As Bad As Things Got: Aston Villa, 25th April 1936
It is fairly commonly assented these days that Aston Villa were one of the driving forces behind the game of football as we recognise it. With professionalism having been permitted by the FA in 1885, Villa’s William McGregor was the person to truly grasp that clubs who had to pay their players to pay needed a regular income stream which could not be guaranteed by an FA Cup run that could not be guaranteed every season, fleshed out by piecemeal friendly matches. McGregor’s innovation was the Football League, which began in 1888 and would become the template for the way in which the football season is scheduled throughout the world.
The year after professionalism was introduced, the club had been the first to appoint a “manager”, in the form of George Ramsey, but Ramsey’s position was just about unrecognisable in comparison with with way in which the position evolved. Ramsey was more commonly referred to as the club secretary, and team selection remained very much in the hands of the directors of the club. He stayed in this position until 1926, whereupon he was replaced by WJ “Billy” Smith, who took over for a further eight years, even taking the club to the runners-up spot in the First Division in both 1931 and 1933.
Times, however, were changing. The success of Herbert Chapman at Huddersfield Town and Arsenal had persuaded an increasing number of clubs that the future of the structure of professional clubs would have to change, and that specialised managers, working closely with the coaching staff, should be given the autonomy in their roles to be able to pick the team itself. The days of “selection committees” were coming to an end.
The club’s choice to replace Smith seemed a reasonably sensible one. Jimmy McMullan had first tasted football management at Maidstone United more than a decade earlier, when his eagerness to play football south of the border had encouraged him to take a player-manager’s position there at just 26 years of age, winning the Kent League and the Kent Senior Cup double in each of his two seasons in charge of the club.
After a brief return to Scotland to play for Partick Thistle, McMullan had signed for Manchester City in 1926, and would go on to play more than 200 games for the club over the next seven years, as well as representing Scotland 16 times, a brief international career which shone its brightest in 1928, when he was the captain of the Scotland team that earned itself the nickname of the “Wembley Wizards” after they beat England 5-1 there.
Upon his departure from Maine Road in 1933, McMullan took over as the manager of Second Division Oldham Athletic but, while his one season at Boundary Park wasn’t notably successful – they finished 9th in the league and were thrashed 6-1 in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup by Sheffield Wednesday – he had been widely respected as a player, and thus was appointed into the Aston Villa job in May 1934 on a two year contract at a salary of £550 per year, with a potential bonus of £250 if the first team won either the League or the FA Cup – or £500 for winning both.
It was a big wage – the average wage at the time was around £130 a year – but this was a big job. In the 42 seasons of the Football League to that point, Aston Villa had been the champions six times, the runners-up eight times, and won the FA Cup on four occasions. They’d been the second, at to that point last, club to do the elusive league and cup double, in 1897. They were still the third best-supported team in England at the time of McMullan’s appointment, behind only Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. But by 1934 it had been 14 years since the club had lifted any silverware at all and almost a quarter of a century since they’d last won the league.
Aston Villa, then, needed to get themselves back nearer the top of the First Division table, and in a sign of the changing times, McMullan was given free reign over team selection. At the start of the 1934/35 season, the club seemed fully aware of what a break this was with the past, with the programme for their first match of the season noting that:
Aston Villa’s directors have stepped away from tradition in making the appointment of a team manager.
The scheme that had held the field for many years we considered might be bettered and so Aston Villa’s methods are to move with the times as all methods must.
Mr James McMullan is a cool, calculating team manager who knows his football from A to Z – not as a theorist but because of a hard practical experience of many years.
The club’s directors had seemed no less enthused by their new appointment. In the club’s minute book for May 1934, it was noted that:
He has gathered international caps in wholesale fashion. He is a quiet man, with a humorous twinkle in his eye and a definite knowledge of what he wants and the best way to get it. He will be a most popular man at Villa Park and achieve the purpose for which he was appointed.
Jimmy McMullan’s first season in charge at Villa Park, however, was no improvement whatsoever on the previous season. His team finished in a somewhat uninspiring 13th place in the First Division (exactly the same as they’d managed the previous season under Billy Smith), while a run to the FA Cup semi-finals ended with a somewhat ignominious 6-1 defeat to Manchester City at Leeds Road, all of this coming after they’d put the favourites Arsenal out of the competition in the previous round.
At least during the 1935/36 season, Aston Villa supporters couldn’t complain that they weren’t being entertained. Their 42 First Division matches resulted in 191 goals – four and half per game, on average. The problem, though, was that Villa conceded 110 of them. This was a calamitous season for Aston Villa. They conceded seven goals on three separate occasions, all before Christmas, all at Villa Park, and one against local rivals West Bromwich Albion. Crowds were still turning out to support them, though. Incredibly, they ended the season as the second best supported team in England, behind only Arsenal.
They were knocked out of the FA Cup at home by Huddersfield Town – they hadn’t won in the competition at all since that semi-final loss to Manchester City two years earlier – and, while there were occasional glittering moments, these were often merely a precursor to something terrible happening. For example, when they beat Stoke City 4-0 at the end of November, they followed it up by losing 5-0 to Manchester City, 7-1 to Arsenal, and 5-1 to Blackburn Rovers in their next three games. By the time of the matches played on the 28th December 1935, Villa were four points from safety, having conceded 74 goals in 23 games. The thrashings got less severe in the second half of the season as results improved, ultimately they’d left themselves too much to do in a very tight division.
The very end of the season came down to the fact that Villa had played more games than anybody else. They were in the second relegation place – with Blackburn Rovers, another giant of the Victorian age, already having dropped – on goal average, but with everybody else having a game in hand on them. At close of play on the 18th April 1936, Aston Villa were fourth from bottom in the First Division with only two relegation places, one of which was already effectively filled. The problem was that, of the teams below them, West Bromwich Albion had a game in hand, which they won, whilst Sheffield Wednesday had three. Villa only had two matches left, and they really needed to win both of them. They lost the first, 1-0 at Arsenal.
So, going into their their last match – everyone else had a further round of fixtures still to play – Villa found themselves in the second relegation place on goal average. Those hidings earlier in the season had come back to haunt them. Their last match of the season was at home, against the already-relegated Blackburn Rovers, and they went into it in the relegation places on goal average, tied with four other clubs. Villa’s goal average was so much worse than everybody else’s that it was unlikely that any of the others would lose by enough to save them.
To have any mathematical chance of staying up, they had to get a result, but on the day their old defensive lapses returned. In front of a crowd of almost 28,000 they lost 4-2 and, having now played all of their fixtures, remained stubbornly wedged in 21st place in the table. Aston Villa, founder members of the Football League in 1888, arguably founders of the Football League in 1888, were relegated from the First Division for the first time in their history.
Daggers were clearly drawn for Jimmy McMullan from this point on. Aston Villa actually had a reasonable start to life in the Second Division, winning four and drawing two of six unbeaten first matches, and after they lost the next couple they went on an eight match unbeaten run. This, however, came to a shuddering halt with a 5-1 defeat at Sheffield United on the last day of October, at which point McMullan was relieved of his duties. At the time of his departure, the Sheffield United defeat was only their 3rd in their 13 League matches played. They were in 8th place in the table, but were only a couple of points off the second promotion place.
McMullan’s replacement was a man who is now considered to be one of the greatest pioneers of the game in the history of European football, Jimmy Hogan. Hogan’s work with MTK Budapest is said to have paved the way for the Hungarian national team that so effectively humiliated England in 1953 and 1954, and he was also a mentor to Hugo Weisl, who built the Austrian wünderteam of the 1930s. The team’s form didn’t improve enormously over the remainder of the season, and they finished in 9th place in the Second Division at the end of the 1936/37 season.
The following season, however, everything clicked, and Aston Villa were promoted back as Second Division champions. During both of their seasons in Division Two, their average home attendance remained the second-highest in England, with the title-winning season seeing it rise to almost 42,000. Villa finished their first season back in the top flight with a mid-table finish, but when war broke out in September 1939 Jimmy Hogan left the club. One of football’s great ‘what if’ questions of that era is how far a coach like him might have been able to take a club the size of Aston Villa in the early 1940s, had football not been suspended.
Aston Villa have fallen on hard times since then, of course. They have been relegated from the First Division several times since and dropped to the Third Division in the early 1970s. Even their return to the Premier League in 2019 after three years away didn’t come without a narrow escape from relegation straight back. But the club’s relegation in 1936 was a shock in a way that relegation couldn’t be for Villa, nowadays. At this time, the club was the establishment of football in this country, whose proud history was known by all at that time. In winning the European Cup in 1982, Aston Villa arguably scaled even greater heights in relatively recent times than they did during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, but that sense of permanence could never return again. The relegation of 1936 wasn’t the beginning of the end times for Aston Villa, but it was a sign of changing times, and a reminder that success in football is very seldom perpetual.