Monday, 22 October 2018

As Dean Smith takes the reins, why Aston Villa's in the blood

Birmingham-born Jonny is TV journalist who lives and works in London. He’s a Sky News regular reviewing the papers and talking sport. He was sports editor of Beacon Radio in the late eighties and early nineties, covering a Villa season of (near) glory under Graham Taylor.

He went to Handsworth Grammar School, ate orange chips at the Lightwoods Saloon and was there with Nigel Kennedy to see Chelsea 8 Villa 0 in The Shed.

Recently, he interviewed Peter Withe about his career biography, penned by Simon Goodyear.

He records a regular podcast with fellow Villa Trust director, Howard Hodgson. His favourite season is 80-81 “where nothing went wrong!”; his favourite manager is Ron Saunders and he dreams of this passing move: Paul McGrath to Ian Taylor, who finds Brian Little for Gordon Cowans to Juan Pablo Angel, back to David Platt for a late run to Andy Gray who heads down to Peter Withe (and in off the post!) - with enthusiastic touchline applause from Dalian Atkinson and Gary Shaw. He’d love to tell Archie Hunter, William McGregor (and Grandpa Benno) what their club became!

I’m a very lucky Aston Villa supporter. I’ve seen the League title, a European Cup, many League Cups – and one day the FA Cup will complete the set.

Born during Villa’s steep decline in the sixties and too young to remember it, I emerged as witness to unprecedented glory in the early 80’s. Mind you, I knew heartache too – there were two successive 8th place finishes in those early years!

Back then, we had a priceless commodity – continuity. Ron Saunders was manager from 1974 to 1982. He had a quiet charisma and an inner certainty schooled in an English work ethic. Many talk of teams playing 4-4-2 back then – but Villa appeared to me 3-5-2 off the ball and 3-2-5 with it, Wasn’t that the way dating back to the fifties too?

My first game was in the Holte with dad, a 4-1 midweek thrashing by Manchester City in 1977. I was too small to see the action – so I concentrated on staring at those iconic floodlights imprinting “AV” images on my closed eyelids!

Dennis Tueart scored a hat-trick – and the Evening Mail reported we were about to sign him for £300,000 - but he preferred New York Cosmos instead! #mistake

I’m a third generation Villan. My grandfather, a professional footballer of note in the twenties (a Championship winner in Vienna by the name of Ben Posaner) came to Birmingham in 1939. From the late 40’s, he owned the typewriter shop directly next door to Aston Railway Station and Lover’s Walk. He used to take a lunchtime pint in the Britannia.

The first team I remember gave birth to the Championship side. Ron replaced players but kept formation the same. It was Burridge, Gidman, Robson, Philips, Nicholl, Mortimer, Deehan, Little, Gray, Cropley, Carrodus. A silverware-winning side and the sign of things to come.

Were the ’77 League Cup winners better than the ’81 Champions? It’s debated by many of us who remember. All I can say is there was considerable upheaval between the two trophy captures and luck played a part as we stayed remarkably injury-free through our league winning season using only 14 players. A record which will never be broken.

If today’s Holte Enders think pressure’s greater on bosses today, think again. In 1979, when Andy Gray was sold to Wolves for an equivalent £80m in today’s money, we just couldn’t score. “Saunders is a w***er” echoed from the skies! He faced the sack, no question.

Also, the newly-built North Stand had created a drainage problem and a muddy pitch, the Bendalls and Doug Ellis were having a live scrap on Gary Newbon’s ATV sports show too.

Echoes of today, eh? That’s what I mean about luck. There was a lot of turmoil in the background.

Then finished-product Peter Withe was brought in from Newcastle to replace Gray’s misfiring replacement, David Geddis. I had the privilege of interviewing Peter for Simon Goodyear's biography.

Gary Shaw, Colin Gibson, Gary Williams and Gordon Cowans came of age and John Gidman was also moved on for big money. He was replaced by Chelsea’s Kenny Swain. We even won the BBC Sportsnight five-a-side title too! Allan Evans and Ken McNaught were already mainstays of an emerging team.

There was nothing wrong with the FOOTBALL as it turned out!

I went to the pop-up Champions League museum before the Wembley Final in 2011 which Aston Villa were, of course part of. It’s with immense pride I recall Rotterdam. The champagne bubbles of success never truly subside and we sit forever among the pantheon names of European football with Madrid, Milan, Munich and Manchester.

This should be the inspiration and catalyst for every season. It just hasn’t been for at least a decade.

There’ve been exciting seasons since. Graham Taylor’s second-placers in 89/90 and Big Ron and Andy Gray’s Premier League runners-up three years later.

Big Ron took full advantage of Liverpool’s jettisoning of top stars like Houghton, Staunton and Saunders and he kept McGrath on the straight and narrow. Dalian, Dwight and Deano marauded upfront – but what Ron and Andy fully understood so clearly was the Villa tradition. That’s why we played with excitement and veuve. The lights were truly on at Villa Park in the 90’s.

I live in London. If I talk to an Arsenal or Chelsea fan like this, they don’t know what I’m talking about.

Fast-forwarding to today: I’m heartbroken at our slide down English football. Our decline is not as apparent as that of say, Leeds or Forest (because we've been saved by Messrs. Sawiris and Edens) – but our chances of winning the title are frankly only marginally better than theirs.

Villa were genuinely level with Arsenal and Liverpool at the start of the Premier League era – but we haven’t shown faith to invest in the way they have. It’s as though the belief that the grand old club Aston Villa, is beyond the memory of all who’ve run it since.

The 42,000 attendance for Dean Smith's first game as our new manager shows why I believe we're still on a par with Everton and Spurs as one of England's foremost clubs.

I see the Premier League as made up of three divisions: the perennial Champions League qualifiers, the wannabes  – and the fodder. Let’s get back to being a wannabe, eh?

We’ve been buoyed by incredible TV cash for twenty years – but where are we? Lost. I think we're about to be found.

Aston Villa needs to connect with its past to understand the potential moving forward. Everyone aged 40 and above knows it – anyone under 40 needs to dust off the history books and imagine it.

The McGregor statue and the lantern are welcome reminders of our truly unique tradition in the world of sport – but we need to be a thriving community as much as a museum - and Dean Smith and Christian Purslow's arrivals are a flag in the sand pointing to better days, just the like one I enjoyed as a 9-year-old in 1976.

This has turned into a prayer for a brighter Aston Villa future – but I hope it’s one we can all say together!

Up The Villa!

Talk to Jonny on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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