Mister Aston Villa

Mister Aston Villa

At a street party for the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, (this was in the days before political conscience would make me turn down an invitation to such an event) somebody introduced me to an elderly gentleman who he announced as "Mr Aston Villa".

Eric HoughtonTo the great amusement and entertainment of the old man's friends, the organisers staged a series of quiz questions on the Villa, and having just completed a school history project on the subject my recent in-depth research overcame his hazier memories. He generously congratulated me on my knowledge and asked if I wanted his autograph. "But who are you?" I asked hesitantly, embarrassed by my ignorance. The man and his companions laughed long and loud at this, until one of them pointed out that they had discovered something I didn't know. The balding man in the claret and blue tie then patted me comfortingly on the shoulder, shook my hand and said "I'm Eric Houghton pleased to meet you". There was no anger or sense of boasting in lets voice. He spoke to me in a way that conveyed it was perfectly natural that a youngster would have no idea who he was.

I'd always expected the legendary figure of Eric Houghton to be a God-like figure, so after a couple of seconds of stunned silence I ran off to find a pen and paper for his signature, and when I returned I never left his side until he departed hours later. There were many more questions for the great man that night, and he answered each one with the warmth and patience that would become legendary.

William Erie Houghton was born in Billingsborough, Lincolnshire on 29th June 1910, when Villa were the reigning League champions. He was recommended to them by his uncle Cecil Harris, after a brilliant season in schools football, during which he scored 88 goals. He signed in August 1927 and made his debut two and a half years later. In 1930-31 immortals like Billy Walker and Pongo Waring helped Eric to establish an equally eternal record of 128 goals in the top flight, with the renowned shooting of Eric himself responsible for thirty of these.

His form didn't go unnoticed by the England selectors, who awarded him seven caps in the early thirties. In total he made 392 appearances for the Villa, scoring 170 goals, many of them as a result of the free kicks for which he enjoyed such a fearsome reputation.

Eric played a part in one of the most controversial episodes in the Villa's history, when the club toured Germany in 1938 and almost caused a diplomatic crisis by refusing to perform the Nazi salute. An England side that included his Villa team-mate Frank Broome had just played the Germans and were warned by the Football Association to its eternal shame that if they refused to give the infamous salute they would not be selected again. Naturally, they complied and similar was expected of the Villa. This is how Eric remembered the incident in Rogan Taylor's book Kicking and Screaming:

"When we played the next day - we were Aston Villa(against Lowenburg, or somebody, like that - they treated it more or less as an international match. Our manager, Jimmy Hogan, said "They'll expect you to perform the Nazi salute." The FA fella in charge of the England team had come to our manager and said "We've had a chat about it and we think it would be better if your players gave the Nazi salute to be really friendly." We had a meeting about this and George Cummins and Alec Massey and the Scots lads said '"There's no way we're giving the Nazi salute." so we didn't give it. Our argument was that we were a club side and not an international side.

"Anyway, they treated us very well, but it did leave a bit of a nasty taste in the mouth, us refusing to give the Nazi salute. The next time they said we'd got to give the Nazi salute, you see, so we had a meeting and said that, for peace and quietness we'd give the Nazi salute. At the next place, I think it was Stuttgart, both teams gave the Nazi salute, so we went to the centre of the field and gave them the two finger salute and they cheered like mad. They thought it was all right. They didn't know what the two fingers meant. But we've been to Germany several times since and they have treated us very well"

After the war Eric left Villa Park to play for and eventually manage Notts County, returning in 1953 to take over from George Martin as Villa's manager. His finest hour in this capacity came in 1957 when his Villa team, built on the ethics of teamwork and endless stamina, upset both the odds and the media by beating the Busby Babes in the FA Cup Final, thereby denying them the double and preserving Villa's record as the last team to do it, sixty years earlier.

In the league, however, the fifties was a decade of continual struggle and Eric eventually paid the price when he was asked to resign.

In his autobiography "Going For Goal", Peter MacParland recalled how Eric broke the news:

"We had just beaten Hearts in a floodlight friendly when the Boss walked into the dressing room and, with tears in his eyes, told us he was leaving the club. It came as a great shock to all of us. He had not said a single word to any of us about going, though he had known for 24 hours. But it was typical of him to keep back the news so that those players bidding for a first team place would not be upset.

"All the players liked Eric. He's a real gentleman. Infact he's too nice a chap to be a football manager. A Villa fanatic, he lived, slept and dreamed of Aston Villa seven days a week. Whenever he was called on to do a party piece, he would always stand up and sing his Villa song 'An Old jersey of Claret and Blue'. After he left, he was offered several thousand pounds by one Sunday newspaper for his story, but Eric refused to get involved in any mud-slinging against the club he loved "

Fortunately for Villa, the club had not seen the last of Eric Houghton. He returned to give sterling service as a director and eventually became the club's only permanent senior vice-president. In that role he did a wonderful public relations job for the Villa, as anyone who met him would testify.

I am sure that those who knew him better than I could pay a more touching and personal tribute, but I will always remember Eric Houghton as he was when I met him at that party in 1977. Genial, patient and one of the great men of our club.

He may never have been paid a six-figure salary, made millions on share dealings and named a stand after himself but Eric Houghton could justifiably lay claim to the title "Mr Aston Villa".

Stephen Pennell