Aston Villa Football Club was founded in March 1874 by members of the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel in Handsworth. However, there was fascinating history about their formation in the years prior.
The pioneers of the athletic movement in the Birmingham area were the members of the Birmingham Athletic Club, which was founded in 1866. Their early activities seem to have been confined to indoor sports – gymnastics, boxing, and wrestling, amongst others.
By the early 1870s, they were practicing a full range of activities, including outdoor sports on the club’s grounds at Portland Road. Perhaps the earliest football club in the area was connected with the King Edward’s Grammar School, founded in 1863 and playing rugby rules. At this time, forming a soccer team like Aston Villa was not even a thought.
Another early center of activity was at St Peter’s College, Saltley, a Church of England training college for schoolteachers. The sport was introduced to the college in 1870, and the earliest form of soccer played was “a kind of Rugby without rules.” However, the students soon switched to playing rugby rules before eventually going over to the association code around 1874.
Football in Birmingham
There was, however, little football activity within Birmingham before the 1872-73 season, the impetus for its appearance undoubtedly coming from the success during the previous winter of the Nine Hours Movement in reducing working hours. As a result, most clerks, skilled workers, and those in the building and engineering industries now had just about enough spare time in the winter months to allow a few hours of athletic activity on a Saturday afternoon.
There are various methods for quantifying the game’s spread. Perhaps the best being to record match reports and references to football clubs in the local and sporting press. The results show that the various football codes became established in the Birmingham area from 1872 to 1875 when the Birmingham Football Association was founded. However, the game had still to develop into the mass activity it was to become.
Football or Rugby?
It is often said that Birmingham was a rugby stronghold before the emergence of the Birmingham Clerks’ Association team in 1873. Indeed, a rugby-style game was the preferred choice of the leading schools in the city, including the King Edward’s Grammar School, Proprietary School, and the students of Queen’s College Medical School. Of the ten clubs that regularly featured during the 1874-75 season, six preferred the rugby code (Crusaders, Edgbaston, Grasshoppers, Gymnasium, Handsworth, and Moseley), while three played Sheffield Association rules (Birmingham FC, Aston Park Unity, and Aston Villa) and one London Association rules (Birmingham Clerks’ Association).
Invariably, the clubs playing football had previously been established as cricket clubs – this certainly applies to Handsworth, Moseley, Birmingham FC, Aston Park Unity, and Aston Villa.
Birmingham Clerks’ Association
Birmingham Clerks’ Association was the football section of a self-help organization formed in the autumn of 1871 when there were proposals to increase the hours worked by bank clerks. Their objectives included protecting the interests of clerks, raising the standards of clerks generally, and promoting intellectual improvement.
This provides some of the backgrounds to football in Birmingham at the time that Aston Villa was founded. There is no doubt that the club was initially formed to play cricket, probably around 1872. Principally by members of the Adult Male Bible Class attached to the Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel. The leading men recognized as the Aston Villa Football Club founders were William Scattergood, Jack Hughes, Walter Price, and Frederick Matthews.
The evidence is unclear whether the club was formally attached to the chapel or, as perhaps seems more likely, it was a case of young men with a common social background.
Aston Villa First Soccer Match
The first recorded soccer match was against St Mary’s from Aston Brook, in which the first half was played under rugby rules and the second half under association sometime in November 1874.
The Birmingham Morning News records that Aston Park Unity, who had just established a football section, was due to play Aston Villa at football in Aston Park on Saturday 2 January 1875, but the Villa club did not turn up.
Instead, a match was played between teams selected by the Unity captain and deputy captain. Amongst those listed as taking part were three names associated with the early Aston Villa club. W Price, J Hughes, and H Slack. The following week, the two teams played a match under Sheffield Association rules in Aston Park. Unity defeating Aston Villa by one goal to nil. The Villa team is shown as G Matthews (captain), W Price, J Hughes, McBean, A Walters, W Scattergood, H Matthews, E Lee, A Robbins, G Mason, Wies, C Midgeley, TF Smith, Lewis.
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Second Soccer Game
The clubs met for a second time on Aston Park on Saturday 30 January, when Unity again won, this time by two goals to nil. The third and final report of Villa’s activities relates to a game played on Saturday 13 March 1875 against St Mary’s from Aston Brook.
The information from the Birmingham Morning News for 16 March reads as follows: On Saturday, a match was played between the Aston Villa Football Club and the St Mary’s Football Club on the ground of the former. The first part of the afternoon was devoted to the Rugby rules, neither side getting a goal. Half time being called, the sides changed goals and proceeded, as before arranged, to play according to the association rules. After about half an hour of spirited play on both sides, a goal was scored by the Villa team. At the conclusion of the game, the ball remained in neutral ground, neither side gaining any advantage. Special praise is due to J. Hughes, the Villa, and Mr. Youlden on behalf of the St Mary’s, who played exceedingly well.
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Aston Villa First Fixture
This is the match that is considered to have been Aston Villa’s very first fixture. So what does this tell us about the date when Aston Villa was formed? Firstly we know that the Aston Villa CC members were considering founding a football team around November 1874.
Secondly, we know that the Aston Villa Football Club was formally established between November 1874 and March 1875. The initial game against St Mary’s was played. Where does this leave the two games played against Aston Park Unity in January 1875? Indeed, these were considered full club matches by Unity, who played five games in the 1874-75 season. In conclusion, we can firmly date Aston Villa’s first-ever game as having taken place on 13 March 1875 and more accurately date the founding of the club’s football team to February or early March of 1875.
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