Villa's Greatest Heroes: Peter McParland

Billy Wright and Duncan Edwards were two of the greatest footballers ever to play for England.

That they were once both left on their backsides during one run from a Northern Irish winger seems barely credible.

To anyone who saw Peter McParland play, though, the story comes as no surprise.

Only Brian Little has excited Aston Villa fans as much with the ball at his feet. If Ashley Young - "an old-fashioned, direct winger," says McParland. "It's great to see because it reminds me of my playing days," - added goals to his game, he might begin to justify the comparison; only Cristiano Ronaldo in the modern game causes the excitement the FA Cup winner could create picking up the ball in his own half.

"In the first-half, we played extremely well, giving the Villa defence a terrible drubbing. Just one thing was missing - goals. Despite our pressure, we could not get the ball past the capable Nigel Sims. Peter McParland, meanwhile, was having a very poor outing," remembered Burnley midfielder Jimmy McIlroy of one game at the tail-end of the fifties.

"With the score sheet still blank in the second-half, McParland took possession of a ball near the half-way line and set out on a diagonal run towards the opposite wing. He wanted, I am sure, to pass to his right-winger, but he kept running with the ball getting nearer and nearer to our goal. Before anyone could appreciate the danger, he shot from the inside-right position from about 20 yards. It was a goal from the moment the ball left his foot."

It was far from unusual for McParland, and McIlroy could appreciate that better than most. Along with Danny Blanchflower, he and McParland formed the basis of a talented Northern Ireland team in the 1950s.

The Villa winger had wasted no time in showing his international credentials. He was just 19 when he made his debut for his country in 1953, less than a year after breaking into the first team at club level, and scored twice against Wales.

The next four years were hardly glittering for Northern Ireland, despite their smattering of star names. England dominated the annual Home International championship, winning four of what would eventually be six tournaments in a row. But in the summer of 1958, the boot was firmly on the other foot. McParland's foot.

Norhtern Ireland went into their first World Cup expected to do nothing; the British interests would, so common opinion went, be represented by others. England - with Finney, Charlton and Wright - and Scotland would fly the flag for the home nations.

The attitude continued even after Peter Doherty's side defeated Czechoslovakia in their opening game (a match, incidentally, which saw Derek Dougan make his international debut). Their second match ended in disappointment; though McParland gave them the lead after just three minutes, Argentina hit three in reply. On June 15, world champions West Germany met Northern Ireland in Malmo, while Argentina were expected to see off Czechoslovakia in Helsingborg.

It didn't work out that way. Northern Ireland played their hearts out to seal a 2-2 draw against West Germany, McParland putting his country ahead twice. Meanwhile, Argentina were thrashed 6-1 by Czechoslovakia, and dumped out of the group. With Czechoslovakia and Northern Ireland level-pegging - no goal-difference in those days - a play-off was needed.

Just two days later, McParland and his colleagues ran out at the same Malmo ground they had performed at so admirably 48 hours before. 19 minutes later, they were 1-0 down. Cue McParland. On the stroke of half-time he buried the equaliser. No-one found the back of the net in the second half, and the referee blew the final whistle and signalled extra time.

He needn't have bothered. Just one minute in, the ball was lofted to the far post. There to meet it, as he was to do so many times over his career, was McParland. Northern Ireland were on their way to the quarter finals.

Their luck ran out against the France of Just Fontaine, who bagged two of the astonishing 13 goals he managed in the tournament against the men in green. But only Fontaine, Pele and Helmut Rahn found the net more times than McParland. His five strikes doubled his international tally. They ended it, too; an argument with Doherty in the aftermath of their exit led to the winger announcing his international retirement a few days later. He was just 24.

Six years earlier it had been George Martin who forked out the considerable sum of £3,880 to bring a promising 18-year-old over from Dundalk. Less than a year later, Martin had been replaced by Eric Houghton. Houghton, the scorer of many goals from the wing in his playing days at Villa Park, saw something of himself in McParland, and handed him his debut.

It wasn't an easy time for Villa. The club's pre-war success hung heavy on the shoulders of many of their players - a state that would continue, on and off, until the days of Ron Saunders. Despite stars like Stan Lynn, Johnny Dixon and McParland himself, the team never recaptured the glory of those sepia-tinted days. Apart, of course, from one day.

'English football awoke to the near-certainty that it was about to witness the century's first Double,' wrote The Guardian newspaper. 'United, Matt Busby's babes, were facing Aston Villa at Wembley having already won the league championship and reached the semi-finals of the European Cup before losing to Real Madrid.

'The precocious qualities of this young United team, their high levels of technique, their passing and movement and above all their capacity to entertain had enthralled the nation.'

Indeed, Busby's young side was widely acclaimed as the best British side of the previous twenty years. Villa were expected to merely make up the numbers at Wembley - although the lightning counter attacks that had served them well throughout the season had been identified by Busby as a matter of some concern.

As it was, though, not even Busby could have foreseen the danger. After just six minutes, McParland chased a loose ball that was collected by Ray Wood, the United keeper. As was the manner in those days, the Villa winger made no effort to pull out of the chase, simply dropping his shoulder as the two men collided.

Was it a deliberate attempt to injure his opponent? Many believe so. My personal take is that McParland fully intended to collided with Wood, to 'let him know he was there', as the accepted wisdom had it. But I do not believe he intended, as happened, to break Wood's jaw, and effectively remove him from the game.

Jackie Blanchflower, another Northern Ireland man, went in goal, with Woods reduced to a role out on the right wing. Still, the game stayed goalless until the second half; McParland's shot against the post the nearest either side came to breaking the deadlock.

Then Johnny Dixon, the Villa captain, swang the ball in from the right wing. From fully 12 yards, McParland launched himself into a diving header that flew past Blanchflower. His second goal, lashed in from six yards, was enough to seal the day; United only able to pull one back when Tommy Taylor headed in an Edwards cross. Villa had won their seventh - and, to date, last - FA Cup.

Tragically, nine months later, Edwards and Taylor both lost their lives in the Munich air disaster, as the Busby Babes side denied the double by Aston Villa were decimated. Among United fans the name of McParland was vilified for years afterwards. But at Villa - where he would complete a decade of service before leaving for Wolves in 1962 as Joe Mercer refashioned the side - McParland remained, and does to this day, a legend.