Aston Villa and the Three Lions are inextricably linked with the Villans a cornerstone of English football history.
After modern-day hero, Jack Grealish scooped the Man of the Match award for his England debut against Wales, Villa’s rich history has been magnified once again.
Villa have produced 74 players for the national team since inception in the late 1800s and while Digger Brown and Howard Vaughton were the first to don the Three Lions almost 140 years ago, there’s a special place for a certain Howard Spencer in the Villa vault.
Spencer had the honour of becoming Villa’s first captain of England in 1903, several years prior to making his national team debut after being acknowledged for becoming a major part of Villa’s Victorian glory years.
Villa’s iconic defender was also the very first player to have his picture appear in The Villa News & Record matchday programme. Though his accolades were far more distinguished than simply being the poster boy of the early 20th century, for he holds the mantle of Aston Villa’s most decorated player and his story must live on.
Dubbed ‘Prince of Full-backs’, Spencer is one of the greatest players to ever play in claret and blue, and perhaps the best defender of all before WW1. He spent a grand total of 42 years at the club in different capacities.
While he might not have been the best footballer in the club’s history, he has been a part of more title and cup winning teams than any other for Villa.
Born in Edgbaston, Spencer attended Albert Road School in nearby Aston as he gained an education in the mid-1880s as one of seven children in his family. As a schoolboy, Spencer played local amateur football for a number of clubs in his local area.
He caught the eye of Football League First Division onlookers when at Birchfield Trinity in April 1892 when he was a 17-year-old. He’d turn professional two years later when in 1894, George Ramsay’s Aston Villa signed Spencer from Birchfield Trinity FC.
Full-back Spencer would go on to become one of the most well-known and well-respected players in his day as he played a leading part in Villa’s golden era.
Spencer becomes an Aston Villa icon
He made his debut for the club four months after penning a professional deal on October 13, 1894, during a 3-1 victory over West Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion at Wellington Road in front of around 15,000 spectators.
Dennis Hodgetts’ double on that late 19th century Autumn afternoon would be only one of the hundreds of wins Spencer racked up in a Villa shirt – some more important than others.
At the end of his first season with Villa, Spencer featured against Edward Stephenson’s West Brom for the second time that season in the 1895 FA Cup Final.
The referee on the day, John Lewis had barely wetted his whistle on April 20, 1895, when Villa stormed into an early lead. Charlie Athersmith’s cross from the right fell to the feet of Bob Chatt whose goal-bound volley was too hot to handle for Joe Reader – his bare hands stung by the leather ball in the Baggies’ goal.
There’s no official recollection of the goal’s timing, but reports suggest many of the 42,000 strong crowd were still taking to their seats when Chatt’s winning goal came around the 30-second mark.
Hundreds of Villa fans might well have missed the goal that won a second FA Cup title, but they’d do even better to catch a glimpse of the hallowed trophy after it was brought back to the second city for proud fans to view a couple of months later.
On the night of September 11 1985, the trophy was stolen straight from the window of an Aston based sports shop owned by William Shillcock.
But while the Victorian mystery was never explained, silverware was thankfully in good stock for Ramsay’s Villa. Following his first FA Cup win at the age of 18, Spencer helped Villa to win the First Division title in the following campaign.
In total, Spencer spent 13 years with Villa, taking the 1901-02 season off in order to rest his knee and ankle for twelve months in the hope of recovering from an injury. Over the course of his career, Spencer was well known for his good sportsmanship which earned him the nickname the ‘prince of full-backs’.
He was a one-club man, and according to accounts stretching back almost a century ago, he was a defender who would tackle superbly, pass with precision, and operate with judgement; usually stepping up to his best when his side is in bother.
The character of player worthy of emulation by all younger players, Spencer also wore the Villa captain’s armband for three years from 1903-1906.
Standing out on the pitch with his blond, wavy hair, Spencer was the best of his time.
In John Lerwill’s ‘The Aston Villa Chronicles’ book, Spencer’s game was brought to life. Referencing the Sports Argus, Lerwill noted: “A famous left-winger once remarked after a match in which he was up against Spencer: ‘It isn’t natural! If I had to play against Spencer every week I should give it up! It’s much like running against a brick wall.’”
R Allen, in ‘All in the Day’s Sport’, wrote: “He was the outstanding example of what Aston Villa tradition on the football field came to mean.
“I shall never forget the neat-looking, scrupulously clean-playing, solid, safe-looking, full-back, tackling crisply, confidently, side-tapping the ball into place for the long, low, raking, perfectly placed clearance.”
Spencer went on to win the First Division four times and collect three FA Cup winning medals with Villa, even lifting the ‘little tin idol’ himself in 1905 as captain under George Ramsay.
Spencer’s recognition spread across the UK after he became a key member of the England squad in the Victorian era, so much so that the Herriot series of cards – a popular game after the turn of the 20th century – promoted only two Villa favourites, Jimmy Crabtree and Spencer.
The text accompanying Spencer’s picture explained that he showed “good, brainy football and when at the top of his form, is an object lesson in how to play the game.”
A winner for club and country
Spencer made his international debut for England in 1897 in a 4-0 victory over Wales, impressing enough to retain his place in the team for England’s following fixture – a 2-1 defeat to Scotland.
He won a total of six caps for his country and became the proud honouree of becoming Aston Villa’s first player to captain England in history.
Digger Brown and Howard Vaughton were selected as Villa’s first players, who were both involved in England’s record-breaking 13-0 win over Northern Ireland – Villa’s duo netted nine between themselves.
They were soon followed by Oliver Whateley – who lived in a house called Aston Villa – and then Spencer, who held the proud captaincy record. Former striker Billy Walker scored England’s first-ever goal at Wembley, and until today, Villa’s famous links with the national team continues to flourish.
When Spencer announced his premature retirement due to injury, he was reluctant to shut the door on such an illustrious career.
At the end of the 1906-07 season, Spencer acknowledged a closure on his playing days but still offered his services to Villa manager Ramsay if he was needed in the future. Shortly after, he’d do just that, and play his part in three league matches towards the end of the season to take his appearance count up to 294 in all competitions for Villa.
By 1912, Spencer was playing football with a coal trade team – indeed, his appetite for being involved in the Midlands football scene never dwindled.
Following his retirement, Spencer joined Aston Villa’s board of directors and served in his new role until 1936. He even became the club’s vice-president after declining the request to become a Life Member following the death of former vice-president Howard Toney.
Spencer’s legacy might’ve been planted over a century ago but he, like the many great custodians of Aston Villa Football Club set the foundations for the club we have today, one that is looking to get back to the levels set all those decades ago.