The beginning of Aston Villa and the Football League
In 1874, Jack Hughes, Frederick Matthews, William Scattergood and William Price met under a gas light in Heathfield Road, Birmingham to discuss the formation of a football team. Given that all four of the men were members of the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel cricket team, they were looking for a sport to keep them fit during the winter months when the cricket season was over. After witnessing an impromptu game played in a meadow, it was decided that football would be their sport and Aston Villa would be their name. Aston Villa’s first game was played against Aston Brook St Mary’s rugby team and was a mixed match of both rugby and football. The first half, played to rugby rules finished a scoreless draw and the second half, played to football rules, finished 1-0 to Villa. Prior to the formation of the football league, clubs would be responsible for arranging their own fixtures. Due to numerous cancellations, William McGregor, a member of Villa’s board of directors, became increasingly frustrated at the lack of organisation and in March 1888 wrote to the committee of Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion suggesting that a league be created to ensure football teams had guaranteed home and away fixtures:
“Every year it is becoming more and more difficult for football clubs of any standing to meet their friendly engagements and even arrange friendly matches. The consequence is that at the last moment, through cup-tie interference, clubs are compelled to take on teams who will not attract the public.
I beg to tender the following suggestion as a means of getting over the difficulty: that ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home-and-away fixtures each season, the said fixtures to be arranged at a friendly conference about the same time as the International Conference.
This combination might be known as the Association Football Union, and could be managed by representative from each club. Of course, this is in no way to interfere with the National Association; even the suggested matches might be played under cup-tie rules. However, this is a detail.
My object in writing to you at present is merely to draw your attention to the subject, and to suggest a friendly conference to discuss the matter more fully. I would take it as a favour if you would kindly think the matter over, and make whatever suggestions you deem necessary. I am only writing to the following – Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion, and Aston Villa, and would like to hear what other clubs you would suggest.
I am, yours very truly, William McGregor (Aston Villa F.C.)
P.S. How would Friday, 23rd March, 1888, suit for the friendly conference at Anderton’s Hotel, London?”
In September 1888, the first football league kicked off and was made up of 12 teams, Aston Villa being one of them. Such was McGregor’s contribution to Aston Villa, he has a hospitality suite named after him at Villa Park and in 2008, Aston Villa announced plans to honour his contribution to the club with a bronze statue outside the stadium. During the early years, Villa played their matches in Aston Park and moved to Perry Barr where they would remain until 1897 when, due to the large crowds attending their matches, they moved to Villa Park, originally known as Aston Lower Grounds (a former Victorian Amusement Park), where they have remained to date.
Glory, Glory Aston Villa – The Early Years
After winning the Birmingham Senior Cup in 1880, Villa won their first major trophy in 1887 winning the FA Cup, beating West Bromwich Albion 2-0 in the final. Captain at the time Archie Hunter, who would later go on to be named in the Football League 100 Legends list, scored in every round of the competition. Such was his affiliation with the club, he was buried in Witton Cemetary only a mile from Perry Barr and Villa Park and the club erected a monument in his honour. The monument reads:
“This monument is erected in loving memory of Archie Hunter (the famous captain of Aston Villa) by his football comrades and the club, as a lasting tribute to his ability on the field and his sterling worth as a man.”
In 1893/94 Villa won their first League title finishing six points ahead of Sunderland. The 1890’s was a successful period for Villa, as following their league success in 1893/94, they also won the league in 1895/96 finishing four points ahead of Derby County and in 1896/97 finishing 11 points clear of Sheffield United. In the 1896/97 season Villa also won the FA Cup for a third time to become only the second football club to win the league and FA Cup double after Preston North End. In 1898/99 Villa won the league again, this time finishing just two points ahead of Liverpool and in 1899/00, Villa won their fifth league title, again finishing just two points ahead of Sheffield United.
Captain for much of this period of incredible success was John Devey, who made 308 appearances for the club over an 11 year period and scoring an incredible 186 goals. Devey, born in Newtown in Birmingham in 1866, joined Villa in March 1891 and went on to win five League Championship medals and two FA Cup winners medals. In 1909/10, after a ten year gap, Villa won the league for a sixth time finishing five points clear of Liverpool. During this period, Harry Hampton was a prominent figure for Villa scoring an unbelievable 242 goals (including 14 hat-tricks) in 376 appearances for the club over a 16 year period from 1904 to 1920.
After a successful 35 years at the pinnacle of the English Football League, in the 1935/36 season Villa were relegated after finishing second from bottom on 35 points with only Blackburn registering a lower tally of 33. In 1937/38, Villa won the Second Division and were restored to the top tier of English football. Following the Second World War, Villa, under the guidance of former player Eric Houghton, went on to win their seventh FA Cup in 1957 beating Manchester United in the final at Wembley Stadium. Despite their success two seasons earlier, in the 1958/59 season, Villa were relegated again to the Second Division but returned to the top flight a year later as Second Division champions. Again, Villa struggled and in the 1966/67 Villa were relegated to the Second Division. This time however, the club struggled in the Second Division finishing 16th and pressure mounted on manager Tommy Cummings and the board. As Villa continued to struggle in the Second Division, Cummings was sacked and the board resigned and were replaced by Pat Matthews who appointed Doug Ellis as chairman.
At the end of the 1969/70 season, despite a new board and manager being in place, Villa were relegated to the Third Division for the first time in their history. In the 1971/72 season, manager Vic Crowe led Villa to the Third Division Championship and in the 1974/75 season Villa were promoted to the First Division after finishing runners up to Manchester United.
Glory days return
In the 1980/81 season under manager Ron Saunders, Villa won their seventh First Division title after finishing ahead of Ipswich Town. Villa used only 14 players during the entire campaign and relied heavily on heroes such as Peter Withe, Gary Shaw, Tony Morley, Gordan Cowans and club captain Dennis Mortimer. The following season, Villa were crowned Champions of Europe after defeating Bayern Munich 1-0 in the final of the European Cup. Despite being outplayed for large parts of the game. Peter Withe, scored the winner and secured the victory.
In the 1986/87 season, Villa were relegated again to the Second Division after finishing bottom of the table