Aston Villa were among the first aristocrats of English football, one of the great powers of Victorian football and a driving force behind the creation of the Football League in 1888. Although many of their trophies were won before the outbreak of the First World War, and despite falling on lean times in several periods during the twentieth century, they re-emerged to win the First Division title and European Cup in the early 1980s. They remain one of the best-supported clubs in England and the club’s home, Villa Park, is one of the country’s great venues.
Like Everton, Villa’s origins lie as a church team and they were founded in 1874 by members of the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel in the Handsworth suburb of Birmingham. Villa quickly emerged as one of the leading Midland clubs and in 1887 won the FA Cup. In an era of local football, the FA Cup was the sole competition with genuine national scope. Although there were also a plethora of local cup competitions, most games were still friendlies which often had limited appeal to spectators and were hastily arranged and frequently cancelled.
Everton’s first historian, Thomas Keates, was all too aware of the problem: ‘The contrast in the attendances at cup ties and ordinary matches, the trifling interest taken in the latter by the public and the insignificance had long vexed the souls of club managers. How can we vitalise the torpid? That was the question.’
RECOGNISING THE LIMITATIONS in football’s organisational structure was one of Villa’s committeemen, William McGregor, a local draper. He proposed a regular, competitive system of fixtures involving only the top clubs, along the lines of the County Cricket Championship. The season would still allow for local cup competitions and the FA Cup, but interest would be maintained after a team had been knocked out in the early stages.
McGregor quickly garnered support among leading football clubs and in a meeting at Manchester’s Royal Hotel in April 1888, the Football League was formally created. Everton were among its twelve founder members, to no little consternation. Local rivals, Bootle, felt they had better credentials, while the FA Cup semi-finalists Crewe Alexandra and Derby Junction were also absent.
BUT IT SEEMS THAT MCGREGOR influenced Everton’s inclusion. He had been impressed by the reception Villa received after playing an exhibition game against them. In terms of the league he was interested only in professional clubs and favoured representatives from the major towns and cities (although that did not preclude Accrington’s inclusion), both of which worked in Everton’s favour. He was also a staunch Methodist, which, given Everton’s origins as a church team, may also have influenced his thinking.
In his new invention, Everton initially led the way over Villa, winning the First Division title in 1890/91, but thereafter it was all Villa, who won the league five times over seven years during that decade. In 1897 Villa beat Everton 3-2 in the FA Cup Final at Crystal Palace to claim an historic double. Villa won a sixth league title in 1909/10, but over the following century won just one more championship.
Indeed Villa spent many years in mediocrity and during the 1970s even slipped down into the Third Division. They remained well supported, nevertheless, and a good cup team. Under the management of Joe Mercer in the early 1960s they won the inaugural League Cup, a competition in which they became specialists, winning it five times – including a 1977 victory over Everton.
The transfer of leading players between the two clubs has been comparatively limited and often involved promising young players going from one to the other and embarking on distinguished careers. Notable examples include Jack Sharp and Martin Keown, who both left Villa as youngsters and had excellent Everton careers, and Ken McNaught, a young defender with Everton in the 1970s who won the First Division title and European Cup with Villa in the early 1980s. Joe Mercer and Ron Saunders, a young fringe player at Everton in the 1950s, both managed Villa with considerable success, while Gordon Lee followed a lengthy playing career at Villa Park with a stint as Everton boss in the 1970s.
A Scottish-born Methodist who earned his fortune as a Birmingham draper with a profitable sideline in sporting goods, McGregor was one of the leading Victorian sports administrators. He sat on the Aston Villa committee that steered the club from a church team to the top English club of the 1890s. But it was his role in forming the Football League which remains his most enduring contribution to football and Everton – for it seems it was his support which brought Everton into the fold as founder members in 1888.
One of sport’s great all-rounders, Jack Sharp starred for England at both football and cricket, in so doing becoming one of just a dozen dual internationals. For Everton he won the FA Cup in 1906 and was three times a league runner-up. Later he served on the board of directors. But it was at Villa Park where his footballing career took off. Although he made just 23 appearances for the Midlanders, he did so in one of their most distinguished sides, winning the league title in before moving to Goodison that summer.
Mercer was one of the great footballers of the 1930s and 1940s, a key member of Everton’s 1938/39 League Championship winning team, who was infatuated with his boyhood club. He left to join Arsenal in 1946 after falling out with manager Theo Kelly, captaining them to further success. One of the most loved and respected figures in the game, he seemed destined for a successful managerial career. After starting out with Sheffield United in the mid-1950s, he became Villa manager in 1958. Although he was unable to prevent their relegation later that season, he won the Second Division championship in 1959/60 and the inaugural League Cup a year later. He developed a talented young team known as ‘Mercer’s Minors’, but after suffering a stroke in 1964 was – disgracefully – sacked by the Villa board. Later he managed Manchester City with considerable success.