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By Adam Szreter
Villa supporter Adam Szeter recalls getting into Aston Villa during the 1970’s in a time of Andy Gray and Brian Little, and being at Villa Park, for the infamous friendly against Rangers that got abandoned before the hour mark.
By rights I should have been a Baggies fan. I was born in Handsworth, midway between Villa Park and the Hawthorns, and my dad was a keen Albion fan so he took me to games there from a young age. I saw some great players like Asa Hartford, Tony Brown, Jeff Astle, Willie Johnston, Lawrie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, and some not-so-great players like Paddy Mulligan. Some of the opposition weren’t bad either: I saw Luigi Riva playing in an Anglo-Italian Cup tie in 1971 for about five minutes before a boot in the shins from John Wile convinced him to take the rest of the game off. My biggest regret was the day we arrived to find the turnstiles closed when a Man United team featuring George Best was in town.
In those days Villa were floundering around in the old third and second divisions and I had little interest in them. But in spite of everything – or maybe because of Paddy Mulligan – I didn’t become a West Brom fan. I did have a mate whose dad read the Villa Times, but Villa was on the wrong side of Perry Barr for me. I was actually infatuated with the great Leeds United team, especially Terry Cooper and Eddie Gray – maybe because I was left-footed.
I carried on supporting Leeds and going down the Albion with dad for a couple more years, but then one day in 1975 – March 15 to be precise – a schoolfriend invited me to go to Villa Park with him. By then, in Ron Saunders’ first season in charge, Villa were riding high in the Second Division and a couple of weeks earlier they’d won the League Cup, beating Saunders’ old team Norwich 1-0 in the final at Wembley.
The day I went to see Villa for the first time we were at home to Southampton. I was sitting in the Trinity lower and just spent the whole match gazing up in awe at the Holte End. I think in those days the Holte’s capacity was an incredible 28,000, and even though it wasn’t full it was still raucous and really alluring to a 12-year-old kid in search of some meaning in life.
Villa legends like Charlie Aitken, Chico Hamilton and Ray Graydon were playing that day, as was Keith Leonard who but for injury might well have become the best number nine Villa ever had. We won 3-0 with Graydon and Leonard both on the scoresheet, and I was hooked for life. The next game, which happened to be against West Brom, I was in the Holte End, as I was for the final home game of the season against Sunderland when more than 57,000 spectators saw us win promotion back to the old First Division. I ended that match celebrating on the pitch, like most other Villa fans.
First Villa Match
First Villa Hero
Being a Villa fan in the late 1970s was generally bloody good, especially watching the first team that Ron Saunders built. I loved Brian Little and John Gidman – they were skillful, fast, attacking, and both had great hair. Dennis Mortimer was our Captain Fantastic, the team motor who dominated the middle of the park. But for his enthusiasm, his bravery, and no little skill, my first Villa hero was a player who lit up Villa Park for a couple of seasons before it all turned sour between him and Saunders. “Ohhh Andy, Andy – Andy, Andy, Andy, Andy, Andy Gray!” Chicory Tip anyone?
Ultimate Villa Legend
Well, since he didn’t quite make it into the category above, and since he went on to become our manager (and a pretty good one at that) after being one of the best strikers we’ve ever had – and since I was lucky enough to interview him once – I’d say Brian Little. Like so many players from Midlands clubs, Little was never appreciated by England, only winning one miserable cap when his talent merited so much more. He and Gray were a great attacking pair, and still my pick ahead of Shaw and Withe, Atkinson and Saunders.
Favourite Villa Memory
Hmmm, there have been a few, including being at the Clock End the day we won the league, but if I could remember more about it I’d say when we beat Liverpool 5-1 in 1976. I do remember waiting for autographs outside the players’ entrance before the game and being awe-struck by the size of Phil Thomson’s nose, but that’s about it. So I would say when we won the League Cup at the end of the same season, after two replays against Everton in the final.
I went to all three games. The first, at Wembley, was so dull it wasn’t true. Neither side turned up. The second, at Hillsborough, I don’t think was much better though at least there were a couple of goals. But the final game, at Old Trafford about a month later, made up for it all. I will admit to shouting at Chris Nicholl not to bloody shoot from 30 yards when we were 1-0 down with about 10 minutes to go. Couldn’t believe it when the ball sailed away past their keeper before Little worked his magic for the win.
My Villa Story
Scottish Chaos at Villa Park
In the 1976/77 season I was a 14-year-old season-ticket holder. We won 18 out of 21 home games and lost only one (to the Blues of course). It included the famous 5-1 win over European champions Liverpool, and people sometimes forget we also won 5-1 against an Arsenal team featuring Alan Ball, Liam Brady and Malcolm MacDonald. That was just 10 days after a friendly against Rangers, one Saturday afternoon that no one there will ever forget.
The game was arranged during an international break, with the likes of Andy Gray and Chris Nicholl off with Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. It was around the time of the height of football hooliganism in Britain. I made my way to the ground as usual that day, hopping off the No 11 bus at Witton roundabout, walking up Witton Road, left on Nelson Road and on to Trinity Road. As I approached the ground I could hear a familiar refrain that Villa fans used to sing in homage to Brian Little to the tune of the old Christmas carol Deck The Halls. But as I got closer to the Holte End, instead of hearing “Brian Little Walks On Water, la la la la la, la la la la”, I found myself listening to a tartan army singing “Sandy Jardine Walks On Water, trrrrrrra la la la la, la la la la.”
Rangers had taken the Holte! What was going on? A friendly policeman spotted my confusion and told me that I might want to consider watching the game from the Witton End (soon to become the North Stand). It seemed like sound advice, so off I went.
There were Rangers fans in there too, but not so many, although those were the days when travelling fans thought nothing of relieving themselves on the terraces so they made their presence felt. The game kicked off and after about half an hour we went 1-0 up thanks to Dennis Mortimer. Great, we thought. Here we go. There was obviously some trouble at half-time, with fans spilling on to the pitch at the Holte End, but the game re-started and after 52 minutes we went 2-0 up. Frank Carrodus. That was the cue for the Rangers fans in the Holte End to go ballistic.
After celebrating our second goal with Villa fans around me, I looked back at the pitch and suddenly there was a sea of fans running across it towards the Witton End. At the time I thought it was Rangers fans coming after us, but now I know it was fans of both sides literally fighting a pitch battle! Either way, back on the Witton End everyone buggered off, heading for the exits which thankfully had been opened on police orders. I ran all the way back to my mate’s house, halfway to Erdington. Relief! The players also beat a hasty retreat and the match was abandoned as some of the worst violence ever witnessed at Villa Park ensued. Two were stabbed and I think up to 100 injured on the pitch.
It was estimated that up to 30,000 Rangers fans had found their way to Birmingham one way or another. Coach loads had been arriving through the night as well as many on the overnight sleeper train from Glasgow, and by mid-morning they’d drunk the city dry, were pissing through people’s letter-boxes and running all over the Aston Expressway. There were arrests in town well before the game and it’s said that the gates to the Holte End were kicked down before any police had arrived. According to eye-witnesses it was raining bottles on the Holte throughout the game, with Rangers fans as young as 14 passed out or p*ssed senseless.
I’m happy to say that I didn’t see any of the violence up close, but just being in the Witton End that day was enough to scare the pants off me. I went out that night, to another mate’s house in Harborne, and took the No 11 home at the end of the night. I went upstairs and there on the back seat, out of their brains, were two lost Rangers fans, presumably going round and round Birmingham all evening on the outer circle bus!
I remember seeing Rangers fans in the city centre for days afterwards, many of them congregating around New St station. Maybe they didn’t have enough for the return fare. I wonder if any of them never made it home and have been in Birmingham ever since.
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