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Gareth Barry 356 appearances and counting: James Cowan


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By Out by Easter

Some of you might remember an article here a little while back about our much-admired skipper and his progress through the ranks of Villa’s all time appearance record holders. It was suggested that we might return to the theme at the end of this coming season and check in on him again.

Patience is a virtue I abandoned years ago though, so I think it’d be nice to recognise the Villa greats that Gareth will pass this coming season individually as he overtakes them.

OutbyEaster writes....

Gareth Barry began this season in 17th place on the list of Villa’s legends and luminaries and having made 352 appearances could already consider himself a big part of the clubs rich history.

How important a part remains to be seen however. He’s still only 26 years old, he has a contract that’s rumoured to have been improved upon recently and that contract still has three years left to run, so he’s here for a little while yet.

Provided he plays, Gareth will make his 356th appearance in the famous Claret and Blue in the League Cup game against Wrexham, In doing so he’ll match the appearance record of one of Villa’s true greats; James Cowan.

James Cowan

Born in Scotland in 1868, James Cowan made his 356 appearances for Aston Villa between 1889 and 1902, that’s thirteen seasons and in four of them he was an ever present. He was a rock for Villa playing at half-back and marshalled our defence superbly from his debut against Burnley to his final performance against Stoke.

He signed for us from Vale of Leven in the summer of 1889 after George Ramsey overheard that Warwick County were about to offer a trial to a young Scotsman with pace and talent. What a signing he turned out to be for his only manager; he played every game of his first season and wearing the number five shirt he quickly became a principal feature in some of Villa’s most successful sides of all time.

He managed 26 goals in those 356 appearances and they brought him five league titles and two FA Cup winners medals in a stellar career. Including the memorable 1896 – 1897 season when Villa achieved the double.

A Villa Park legend then? Well, no not entirely. Cowan played the majority of his career for Villa at Perry Barr, with the club only moving in 1897 to the lower grounds (which became Villa Park soon after.) He would have been part of the first Villa side ever to play on the pitch around which we’ve been lucky enough to sit and stand.

There was more to James Cowan than medals and numbers though; an excellent tackler and athlete, Cowan was a dominant figure; he was big and he had a fearsome look about him. His thick moustache gave him the look of a slightly slimmer Merv Hughes and I’d imagine that this formidable growling Scotsman scared more than one Victorian forward half to death.

By all accounts he was a lively character too, and he had his brushes with both the Villa Committee and the Scottish FA. It might be for this reason that Villa brought his brother John to the club in 1895 as a steadying influence. John went on to score 26 goals in 74 games between 1895 and 1899, as they became the first pair of brothers to ever play for Villa.

We can put James Cowan’s most famous brush with the Villa committee down to one thing and one thing only; he was quick. In fact he was very quick, he was Agbonlahor quick in fact.

So picture this scene, Villa are playing next Saturday and Gabby is out injured, resting and recuperating at home. We play and win but as you sit down the next day with your Sunday paper to take in our victory another story catches your eye, one from the world athletics championships. Gabriel Agbonlahor has won the 100 metres.

Impossible? Not for James Cowan.

The Powderhall sprint was (and still is) a traditional New Year race over 130 yards. In Scotland in the 1890’s it was one of the most prestigious sprints in all of Britain, if not the world.

On 2nd January 1896 James Cowan won it. Covering 130 yards in 12.5 seconds and pocketing a pretty tidy sum in the process.

Unfortunately he’d told the club that he had returned to Scotland to nurse an injury, and when news of his success filtered down to Fred Rinder and George Ramsey I think it’s fair to say they weren’t best pleased.

Cowan was fined a pretty tidy sum and suspended by the Villa committee, but tellingly was soon back in the side; after all this was a player we couldn’t afford to be without.

He was a player who’d played an important role in the 1892 Cup Final and helped us win the 1895 Final. (A game in which John Devey had scored the winner for us after just 35 seconds) and he was a player who would go on to help us win the FA Cup again the following year.

In the semi finals of the FA Cup of 1897, Villa faced Liverpool while Everton played Derby.

Derby were Villa’s title rivals and most observers expected them to triumph; however, it was to be a Villa – Everton final, Derby losing out to Everton’s reds whilst Cowan in his finest hour scored twice as we saw off the blue and white shirted Liverpool, beating them three nil.

Everton were giants of the time, and the scene was set for a final between England’s two biggest teams. Preparations were carried out behind closed doors and the teams were booked into their Cup Final hotels under a veil of secrecy.

Everton’s players can be forgiven then for being surprised when they came down for breakfast on cup final morning to find the entire Villa squad already seated and tucking in. The double booking meant that the two teams mingled through the morning and it’s thought that this relaxed atmosphere helped to create a truly memorable final.

Villa scored first after eighteen minutes before Bell equalised for Everton, then just before the half hour mark, Cowan gave away a free kick and Everton went ahead. Everton continued to press but it was Villa who scored next, Wheldon equalising before we went ahead again through Crabtree. A three-two win gave us our first double, and the effort, discipline, and skill of James Cowan was the equal of any on display. The Powderhall sprint was forgotten and James had secured his place as a Villa legend.

He was unable to find glory on the international scene however; the Scottish FA’s adherence to the strict code of amateurism meant that Scotland the brave stopped English based professionals playing for Scotland until 1896 when they beat England at Celtic Park.

In total he played only three games for Scotland, all against England, and was Captain once in 1898. English based players were not considered for any Scotland games other than those against England until 1903.

Following his retirement as a player in 1902, Cowan stayed on at Villa Park as a coach of the youth teams before moving on to become the first manager of Queens Park Rangers in 1907.

He was a great success at the new QPR, leading them to two Southern League titles and the Southern Charity Cup before resigning in 1914 on the grounds of ill health.

James Cowan passed away in his sleep at home in Scotland in 1918 aged 50 years.

He should be remembered.

Gareth has a fair bit to do to overtake the big Scotsman in the honours stakes, but he can be justly proud to have played in as many games for this club as James Cowan, both have served it with distinction. Let’s hope Gareth continues to do so for years to come and maybe collects one or two of those medals along the way. He has a chance at joining the legends of this club over the next few seasons and hopefully of being remembered long into the future. I wish him luck.

All being well we’ll be back here in a couple of month’s time when Gareth passes his next Villa legend – Tommy Mort.

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I like these sort of articles nice one mate

As for Barry - I think it was his debut or at least one of his first matches, away (or for me a local match) at Sheff Wed. Looked a good footballer but I thought he looked slow. I suppose pace has never been one of his strengths, but you can tell he has a "good footballing brain".

I hope he remains a one club player for the rest of his career

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Great article John.

I'll be honest when I first saw GB i thought he'd only ever be a centre half and and an average one at that. I love being wrong, I think he is a terrific player and if we had any other thing than useless clearings in the woods running the England set up he would have many more caps but they obviously think that Phil Neville is a better prospect!!.

Keep these fascinating artilces coming .

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