Villa's Greatest Heroes: Jimmy Dugdale

One man always takes the glory for a cup win. Anyone who thinks of England's 1966 triumph thinks of Geoff Hurst's hat-trick. Steven Gerrard, history will tell us, singlehandedly won Liverpool their fifth European Cup.

And, as any child rightly educated in the memories of Aston Villa will tell you, Peter McParland's brace ensured his club carried home their seventh FA Cup with the 1957 win over the Busby Babes of Manchester United.

But McParland was not the only hero that day. Indeed, it's possible to argue that one man did even more than him to end the 37-year wait for the trophy they said had a permanent place kept for it on the Villa Park boardroom sideboard. That man was Jimmy Dugdale.

It was Dugdale who marshalled Villa's stalwart defence against arguably the best team English football has produced. It was Dugdale who individually marked Tommy Taylor - a man who scored two in every three games for United and sixteen in nineteen England caps before the tragedy of Munich - out of the game until it was beyond United's reach.

If any man was born to stifle a man whose goals had fired United to consecutive league titles, and to protect the double that no team had won since Villa in 1897, it was Dugdale. There is a story, told by Villa fathers and grandfathers to their descendants, that at 15 years old he marked the legendary Pongo Waring - by then into his forties and guesting for Tranmere Rovers' reserves - out of a Cheshire County League game. I have found it impossible to ascertain whether or not it is true, but that it was even whispered by men who held Waring above all others shows in what respect Dugdale was held on the Holte End.

What is fact is that three years after the encounter, Dugdale had signed professional terms with West Bromwich Albion. His contribution at Villa's neighbours cannot be overstated. In Albion's 130-year history, they have never fielded a finer team than the FA Cup winners of 1954.

Like United three years later, the Baggies came within a whisker of doing what no team had done in more than half a century: winning both the league and the cup. Unlike United, they managed the latter but not the former, tipped to the post by Wolves in the league in what was a glorious decade for West Midlands football.

Albion, so close to the double, had names like Don Howe and Ronnie Allen in their side. Wolves were league champions three times, FA Cup winners twice. Real Madrid and Spartak Moscow were both beaten at Molineux in games that heralded the creation of the European Cup. Captained by England's Billy Wright - whose 105 caps kept Dugdale, restricted to three caps for the 'B' team, from achieving the international recognition he deserved - they too would come within one point of the double at the end of the decade.

Even Birmingham City reached an FA Cup final, beaten by Manchester City in 1956. And four months before Blues failed at the final hurdle, Dugdale swapped one West Midlands side for another. The emergence of Joe Kennedy led Albion to believe they could cope without the Scouser, and Eric Houghton - whose Villa side were flirting dangerously with the relegation places - managed to tempt him into a move down the road.

'With relegation a real possibility Houghton had signed Jimmy Dugdale from WBA for a fee of £25,000 in February 1956,' remembers Graham McColl in his Illustrated History of Aston Villa. 'The centre half had strengthened the defence considerably. By January of the 1956-57 season, Villa had the best defensive record in the First Division, having conceded only 30 goals.'

They also had the strongest legs in the league. For all Houghton's signings, perhaps the most important addition made to the Villa Park staff was trainer Bill Moores. "Why did we get to Wembley?" considered Stan Lynn years later. "Simple. It wasn't skill. It was fitness."

That January, though few expected them to win the trophy, Villa were ideally placed to have a good go at it. They were safely entrenched in mid-table in the league, and those super-fit legs were equipped better than any other team in the country to handle what Lynn remembered as the worst year of his career for bogged-down pitches. Still, there were signs, for those who knew where to look.

"When we beat Burnley it was an omen," said Johnny Dixon, the club captain, of the quarter-final clash. "We were never able even to draw at Turf Moor when we played well."

Other players did not even need that. "We knew from the beginning we were going to win the cup. If your name is on it, then that's it," maintained Lynn. "We never even thought we would get beaten."

The win over Burnley threw up arguably the most exciting FA Cup semi-final draw in the history of the competition, in the eyes of the Second City at least. Four balls would go into the hat, representing the teams of Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Manchester United.

United were paired with Blues, and duly dispatched them 2-0 at Hillsborough. Dugdale, meanwhile, was handed the chance to show West Brom they had made a mistake in selling him, just thirteen months after the deal was done.

It was to be an unlucky number for the Baggies. A 2-2 draw at Molineux - "we were always behind, but McParland scored twice," remembered Dixon - was followed by a one goal win for the claret and blue side at St Andrews. Few victories come sweeter than that, though the Wembley win that summer topped it.

Still, it was not the last word in Dugdale and Villa's 1950s duels with Albion. That came, via Ronnie Allen's shin, two years later. Villa had been just one game away from another trip to Wembley that season, losing by a single goal to Nottingham Forest, who would go on to beat Luton in the final in a game Villa surely would have won. But the destination of the team, guided now by Joe Mercer, was to be the Second Division rather than the steps to the Royal Box.

A win at the Hawthorns would have kept Villa up, and after Gerry Hitchens - not yet the prolific scorer he would become - gave his side the lead, there was hope. But the ball bounced off Allen's shin into the visitors' goal, the game finished level and the home fans celebrated as if they had won the cup again. Villa were down.

They were back a year later, as the sixties began, little knowing it was to be the darkest decade in the club's history. It started well enough, particularly for Dugdale. In a Second Division season that saw Hitchens and McParland run riot, burying fifty goals, and Villa reach another FA Cup semi-final, it was the defence acclaimed by the fans; Dugdale, the captain, was handed the Terrace Trophy.

There was more silverware to come a year later, when Villa won the inaugural League Cup in truly dramatic circumstances. Having lost 2-0 to Rotherham in the first meeting of what was then a two-legged final, a clean sheet and goals from McParland, Burrows and O'Neill earned Villa a memorable trophy win.

Dugdale, into his thirties and suffering from a knee injury picked up in a particularly feisty Second City derby, left for Queens Park Rangers soon afterwards. He had played over 250 games for Villa, but the damaged cartilage never fully healed, and he lasted just six months for his new club before announcing his retirement in May 1963.

Thirty years later, after illness tragically forced doctors to amputate his leg, he was back at Villa Park for a testimonial against Birmingham City, which his beloved club appropriately won. A smiling Dugdale waved to the fans from the snooker-baize turf that little resembled the mudbaths of the fifties.

Sadly, he was called to join the Holte Enders in the sky after a long battle against illness in February of this year. 'Floral wreaths in the blue and white of Albion and the claret and blue of Villa were laid by the congregation,' wrote the Birmingham Evening mail of his funeral, 'with special tributes from both clubs including a wreath laid by former Villa player Neil Rioch on behalf of the Former Villa Players' Association and a cross made up of deep red roses and white chrysanthemums on a bed of blue ribbon from current Villa chairman Randy Lerner, the players and coaching staff.'

Jimmy Dugdale played the game he loved simply, effectively and fairly. "There is a difference between hard tackling and dirty play," he wrote in the Aston Villa Players' Handbook in 1957, before offering young fans of his club and his position one piece of advice. "Remember, your job is to beat the centre-forward to the ball."

He almost always did.