• From a Birmingham Mail report by Matt Kendrick, October 2012
‘What about the Villa? Forgotten figures from Britain’s pro baseball league of 1890’ is Joe Gray’s record of a unique achievement during the club’s late 19th century glory years.
For, just three years before the claret and blues became the “greatest football club in the world”, Villa were the only ever winners of a professional national baseball league in England.
After embarking on the exhaustive task of chronicling the historic title win Gray, a Villa fan at heart and statistician by trade, has unearthed a forgotten chapter of Villa history.
Villa were in danger of dropping out of the First Division when American entrepreneur Albert Spalding took Major League baseball players on a world tour which stopped off in Britain.
Spalding, a sports equipment manufacturer who wanted to globalise baseball, formed a committee with English sport’s main movers and shakers, including Villa legend William McGregor.
Football, rugby, athletics and even lacrosse teams across the country were invited to join a professional league with the aim of keeping players fit during the summer months.
In the end a four-club competition was formed with Villa competing alongside Preston North End, Stoke City and Derby.
Back then Derby was the only baseball team not already affiliated to a football club – the soccer came later with Derby County FC also inheriting the purpose built Baseball Ground. Villa’s nine-man team was made up of three specialist baseball players, imported from America, a cricketer and three former Villa footballers, Fred Dawson, Joey Simmonds and Arthur Brown.
The other two members were James Cowan a Scottish defender just starting out with the football club, and forward John Devey, who would become a baseball star and Villa’s most successful football captain.
“Devey’s first exposure as an Aston Villa player was actually on the baseball field, not on the football field, and this was a guy who went on to captain Aston Villa during the 1890s when they won five league titles and two FA Cups,’’ says Gray. “He was the captain when they won the double in 1897. He was one of the all-time Aston Villa greats, who actually played baseball for them first. It’s worth adding, on John Devey, he was a brilliant baseball player, who led the statistical categories at the end of the year, including being the league’s batting champion.”
Devey played a key part in helping Villa to the baseball title which they clinched in the penultimate match, but by then the end was already nigh for the one-season-wonder league.
The traditional British weather rained on the league’s parade with crowds at the Perry Barr ground shared with the football club fluctuating between 100 and 1,000 depending on the elements. League organisers, including McGregor, who is believed to have made a loss, were forced to halve the 6d admission because it was deemed unfair to charge as much for a new sport as for football.
• Joe Gray’s book is available to download as a pdf from the Project Cobb website
Aston Villa signed Albert Hall from Stourbridge in 1903 and he scored six goals in nine league outings during his first season at Villa Park. Noted as a hard-working, outside left who teamed up well with Joe Bache between 1904 and 1910, Hall was a consistent goalscorer – 61 goals in 214 league and cup appearances. He left Villa in 1913 to join Millwall and retired three years later. Hall won an FA Cup with Villa in 1905 and a First Division championship medal in 1910, the same year he won his only England cap in a game against Ireland.
• source: Wikipedia
Here’s an insight into the salary levels of the Aston Villa players for season 1893-94. Top earners were Willie Groves on £5 per week and Bob Chatt on £4 per week. That equates to around £600 and £500 per week in today’s reckoning. They were also paid an appearance bonus of ten shillings.
Willie Groves only lasted a season playing for Villa. He joined the club from West Bromwich Albion in 1893, the first £100 plus transfer in football. After assisting the Baggies to an FA Cup Final victory against Villa the previous season he then went on to help his new club to its first League Championship in 1894. Groves left Villa in November that year, when he was unable to agree new terms with the club and returned to Hibernian, the team he started out with in Scotland. He later moved to Celtic but soon retired from the game after contracting TB. Groves died in 1909, age 39.
Here’s a brief bio (courtesy of cartoonist Wayne) on Albert Wilkes the Aston Villa half-back who also enjoyed a fine reputation off the park as a sports photographer. His photo library is now archived with Colorsport Images in London.
“An interesting character, Albert Wilkes was much respected in and out of football. Educated at Walsall Road School, he played his early football with Oldbury Town and Walsall before joining Aston Villa in1898. Albert was a fine singer who appeared around Midland music halls in the 1920’s. He became a Villa director in 1934 and was a Grand Master in the Freemasons. Albert kept a photographic studio in West Bromwich where he continued to be a snappy operator! Known for his competittive streak and sheer hard work, Albert went south to join Fulham in 1907-08, then Chesteerfield where he wound up a great career. He made 150 senior appearances and scored eight goals for Aston Villa and was capped by England five times. Albert received the Royal HUmane Society Award for saving a young fan from drowning. A West Bromwich-born Villa hero!”
From a Birmingham newspaper report, January 8, 1897
There was a rumour current in local football circles last week that Aston Villa were endeavouring to secure Divers, the Celtic forward who was recently suspended indefinitely because he refused to play unless certain reporters were excluded from the ground. How Messrs Jones, Doe, and Clucas must have trembled in their shoes when they heard that that player might leave his home in Glasgow to take up his quarters in Birmingham! Doubtless they wondered how the Villa committee would act if they were placed in the same predicament as the Celts recently were. However, their alarm was needless, for Divers is not coming to the Villa, and the local football scribes can continue to say whatever they please – in their usual fair manner of course – until some of the adversely criticised players happen to meet them one dark night, and then – but it’s too awful to contemplate.
From the Midland Daily Telegraph… Association Notes by Dribbler
On Saturday, Arthur Brown, one of the best forwards who has ever put a toe to a ball, played for the first time in his native city. The people of Coventry have taken, and still take, more interest in the doing of Aston Villa than any other leading club. That interest was, in the first instance, created by the fact that Coventry claimed the two Browns as her sons, a claim that has often been disputed; but any doubt that may have entertained was removed on Saturday.
Arthur Brown says that he was born in the Spon End district, but he cannot name the exact spot. Albert was also born there; but when he was four and Arthur nine years of age, the family removed to Birmingham. They have relations in Coventry – in fact, a cousin of the two brothers occupied a position on Singer’s committee.
Arthur served his football apprenticeship with a club called the Florence, who used to play on Aston Park. In the same team was Howard Vaughton, who has since become celebrated as a cyclist, boxer, skater, Staffordshire county cricketer and international footballer; also Eli David, the king of the left screw kickers. Olly Whateley, too, the patentee of the “daisy cutter” shot, sometimes gave the Florence a lift.
From that club Brown passed into the ranks of Aston Unity, and in the season of 1878-79 played in a memorable cup-tie against Aston Villa at the Lower Grounds, the game ending in a one to none victory for the Perry Barr men. The winning point was scored by George Ramsay, now the paid manager of the Villa club, in the last minute of play.
The next season found Arthur playing for the Villa. Again the club was pitted against the Unity in the Birmingham cup competition, but this time the latter went down by 16 (ten scored by Brown) to none. On this occasion Ted Brown, another member of the Coventry family, was among the defeated ones.
In the season 1881-82 Arthur Brown represented England aganst Sotland, Ireland and Wales, in playing in company with Howard Vaughton, and that great right-winger George Holden. In the Ireland match Brown placed four goals to his credit, and against Scotland got the only goal that fell to the Englishmen. By the way, he wore his international white as an under jersey in last Saturday’s game.
To enumerate his many grand performances with Aston Villa is impossible, to say nothing of the many occasions upon which he has distinguished himself for the Birmingham and Staffordshire Associations. He was, in his day, a very good shot, and a prettier dribbler or a more tricky forward has never been seen.
He was reinstated as an amateur as recently as a month since. At the time when he was such a prominent figure in the football field, first class players were unable to reap the rich harvest that now falls to their share; and Brown’s unselfish devotion to the game is fully shown by the fact that he is at present playing for a club who cannot well afford to pay the travelling expenses of its players.
His brother Albert was elected to play for England a couple or three seasons ago, but as the Villa had a big match on, he was prevailed upon to forego the honour, and he will probably never get another chance, although he hopes to again appear with the Villa after Christmas.
source: Lionel Bird
From the Villa News and Record, September 1, 1906
“For his size, Arthur Brown was probably the most brilliant and successful player produced in the Midlands. Sturdy, though small, he could dribble through opponents with astonishing ease and grace. In his day he had no local rival, and was scarcely overshadowed by his great captain, Archie Hunter. As a pair, they were simply formidable in many games as centre-forwards. Full of grit, good-tempered, and a magnificent worker, he shone in any company. Made a big mark in international games and was not exactly overburdened with honours.”
Blackburn Rovers are badly in want of new players, and are making strenuous efforts to strengthen their team. An emissary from Rovers was in Birmingham last week to persuade, if possible, the Villa to transfer Jack Reynolds to them, but the League Champions do not intend to part with the “veteran” yet awhile: he will be very useful should one of the regular halves get injured or go “off colour”. Though his appearance betokens his age, Reynolds is by no means the oldest player belonging to the Villa club, and he has plenty of good football in him yet.
• Source: a local newspaper report, December 11, 1896
1890-91 wasn’t the best of seasons for Aston Villa. Without Archie Hunter to lead them – he had retired in January 1890 – the team struggled to compete at top level, finishing in ninth place in the League and exiting from the FA Cup in the second round. However, Villa retained two local trophies, the Mayor of Birmingham Chaity Cup, and the Birmingham Senior Cup, and also lifted the Staffordshire Cup for a second time.
The end of season line-up is: (back row) Alfred Albut, Fred Dawson, Joshua Margoschis. (middle row) James Lees, Billy Dickson, Jimmy Warner, James Cowan, Albert Allen, Tom McKnight, Charlie Hare, Harry Devey, George Campbell, Fred Burton, Isaac Whitehouse, Jack Graham, William McGregor, Archie Hunter. (front row) Fred Cooper, Charlie Athersmith, Albert Brown, Gershom Cox, Dennis Hodgetts, Louis Campbell, George Ramsay.
Perhaps the greatest of all Villa captains to have donned the claret and blue shirt, Archie Hunter arrived in Birmingham from Scotland on 8th August 1878 without “a single friend in the town”. But the Scotsman did not remain friendless for too long. Withing days he had joined Aston Villa, a move to prove a major factor in establishing the club’s early successful playing history.
Triumphs of the Football Field, narrated by Archie Hunter, the Famous Villa Captain, was first serialised in the Birmingham Weekly Mercury of 1890. It records Hunter’s early life in Scotland and his successful career with Aston Villa before his premature death in 1894. As well as offering an insight to the genesis of Aston Villa, the book also provides plenty of tales and anecdotes of football life in the late 19th century.
Here’s an unusual item from the Fifa Collection that is housed at the National Football Museum in Manchester. It’s described as an Aston Villa matchsafe – a white metal vesta case with a fine enamel decoration recording the club’s League and FA Cup ‘double’ season of 1896-97, including a portrait of club captain John Devey.
It was a pity rain spoilt Devey’s benefit match, for, on a fine day, the game would have attracted sufficient spectators to make it worth while playing, though after the experience spectators have had of friendly matches at Perry Barr, it would be absurd to expect an attendance which would give a player an adequate reward for all his years of service.
Happily, however, Devey’s friends have worked hard on his behalf, and there is no reason to doubt that he will receive more than £100, which is about the usual amount derived from a Villa benefit.
Of the game little need be said; there was no need for the players to exert themselves, and they didn’t. It proves conclusively, however, that Smith is not now fit for the first team, and that Chatt is by no means a terror. Evans, the new back is, we should say, a decided acquisition.
In view of the match with the Albion tomorrow, training rules have been strictly enforced during the week, and a great effort is to be made to win another match at home.
source: local press coment, October 9, 1896.
In the aftermath of Aston Villa’s success in winning the League and Cup ‘double’ in 1897, this letter from the former player Billy Watts was published in a local newspaper.
Presentation Medals to Aston Villa Directors & Officers
Sir – I was pleased to hear that the officials of the above club had been presented with medallions in recognition of services rendered, and I venture to suggest to the management that it would be a graceful act on their part if they could allow such a splendid recognition to act retrospective by honouring the small band of players now left to us who worked so hard in the early history of the club (without fee or expenses), and who subscribed the finances out of their then limited means to keep the concern going. Philospher Jack’s philosophy says had it not been for these pioneers and their hard work on and off the field (including bill posting etc., etc.) the present directorate would have nothing to direct. Going back to the first match played upon their old meadow – viz., against Wednesbury Town – I find we have still in our midst the following old players who took part in same: G. B. Ramsay, Jack Hughes, Teddy Lee, Sammy Law, the writer of this letter, and I would add the names of Will Sothers and Tom Pank. These might be presented with a token which would admit them to present and future matches, and I would venture to suggest that they would be of service rather than otherwise to the management. It is not the intrinsic value, but the graceful recognition which would be appreciated.
W. H. Watts
From the Claret and Blue magazine, number 9, September 1994
Aston Villa historians, of whom there appears to be many about, will be interested in an extract sent in from an Aston Villa programme of 1908. A word portrait of ex-player Olly Whateley, who played for the club between 1881-86, quotes him as making an unusual claim.
In wishing everyone ‘interested in the claret-and-blue colours” good luck, he adds as an aside… “which, I may remind you were designed by my humble self.”
Whateley’s correspondence to the club in that October of 1908 came from his address in London, a house which he called “Aston Villa”, in Charlwood Road, Putney. Does that house and sign still exist, we wonder?
Whateley’s occupation outside of football was a commercial artist. There are two samples of his on display at Villa Park, illuminated tributes to W. B. Mason and John Devey.
Here’s another rare Aston Villa team group. It’s from the 1892-93 season, and likely to have been taken at one of Villa’s away games, which could probably be identified by the line-up as follows:
(Standing) Dick Oxenbould (trainer), Peter Dowds, Fred Burton, Walter Evans, Bill Dunning, George Campbell, Joseph Dunkley, James Cowan, George Ramsay. (Seated) Albert Brown, Charlie Athersmith, Charles Hare, John Devey, Dennis Hodgetts.
Dowds joined VIlla from Celtic in the summer of 1892 and stayed just one season before moving on to Stoke and then returning to Celtic. He died from TB at the early age of 24 in September 1895. A headstone was laid in 2014 by the Celtic Graves Society, to mark Dowds burial site.
This illuminated address was presented to Villa player and team captain John Devey on the occasion of his benefit match against Derby County, played at Villa’s Perry Barr ground on Monday, October 5, 1896.
The artwork was produced by the former Villa forward Oliver Whately, a commercial artist who claimed he introduced the famous combination of claret and blue as the club colours which first appeared as stripes on the kit worn for season 1886-87 when Villa won the FA Cup for the first time; so it is interesting to see how Whateley’s colours on his artwork match with those of modern times. Devey’s benefit match raised £100 for the player who later became a director of the club.
The illuminated address reads as follows:
• On the occasion of your benefit match – Derby County v. Aston Villa – we, the undersigned, on behalf of your numerous friends and admirers who have subscribed, ask your acceptance of a cheque value £100, as a mark of esteem for, and goodwill towards you, and as an acknowledgement of your great, successful, and unique skill as an Athlete extending over a period of 13 years.
• We remember with pleasure that you were for four years a forward player for the late St. George’s Football Club, abd were Captain during the latter portion of this time, and since the year 1892 you have held some honorable position in connection with the renowned Aston Villa Football Club.
• Under your judicious, kindly, yet firm captaincy, this club has more than maintained the prominent position it attained under the leadership of your predecessor – the evr to be remembered and beloved Archie Hunter.
• We record with gratification that during your Captaincy the Club has enjoyed the proud distinction of twice securing the League Championship, years 1894 and 1896, and winning the English Cup in 1895, besides numerous other Local Trophies, and your splendid play and Captaincy have been largely instrumental in producing these brilliant results.
• In the glorious cause of Charity, you have ever been a willing worker, ungrudgingly placing your services at the disposal of your club, for Charity matches.
• Your courteous demeanour, manliness of character, love of fair play, and power as a leader, have alike endeared you to comrades and opponents, whilst the willing admiration of countless thousands has testified to your skill on the football and cricket fields.
• We trust your career as an athlete will long continue, and when, in the natural course of things, retirement comes, that your days may be long in the land, and passed in the part of it, in which you have worthily lived, and with which you are so closely and honourably identified, and that you may yearly see the games to which you are so devoted, increase in popularity, bringing fuller health, and improved physique to its legion of players and followers.
Signed on behalf of the Subscribers: W. McGregor (Chairman), Joseph Dunkley (Treasurer)
Signed on behalf of the Committe: J. Adams and A. W. Cooknell (Hon. Secretary)
“Olly” Whateley, Illuminator, Elm Lodg, Mortlake, London
There was a period during the latter half of the 1880s when Villa team groups began to show more club officials in the line-up than players. This probably gave birth to the phrase “official team group”, signifying that the photograph was commissioned by the Villa hierarchy as a record of the club’s success in winning trophies.
This photo, taken to record the club’s trophy haul for the 1889-90 season, is a typical example. In fact, there are only TEN Villa players in the lineup. The 19 other men are all club officials.
So which Villa player is missing from the “official photocall”? It has to be the great Archie Hunter and team captain who collapsed while playing for Villa at Everton on January 4, 1890. Hunter was later given medical advice to retire as a player, which he accepted, and he never took to the field again in Villa colours. It’s possible that Hunter may have returned to Scotland for a period to recuperate, hence his absence from the team photograph. He later served on Villa’s committee until his premature death in November 1894.
The imbalance in the photograph between players and officials was intentional. It’s a tribute photograph intended to honour an “absent friend”; a full turn out by club officials, and where no other player was drafted in to fill the vacant spot left by Hunter – hence only ten players in the group. Officials and players were united in expressing their esteem for the club captain they considered irreplaceable.
The standing players are: Albert Aldridge, Frank Coulton, Dennis Hodgetts, Thomas Clarkson, Albert Brown and James Cowan. Seated are Harry Devey, Albert Allen, Gershom Cox and goalkeeper James Warner.
From the Aston Villa News & Record, December 26, 1927
“When I was first on the Aston Villa committee we used to meet in a small room at the “Village Maid” in Finch Road, and of the few then present, I can think of only one beside myself left to tell the tale. It was considered a bold venture when we took the ground at Perry Barr.
“I wonder how many of the present directors would like to be employed taking round bills announcing the matches, and asking shopkeepers to exibit them. The line of type announcing the the price of admission was always the same: “Admission 3d. Ladies free” and if 30s. was taken at the gate it was reckoned good.
“On match days the first committeeman on the ground was required to fetch the corner flags and goal tapes from a w.c. in the garden of the cottage where George Ramsay lodged. The present generation may not know what “goal tapes” are; they were a red tape about one-and-a-half inch wide, which were stretched across the two posts instead of the existing crossbar. You can well understand the disputes that arose as to whether the ball went under or over this loose, twisting, blown about contraption. Then think – no back nets, no linesmen, no offside and no efficient referee.
All our players then were occupied in business and could not, as a rule, get away before one o’clock on Saturdays. I used to leave Smethwick at the time, walk to Lozells, gobble down any food I could get as I dressed in my football togs, then run down Birchfields straight onto the playing pitch.
“I wonder how many players who have handled the Birmingham Charity Cup and perhaps admired the figure on the top, are aware that when Mr Moore (the modeller) desired “the perfect figure of an athlete,” the Birmingham Association flattered me by asking me to pose, which I did on seven or eight occasions at Mr. Moore’s private house in Leonard Road; so I shall always be in Brum, unless that Cup gets pinched like another I remember.”
• Less than two years after Tom Pank’s article was published in the Villa matchday programme, he died at the age of 70 in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital as a result of injuries received in a motor accident. He joined Aston Villa in 1875 and remained a playing member until 1882. In 1924 Pank was elected as a vice-president of the club.
From the Birmingham Daily Mail, 1897
At the Birminham Assizes on Monday, Sarah Byng, shopkeeper, Albert Road, Aston, sought to recover damages from John Reynolds, the well-known football player, formerly a member of the Aston Villa team, and now of the Celtic, Glasgow, for loss of services, through the seduction of her daughter. Mr Dorsett (instructed by Mr P. Baker) represented plaintiff, and Mr Harris (instructed by Mr Howlett), the defendant. In 1896 defendant lodged at the house of the plaintiff. In August he paid her daughter, Margarter Annie Byng, who was eighteen years of age, marked attention, went out for walks with her, and took her to the theatres. On December 11 a child was born, and a few months later an affiliation order was obtained against defendant, under which he had to pay 5s. a week. The girl worked at a hosier’s establishment, where she earned 15s. per week. She paid her mother 7s 6d per week, and assisted in the housework. In consequence of the seduction plaintiff was deprived of financial assistance, and also of her daughter’s services. A letter written by the defendant to plaintiff was read, in which he promised to come to Birmingham with a view to making an arrangement. He threatened to go abroad if they could not agree. He also stated that when he got to Scotland he commenced backing horses, and lost money. Jack Campbell lost £180 and Doyle twice that amount. Mr Harris, who did not call defendant, charachterised the action as vindictive. The jury found for the plaintiff, and awarded damages £20.
• More on this story and the life of Jack Reynolds at this link
This is a very early action picture of Aston Villa’s Howard Spencer, known as the Prince of Full-backs. It’s a staged photograph, one of a series taken to illustrate a feature on the Villa player in The Book of Football.
The Book of Football was a serialised magazine published in 12 fortnightly instalments during the course of the 1905/06 season. Part one appeared on Friday 20th October 1905 and the concluding part twelve on 23rd March 1906.
Howard Spencer joined Aston Villa in 1892 and went on to enjoy a successful playing career with the club until he retired in 1907 after making 294 appearances in all competitions. He also made six appearances for England. Spencer later joined the Aston Villa board in 1909 serving as a director until 1936.
For any genealogists out there with time on their hands, they may want to research the family connection between one of Aston Villa’s most famous supporters, HRH Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Howard Spencer, “Prince of Full-backs”.
There are at least four Vila players who have far too much flesh on them to play for an hour and a half without tiring greatly. These are Campbell, Devey, Welford and Reynolds (pictured); a week’s hard training would do them the world of good.
Press comment, September 7, 1896
Oh, if the Villa forwards would only stop that stupid practice of fiddling about in front of goal. Outsiders are poking fun at the Villa.
The Critic, September 25, 1896
This early England team photograph features two Aston Villa players – Howard Vaughton and Arthur Brown, both seated on the ground.
The England lineup is the team that lost 5-1 to Scotland at Hampden Park on March 11, 1882. Vaughton equalised after 35 minutes to level the score after Scotland had taken the lead in the 15th minute, but goals just either side of the break put England 3-1 behind after 46 minutes. Two further goals in the second half completed a convincing win for the Scots.
According to the testimony of John Hughes, a founder member, the Aston Villa Football Club was formed in March 1874. His account, serialised in two parts in the Sunday Mercury and Sunday News 50 years later in March 1934, records that Aston Villa’s first match “took place on the third Saturday in March in the year 1874.”
Hughes article also quoted the “full and complete match report” which appeared in the Birmingham Daily Mail as follows:
“Aston Villa v. St Mary’s, Aston Brook. This match was played at Birmingham on Saturday last and ended in a victory for the former by one goal to nil. Yeomans and Perry played well for St Mary’s and Price and Hughes for the Villa.”Sunday Mercury and Sunday News, March 30, 1924
Reseachers have yet to locate the particular edition of the Birmingam Daily Mail. Jack Hughes did not reference the publication date of the report in his article. He also stated that the fixture against St Mary’s was Villa’s “one and only match in the season of their inauguration.”
Jack would have been about 71 in 1924 when he wrote his ‘jubilee’ account of the club’s formation. He died peacefully at his home in Finch Road, Handsworth, seven years later.
Jack mentioned in his report that he was one of four young men deputed to attend a rugby match and express an opinion if the game was suitable as a winter sport for the cricketing members of the Aston Villa Weslyan Chapel’s male bible class. One of its members, W. B. Mason, was assisting the Grasshoppers club in their fixture against Handsworth which was played near Heathfield Road. After the match the so-called “committe of inspection” made its way to the top of Heathfield Road “and there in the dim light of the lamp” considered that the Rugby game to be “a little too rough”.
Seemingly, there were two fixtures between Handsworth and Grasshoppers in 1474 – the first on Wednesday, February 4, and the second on Saturday, November 21. Certainly Mason featured in the latter game, confirmed by the Birmingham Morning News on November 24, 1874. Ostensibly, there was no line-up of the teams published for the earlier match.
This is Hughes’ description of Villa’s “first ever match” which he claims to have taken place on Saturday, March 21, 1874. The first half was payed under Rugby rules, the second under ‘Association’ rules.
“The first match was contested on land in Wilson Road, Birchfields. It was to be cut up for building purpose, but the gentleman to whom it belonged offered us the temporary use of it. His name was Wilson, hence the name of the road – Wilson Road.
“Although we did not score any goals under rugby rules in the first half, our defenders excelled. I’m afraid, however, we did very little football, for the time was mainly occupied in lining up, throwing in and scrimmaging.
“The second half was much more to our liking. Instead of the oval ball we used a round ball, and we manipulated that wit much greater freedom and accuracy. Our opponents, too, put up a much better show. It was a strenuous game, and the ball travelled from end to end of the field at a rapid rate.
“The orphan goal, which enabled us to register Aston Villa’s first win came towards the end of the game. The ball came sailng down the centre to me, and running on towards goal, I made a shot towards the goalkeeper. It rebounded of him back to me, and at the second tie of asking I shot the ball into the net. Thus, not only was I instrumental in founding the famous club, but I was responsible for the goal which won Aston Villa’s first match.”Sunday Mercury and Sunday News, March 30, 1924
It’s probably likely that the match Hughes reported did not take place on March 7, 1874 but a year later on March 13, 1875. A brief report on the game between Aston Villa and St Mary’s found its way into the Birmingham Morning News on Tuesday, March 16:
“On Saturday a match was played between the Aston Villa Football Club and the St Mary’s Football Club, on the ground of the former. The first part of the afternoon was devoted to the Rugby rules, neither side getting a goal. Half time being called, the sides changed goals and proceeded, as before arranged, to play according to the association rules. After about half an hour of spirited play on both sides, a goal was won by the Villa team. At the conclusion of the game the ball remained in neutral ground, neither side gaining any advantage. Special praise is due to J. Hughes for the Villa, and to Mr Youlden on behlaf of the St Mary’s, who played exceedingly well.”Birmingham Morning News, Tuesday, March 16, 1875
But was this Villa’s first ever match? Not according to three earlier press reports. Seemingly the first arranged fixture for the Aston VIlla Football Club was against Aston Park Unity scheduled to be played at Aston Park on New Year’s Day, 1875. However the “non-arrival” of most of the Villa team meant that two teams “were selected from from the members and friends present on the ground, and an excellent game resulted.”
Jack Hughes was one of the Villa team who turned up to play with other “Villans” Price and Cartwright. The match report appeared in the Birmingham Morning News on the following Monday, January 4.
The fixture was re-arranged and played the next weekend on Saturday, January 9. Unity were victors scoring a single goal as reported by the BMN on Tuesday, January 12.
“Aston Park Unity v Aston Villa – These clubs met under ‘Sheffield Association Rules’ on Saturday last at Aston Park, and a well-contested match resulted. Hundy kicked off at 30 minutes past three, and for some time the game was carried on pretty evenly, but just before halftime the Villa obtained a goal, which, however, was disallowed, owing to one of their side having ‘fouled’ the ball. On changing ends at half-time the Unity carried the ball into their opponent’s quarters, and a goal was at length obtained out of a ‘bully’ in front of the goal. The rest of the play was slightly in favour of the Unity, but when darkness stopped the game the ball rested in neutral territory. Both sides worked hard, but W. Hundy, F. Kirby and W. Shuttleworth for the Unity, and W. Price, Mason and G. Matthews for the Villa, deserve special mention.”Birmingham Morning News, Tuesday, January 12, 1875
Villa’s lineup was: G. Matthews (captain), W. Price, J. Hughes, McBean, A. Walters, W. Scattergood, H. Matthews, E. Lee, A Robbins, G. Mason, Weis. Villa’s nominated reserves and match officials were C. Midgley, T. F. Smith and Lewis.
Aston Villa’s third fixture prior to the game against St Mary’s was another match against Aston Park Unity played at Aston Park on Saturday, January 30. It resulted in a two-nil win for Unity. Jack Hughes was not in the Villa line-up for this match reported in the BMN on Tuesday, February 2.
From these press reports it can be seen that Aston Villa had arranged three games with Aston Park Unity before taking on St Mary’s in the ‘historic’ half-rugby-half-soccer match claimed to be the club’s first ever fixture.
The claim of Aston Villa Football Club being formed in 1874 can be considered legit, so also Jack Hughes’ claim to fame as the club’s first goalscorer, But his assertion that the fixture with St Mary’s was the club’s first match is certainly questionable. The re-scheduled match against Aston Park Unity on January 9, 1875, is more likely the truth of the matter.
• Match reports contributed by Rod Evans