Football: How Aston Villa top the internationals list

Published in Football Trader October 2011

When Alec Ferguson took a pop at the Football Association in August, one of his comments was that “they may realise who has produced more players than any other club”. So the FA should “stop treating us like s***” (a). The FA may well know who has produced the record number of players for England. But it is not Manchester United. It is Aston Villa.

The FA handbook shows that at the end of of the World Cup last year Villa had 69 players capped for England, United had 54. Since then two more players on Villa’s books have been capped – Bent and Downing – and Man U have had Danny Welbeck selected. The totals are now 71 and 55 respectively.

To be fair to Sir Alec, it is not easy to work out how to calculate the figures. Wikipedia have 72 Villa players, but they are counting Scott Carson. Scott was on loan when he was chosen, so his selection goes down to Liverpool as they were the club that held his registration. The rule is that players are counted for each club that holds their registration, so can count for more than one club. David Platt counts for Aston Villa, Bari, Juventus, Sampdoria and Arsenal. David Beckham counts for Manchester United, Real Madrid and L A Galaxy.

Getting accurate information was a problem in writing my new book, VILLA FOR ENGLAND The Full story of Aston Villa’s England Internationals. (Derby Books, August 2011). The research was challenging. This was particularly so for the early internationals back  in the Victorian period. Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility has been cast over many of the early players, like Arthur Brown. His three caps in 1882 are the start of the story, but his details have been completely lost. We only know how many cup games he played, since the only competition was the FA cup. There are no records of his other club appearances,  press reports are sketchy and with no club programme till 1906 the club has little information on him, or even Howard Vaughton, the first player ever to score five goals in an international match, alongside Brown in 1882.

Things get a little better when the programme starts, but invisibility still clings to players in the period before the First World War. Albert Hall, for example, played for ten years from 1903, was in the team that won the Cup in 1905 and yet was not written up in the programme when it started in 1906. So in the Golden Age for Villa, the records are incomplete. When the war broke out in 1914, poet Philip Larkin commented that the recruiting queues stood “like the crowds at the Oval and Villa Park”, Villa being the most successful club of the period. Sadly players were not the heroes they became later, so records are scanty.

In the interwar period Villa produced some notable players, like Billy Walker, captain in the famous match against Austria in 1932. But the cloak of invisibility remains, covering Frank Broome. His first international was one of the most notorious of all time, the Hitler salute match in Berlin in 1938. Yet others who saluted Hitler, Stanley Matthews and Tommy Lawton, remain famous. Broome’s career was cut short by the Second World War, and he has been forgotten.

Villa went into a 30 year decline after the war and after the rise under Ron Saunders injury and other factors kept Villa from gaining recognition. Brian Little for example, was making his reputation when injury hit and he retired aged only 27. Gordon Cowans who is a club legend and still First Team Coach, broke his leg after 8 caps and never fully recovered his England position. Steve Hodge is remembered for putting Maradonna onside for the notorious Hand of God goal in the 1986 World Cup. Few know he was playing for Villa at the time.

But unfashionable though Villa may be, they still produce the players. In the current England squad Darren Bent still flies the flag for Villa, while Ashley Young, Stuart Downing, Gary Cahill, James Milner and Gareth Barry show how effective Villa are at producing top class players. The difficulty is holding on to them, but as Everton, Newcastle and many other clubs show, that problem is not confined to Birmingham.

All Villa can do is produce the players, and as my book shows, they do this better than any other club in England history. And this the club continues to do. It has been a long time since the days of Brown and Vaughton, But the story continues. It is a fascinating one, and one which even Sir Alec might find worth acknowledging.

(a) Report, BBC Web site 26th August 2011.

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