One of my strongest earliest memories goes back to 17th August 1974, when newly-promoted York City – resplendent in their glorious maroon & white ‘Y-fronts’ – kicked-off their first-ever season in the second tier of English football against Aston Villa.
Bootham Crescent was packed as almost nine-and-a-half-thousand fans hustled into the homely little stadium on a glorious and balmy mid-August afternoon, wondering how their local heroes would fare during a season that guaranteed clashes against the likes of Manchester United, Sunderland, Nottingham Forest, Southampton, Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion, Bolton Wanderers and Fulham. It was really uncharted territory for us all. But first up, it was Villa, who I’d already seen my heroes knock out of the League Cup the previous season – reserve striker John Peachey earning us a plum tie with Orient (not!) in the next round.
But Villa were a big club – the packed away end at the Crescent that memorable sunny afternoon certainly reinforced that. I’d already heard of most of their players. Goalkeeper Jim Cumbes I’d seen on TV playing cricket for Worcestershire. The likes of John Gidman and Brian Little were international class and complemented the obvious skill of Ray Graydon on the right and Frank Carrodus down the other side. Big, bustling Sammy Morgan led the line, and there was also a mighty presence in the centre of defence in the trusty frame of Chris Nicholl – two more internationals to boot.
And then there was Chico. I was just a kid and I’d never heard of a ‘Chico’ before. The name might have suggested a clown or a woeful karaoke singer, but there was nothing funny about midfielder Chico Hamilton (whose real name was apparently Ian.) And while on that point, let us not forget left-back Charlie Aitken. The sound of his name and the immediate impression he portrayed rather instilled me with renewed hope – for to a simple young boy like me, he resembled more a fourth division left-back – short-back-and-sides and no messing with his clearances was Charlie. Maybe City might just cope this season?
It certainly looked that way when Barry Lyons cracked a low shot inside Cumbes’ right-hand post on eight minutes to give York the lead. I was in heaven. But then that man Aitken kicked off the line from Jimmy Seal before my ‘mate’ Chico crossed for Graydon to head an equaliser. And 1-1 was how it was to remain, despite the best efforts of both teams to find a winner. It didn’t matter though, we were now on our way and this was the big time, although my only disappointment was that I didn’t get to see my favourite ‘Villain’ Pat McMahon in action.
And if you were wondering, we did cope. Well, at one stage we were as high as fifth in the table (I kid you not!), chasing hard on the heels of Manchester United, Sunderland, Villa and Norwich. Even those tame little Tigers from Humberside were below us. Victories positively flowed. A 2-0 win at Fulham with the likes of Bobby Moore and Alan Mullery taking late high teas at the Cottage. A league double over Norwich left the Canaries scrambling for scraps at the bottom of their cage. Solid three-goal wins over Portsmouth and Sheffield Wednesday suggested we were really getting to grips with our new found lofty status, while Hull City and Bristol Rovers were also sent packing by the same scoreline. Fulham came to Bootham Crescent looking for revenge and we beat them again.
Naturally there were serious hiccups. Yes, we lost commendably to Manchester United and Sunderland each time. But they were all close games. By contrast, the result at Villa was nothing short of a gigantic burp. 4-0 to Chico’s gang and I seriously questioned as to whether we were really getting the hang of this? But a penultimate weekend victory at fellow newcomers Bristol Rovers finally secured our safety and the prospect of more second division football for another twelve months. A very respectable fifteenth place for my favourites. Mission impossible, never – this was mission truly accomplished.
Granted we of course bottled out the following season and crashed to relegation as only a woeful Portsmouth side kept us off the bottom table. But for me, I will always remember the heady sunshine of that lovely August afternoon and the start of the big time – and Villa.
With thanks to Steve – our Vital York editor