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Aston Villa’s glory years — the double triumph of 1896-97

By dan shaw  |  Posted: February 23, 2012

Aston Villaʼs double winning team of 1896-97

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LAST week we looked at the famous tale of how Aston Villa won the FA Cup in 1895 and then lost it five months later when it was stolen from the premises of William Shillcock’s sportswear shop. The trophy was never recovered and to this day no one knows the true identity of the culprit, although in 1958 career petty criminal Harry Burge claimed he had stolen it, a claim that was dismissed by police at the time. The 1890s were glory years for the Villa and two years after winning and losing the FA Cup they were in the final again, up against Everton, and on the verge of winning the double.

In the first round, played on 30th January, 1897, Villa were drawn at home, in their last season at Perry Barr, against Newcastle United and were comfortable winners, 5-0. Everton also played at home, beating Burton Wanderers 5-2.

Villa were at home again in the second round, defeating Notts County 2-1, while Everton took and beat Bury, 3-0.

In the third round Villa faced stiff opposition in Preston North End. The game at Deepdale on 27th February, 1897, ended in a 1-1 draw. The replay was held at Perry Barr four days later but ended in a goalless draw. A third replay was held at Bramall Lane, Sheffield in 8th March, 1897, which Villa won 3- 2. Everton made more comfortable progress, seeing off Blackburn Rovers 2-0.

In the semi-finals, played on 20th March, 1897, Villa were again at Bramall Lane to take on Liverpool, beating them 3-0. The other semi-final was played at Stoke’s Victoria Ground between Everton and Derby County, the Toffees winning 3-2.

The final was played at Crystal Palace on 10th April, 1897. The referee was John “Prince of Referees” Lewis, in his second FA Cup final. He had been a founder member of Blackburn Rovers in 1875 and was later vice-president of the FA. He also officiated in the football final at the 1908 London Olympic Games, between Great Britain and Denmark, and at the age of 65 he refereed the final of the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, between Belgium and Czechoslovakia. That game ended in controversy and was abandoned when the Czechs walked off the field before the end of the first half, protesting that Lewis had awarded the Belgians two invalid goals and sent off one of their players; they were also intimidated by the large number of Belgian soldiers in the crowd, who invaded the pitch when the match ended.

Lewis had no such problems in the 1897 cup final, considered one of the best games in the history of the competition.

Villa were represented by largely the same team that had won the cup two seasons earlier: Charlie Athersmith, John Campbell, James Cowan, John Cowan, Jimmy Crabtree, John Devey, Albert Evans (captain), Jack Reynolds, Howard Spencer, Fred Wheldon and Jimmy Whitehouse (goalkeeper).

Playing for Everton were: Jack Bell, Dickie Boyle, Edgar Chadwick (captain), Abe Hartley, Johnny Holt, Peter Meehan, Bob Menham (goalkeeper), Alf Milward, Billy Stewart, David Storrier and Jack Taylor.

The match ended Aston Villa 3, Everton 2, and we have a report of the game from The Cup 1883-1932, 50 Years English Cup Finals, published by Period Publications on behalf of the FA, a copy of which has been loaned to the Bugle by Rob Griffin of Halesowen ...

“An attendance of 65,000 clearly demonstrated the amazing interest taken in thus annual struggle for supremacy, this number beating the record for any football match then held for the England versus Scotland game, which totalled 51,000. Magnificent weather again favoured the occasion, and the ground at the Palace was in perfect playing condition. This was possibly one of the best Finals played in the series of the competition. On both sides the football was good and no one could have wished to see better half-back play than that of Reynolds, Cowan and Crabtree. The pace was hot throughout, yet the men were going as strongly at the finish as at the beginning.

“Campbell, from a magnificent pass by Devey, opened the scoring for the Villa, Bell, for Everton, shortly afterwards equalising. A few minutes later a free kick against Cowan gave Boyle his opportunity of kicking the second goal for Everton. This lead did not last for long, as dashing away straight from the kick-off Crabtree deftly placed the ball for Wheldon to equalise. Shortly afterwards Crabtree headed the third and winning goal for Aston.

“Although led by 3 goals to 2 at half-time Everton had played a remarkably sound game and there was really little to choose between the two teams. The second half was also closely contested, but although strongly pressing towards the finish Everton could not pierce the Villa defence. The Birmingham team deserved to win and the score is a true reflex of the value of the play. Both sets of forwards had put up a sterling exhibition of high-class football, but as far as the winners were concerned it was in their half-back line that their real strength lay and their superiority here gave them the victory.

“Aston Villa this season also won the League Championship, so equalling the record of Preston North End who had completed the double in 1889.”

1896-97 was a remarkable season for Villa but it got off to a slow start with them winning only two of their first six matches. A run of 12 unbeaten games took them to the top of the table and they did not look back. On the day of the FA Cup final they were top of the league with only Derby County having a theoretical chance of catching them.

The Rams needed seven points from their remaining four games and for Villa to lose all three of theirs. Unlike today, league games were played on the same day as the cup final but on the day Derby lost 1-0 to Bury, confirming Villa as league champions.

Villa were the second team to win the double, but since then it has been claimed by Tottenham Hotspur (1961), Arsenal (1971, 1998, 2002), Liverpool (1986), Manchester United (1994, 1996, 1999), and Chelsea (2010), but Villa are the only team to have done the double on the same day.

Villa’s top scorer for the season was Langley Green-born “Diamond” Fred Wheldon (1869- 1924) who had been signed from Small Heath at the end of the previous season. Wheldon played four seasons with the Villa, during which he won three league championships and four England caps, before transferring to West Bromwich Albion in 1900. In May 1899 he made his first-class debut for Worcestershire County Cricket Club and played for them until the end of the 1906 season. He retired from football in January 1907, after spells at Queen’s Park Rangers, Portsmouth and Worcester City, and became a publican in Worcester.

One week after securing the double Villa played a friendly against Blackburn Rovers on 17th April, 1897, at their new home, Aston Lower Grounds, later renamed Villa Park.

Our main picture shows the Aston Villa team of 1896-97 with the First Division trophy and the FA Cup. On the back row are: George Burrell Ramsay (secretary/ manager), Joe Grierson (trainer), Howard Spencer, Jimmy Whitehouse, Joshua Margoschis (chairman), Albert Evans, Jimmy Crabtree, John Lees (director) and C. Johnson (director). On the front row are: Dr Victor Jones (director), James Cowan, Charlie Athersmith, John Campbell, John Devey, Fred Wheldon, John Cowan, Jack Reynolds and Frederick Rinder (vice-chairman).

Our second photograph is a grainy image of the match at Crystal Palace. Visible in the background towards the left is one of the famous water towers designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

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