Playing the Long Game-Villa and Everton 1898-99

Villa and Everton have that much shared history you could fill an empty Villa Park with articles and still keep writing.

With things looking a bit desperate for us right now, I thought we’d go back to when the Villa and Everton both challenged for the League Championship.

1898-99.

With 3 titles and 3 FA Cups, Villa were the undoubted kings of English football. The double had been achieved just two seasons before, although 3 players had since left for the ambitious Glasgow Celtic during pre-season. This required some restructuring on our part, but we were still a force to be reckoned with.

Everton were also pretty powerful. One of the few professional clubs at the time, they’d won their first Championship in 1890-91. A dangerous outfit, they were always capable of mounting a challenge. Much was expected of both teams as the new season kicked off.

Everton made the better start to the campaign, with wins against Blackburn and Newcastle and draws against Preston and Sheffield United taking them to the top of the table by the end of September. Villa were a point behind, with 2 wins, a defeat and a draw.

Then the Villa machine clicked into gear. Seven consecutive wins between 8th October and 26 November put us firmly in the driving seat. We scored 23 goals during this run and conceded just 5. A 7-1 win against Derby in front of 20,000 (big for the time) at Villa Park underlined our title credentials. Johnson, Devey and Wheldon all scored twice, with Scot Jimmy Cowan grabbing the other.

We wobbled a little before Christmas, losing 4-1 at Sheffield Wednesday and 1-0 at Notts County on Christmas Eve. Regardless, We were top going into the New Year and were clearly the team to beat.

Everton were consistently inconsistent. After their good start, they’d lost 2-1 against neighbours Liverpool, then drew 5-5 against mid-table Derby a couple of weeks later. Victories against Albion, Blackburn and Sheffield Wednesday kept them in 2nd, but then defeats to Albion (again), Sunderland and Bury kept the pressure off Villa at the top.

The top of the table clash was on December 17th at Villa Park. Everton’s shaky defence struck again as goals from Johnson, Wheldon and Daley saw Villa triumph 3-0 in front of 25,000.

All was looking good for the boys in claret and blue.

In typical Villa fashion, we conspired to make things difficult for ourselves. 3 wins and a defeat at Stoke started 1899, then just one win in 8 games between 28th January and 17th April threatened to scupper our title hopes.

Luckily for Villa, all the other title contenders had suffered from poor form themselves. Everton fared worst of all. A 7-match winless streak left them needing a miracle to take the title. Fellow contenders Liverpool and Burnley had also slipped up in what was a very competitive League. Only a couple of points separated Villa on top from Burnley in third.

The final few games were a rollercoaster, Villa had finally woken up. In the return fixture at Goodison Park, Everton seemed to have scuppered our title hopes by grabbing a 1-1 draw. A further draw against Bolton allowed Liverpool to draw level on points.

Panic appeared to set in and Villa turned on the style against Notts County, winning 6-1 at Villa Park. A record 7-1 victory against Albion followed with striker Billy Gerrarty scoring a hat trick. Sadly, Liverpool were also in decent form, beating Bury and Blackburn. This left both Liverpool and Villa on 43 points ahead of their final fixture.

Against each other. At Villa Park.

The title was somehow still in our hands. The season’s best crowd of 41,000 packed into a young Villa Park to witness the title decider. Having been top for much of the season, the pressure was on Villa to not fall at the final fence.

It turned into a huge anti-climax for our red scouse buddies. Villa showed who the true leaders of English football were with a 5-0 demolition of their title rivals. There were 2 goals each for John Devey and Fred Wheldon, with the other coming from defender Jimmy Crabtree.

Having scored 18 goals in our final three fixtures, Villa were crowned Champions.

Despite their slump in the spring, Everton rallied and finished 4th, seven points behind Villa. As always, they were just there. That’s been the fate of the club ever since. Everton have spent just 5 seasons out of the top flight since the league’s formation in 1888. Truly an incredible record.

Despite our more inconsistent history, the two clubs have a tremendous amount in common in terms of age, size of fanbase, slightly underachieving history and general antipathy towards the modern football set up. It’s like having a scouse sibling, separated at birth, similar but not quite the same.

Like 1899, Everton are sitting comfortably in the top flight, trotting along nicely without ruffling too many feathers. As for Villa, like the team of 1899, we find ourselves in a difficult position today. Needing wins desperately to drag ourselves out of a self-induced hole. We need to channel the spirit of our Victorian champions and find the wins needed to take us over the line.

Make no mistake. At Goodison tonight, it’s win or bust.

By Rob Smith

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