Villa's Greatest Heroes: Johnny Dixon

With all the pain and grief caused by and surrounding the Second World War, the effect on the careers of two generations of footballers obviously takes a back seat. Still, that there were more horrific stories in the world at the time does not make the loss to the beautiful game any more tragic.

First there was the older generation - men like Arsenal's Ted Drake, who scored seven goals in one game at Villa Park in 1935. Drake was just 26 when war broke out. He had scored six goals in five games for England, and already more than a hundred for Arsenal, as well as nearly half that amount while still a teenager at Southampton.

The footballing world was at his feet. But after six years of war, during which Drake served in the RAF, he was into his thirties, and had missed what would surely have been his best years on a football pitch. There were many in the same position.

Alongside them on those post-war pitches, as a nation strived to return to normal life, were the second generation - those players whose careers had been delayed, or in some cases ended before they even began. Thankfully for Aston Villa, Johnny Dixon was the former, not the latter.

The likeable Geordie convinced enough in a handful of wartime games for Villa to offer him a professional contract as the league was relaunched in the second half of the 1940s, but the delay meant that when he scored on his full debut against Derby County, he was already 22.

Still, he had time for some beginner's luck (or perhaps not) - having misjudged a cross, his goal came after the ball bounced off his nose, which was broken. Footballers being made of sterner stuff in those days, it scarcely needs saying that Dixon finished the match. "I didn't see the goal, though" he admits. "I was lying on the ground in a bit of pain."

Dixon describes that game as one of his best performances ever for Aston Villa. Given that he would serve the club on the field for another 15 years - ending his playing career with another goal (and another broken nose, this time from an elbow) against Sheffield Wednesday in 1961 - it must have been quite the debut.

The fans of the time must have hoped it signalled a return to more successful times. Villa still retained their place as the most honoured team in the country when the Second World War interrupted matters, but the fact is they had failed to win the league title since before the First, and the FA Cup since 1924.

Dixon could do nothing to change the former, and it would be more than a decade until he captained his side to victory over the Busby Babes at Wembley. The first half of that was spent comfortably ensconced in mid-table, Villa never finishing outside sixth to tenth under Alex Massie as the forties became the fifties. The pre-war years when men like Pongo Waring broke the scoring records must have seemed a distant memory.

That must have been even more the case in the 1950/51 season, as Villa slipped to the bottom of the table. George Martin was appointed, and began to add some style to the relatively solid but underachieving team Massie had assembled. Chief amongst the names recognisable to the neutral was Danny Blanchflower, who never came close to achieving at Villa Park what he would at White Hart Lane. Blanchflower, brought in for £15,000, did a fine job, but was never a popular figure amongst his fellow players.

The same could not be said for his Northern Ireland teammate Peter McParland, who arrived one year later, after top division survival had been secured. Martin's team, with Dixon the top scorer, beat Wolverhampton Wanderers twice over Easter 1951. McParland aside, though, the following years saw a decline in quality of the team, at least in terms of star names. Blanchflower, who along with Dixon had been integral to Villa's recovery, went on to Spurs for double the fee Villa had paid.

Throughout this time, Dixon continued to perform, as have so many Villa players over the years - Aitken, Hitchens, McGrath, Mellberg - alongside players without the necessary quality. In the end, it led to more change. Martin was replaced by Eric Houghton. More talented men began to arrive: Dugdale, Sims, Crowther. Added to the best left over from the reigns of Massie and Martin - Aldis, Lynn and, of course, McParland - Dixon finally played for a team able to support his talents. He was handed the captain's armband.

His finest moment wearing it was unmistakably the FA Cup win in 1957. The biographies of Jimmy Dugdale and Peter McParland available on this site carry more information on that glorious triumph. Suffice it to say here that, while McParland was the star name who scored the goals and Dugdale was the rock at the back against which United's attack foundered, Dixon was the man pulling the strings in the run to Wembley.

And it was the case in the final itself, when Dixon provided the cross that saw McParland break the deadlock, on what the Villa skipper happily describes as the best day of his life.

"With about ten minutes to go, I suddenly realised we were going to win," he remembered later. "For thirteen years I had been at Villa Park without winning a thing. Now the Queen was going to be handing me the FA Cup. I nearly burst into tears on the spot."

In any meaningful way, that was the climax of Dixon's playing career at Villa Park. With his next few seasons ruined by illness and injury as Villa were relegated and bounced back, the now veteran never again scaled the heights his talent deserved.

There was still time for a final flourish, of course, when Dixon was brought our of the reserves for a send-off, scoring against Sheffield Wednesday in a Villa win. 'If only he was a little younger,' moaned the Birmingham Mail. Dixon would go on to spend six years coaching at Villa, caring for the youth and reserve teams, to bring his total length of service - or rather, full-time service, because he played for the Villa Old Stars as long as thirty years later - to well over two decades.

Like so many of Villa Park's favourite sons over the years, Dixon's skills were never rewarded with the international recognition they deserved. "England must have had a brilliant team for Johnny not to play," said Harry Parkes, diplomatically. Eric Houghton, never one to shy away from the point, was less worried about offending other men's sensibilities. "Of course Johnny should have played for England," said his favourite manager. "Plenty of worse players did."

Houghton's praise for his skipper didn't stop there. "He had class on the field and off it," said the man they called Mr Aston Villa after his own decades of service. "He was the ideal captain - he took half the work away from me because he led so well. And he could play a bit too. I'll say he could."

144 goals in 430 games, not to mention countless assists, pay tribute to that. But the fans who saw Dixon need just one memory of him - on the shoulders of two of his teammates. "I've told Stan Lynn and Nigel Sims to stick close to you, so that when we win the cup they can carry you on their shoulders," said Bill Moore, the Villa trainer, to Dixon before the game. They did their job just fine. Just as Dixon always did.