no doubt, inclines me in his favour. He was a character, too, and, according to himself, impervious to Press criticism. We liked nothing better in the dressing-room than to tell him that such and such a paper had said so and so in criticism of his play. He always had one reply. "Oh," he would say, "I never read the papers." Strangely enough, however, Dennis could always tell any of us all about it when any member of the team had received the attention of the critics. Wheldon, on his day, often reminded me of the late James Miller, of Sunderland, probably the greatest inside left Scotland ever produced. He certainly had the finest left foot of any footballer I have ever seen. When his playing days were over I renewed a happy acquaintance with Miller in London; he was then trainer to the Chelsea F.C.
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