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Gareth Barry 430: Johnny Dixon and Dennis Mortimer


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Gareth continues to trundle steadily towards the higher reaches of our all-time appearances list and having overtaken the great Dennis Mortimer earlier this season, our game against Manchester City also saw him match the record of Johnny Dixon.

Villatalk continues our series monitoring his progress…

I guess I should start with an apology; I’ve been doing these pieces for some time now and I’m afraid that Gareth actually passed Dennis Mortimer’s appearance record a little while back, rather fittingly in fact on a great European night for the club as we beat Ajax at Villa Park.

I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to get this done since then; I guess there’s something to be said for the events of last summer having lessened enthusiasm, or maybe it’s just intimidating to report on Gareth having passed for the first time a player who is still fresh in so many memories.

Johnny Dixon and Dennis Mortimer are very much legends of Aston Villa football club, and with Gareth having climbed to 8th place on the list of those who’ve worn the shirt on most occasions, you can certainly make a case for him joining them.

Here’s Gareth’s claim:

He’ll be twelve years a Villan in the summer and has made 430 appearances, he is 43rd on our list of all time goal scorers having scored 51, he’s 3rd amongst our all time penalty takers, he’s our 8th highest goalscorer in Europe and 3rd highest in the list of appearances in European competition, he is also the Villa player with the highest number of England caps in our 135 year history, and he’s only just celebrated his 28th birthday.

This season on the pitch he’s recovered from a patchy start to put in some performances that have been both consistent and good, we miss him when he’s not playing and we don’t have anyone who can do what he does.

Off the pitch he’s finally split from Alex Black, the agent that worked with him during the summer’s shenanigans and that many felt was the driving force behind Mr Benitez’s enquiries.

We’ve also seen some more positive (albeit not entirely convincing) interviews where he’s returned to describing the football club as “we” and “us”. Former teammate Michael Standing is now handling his affairs, he’s a man that Gareth trusts, having arrived at Villa Park with him many moons ago, but perhaps not a man you’d immediately think of when considering a multi-million pound move.

We’ve also heard encouraging words from Gabby Agbonlahor, Curtis Davies and to a lesser extent Stillyan Petrov for Gareth to sign a new deal, and increasingly it looks like the matter of a new contract is not one that has yet been decided.

His future remains unclear, but it’s a different unclear.

A new contract remains the burning question for the football club, for Gareth, and for his future status as a Villa legend.

Four more years would see him pass five hundred appearances, possibly six hundred and put him in with a chance of chasing down Charlie Aitken’s record, it would also I think give him a fair chance of winning something with the club.

A trophy is the obvious thing that’s missing from his CV and I genuinely believe that if we can continue our development as a club, there’s every chance that we can fix that for him in the next few years. A picture of Gareth holding a trophy above his head would I think be a fitting centrepiece for his career; tellingly, it’s also what defines the two men he’s overtaken.

Dennis Mortimer

Possibly the greatest Captain Aston Villa have ever had was born on the 5th April 1952 in Liverpool.

He made his footballing debut for Coventry City at just seventeen years of age, and went on to play over two hundred games for the strange folk at the wrong end of the A45.

He played well for them too; in fact, with Dennis Mortimer in the side Coventry City qualified for Europe where they came up against Bayern Munich and beat them at Highfield Road, before losing 6-1 in the return leg.

That sort of thing couldn’t be allowed to continue, and Ron Saunders rescued him; persuading him to sign for Villa for £175,000 just before Christmas of 1975 after a clandestine meeting at the Malt Shovel on Stonebridge Island.

By 1977 he was part of his first successful Villa side, playing in every game of our League Cup run and collecting a winners medal.

With Gordon Cowans, Des Bremner and Tony Morley he formed a part of the midfield that was to lead Villa to our finest hour, and he was its driving force.

My memories of Mortimer as a player are sketchy at best, partly for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, but reports from those who watched him play suggest a bearded Adonis with drive and determination, a competitive will to win, strong running and great energy. It was he who allowed Morley the space to enjoy himself, he who fed Shaw, Little and Withe and he who became the heartbeat of the great side of the early eighties.

In 1981, Mortimer captained Aston Villa to the league title. Again, sadly my memories of his part in it are not up to the job, but I remember kneeling in front of the telly with a football in my lap, transfixed at the Villa fans dancing on the pitch at Highbury and wondering when I’d be old enough to do that.

I’d appreciate some of our more experienced posters perhaps letting me know how Dennis helped put me in that position.

At this point then comes the confession. I was surprised when I first saw Dennis Mortimer on the appearance list, you see, for me and many of my age who were just nippers when it happened, Dennis Mortimer’s entire career has been condensed into a single, wonderful, incredible image.

On 26th May 1982, Dennis Mortimer helped Aston Villa Football Club to our finest hour, finally getting one over on Bayern Munich, becoming the only Villa Captain to lift the European Cup, and ensuring he would always be remembered as the man who led us on the greatest night in our history.

The image of him in his white away shirt with the European cup held aloft is one that is engrained in the psyche of every Villa fan.

He was more than the moment though, his was a career packed with glory; and he added the European Super Cup to his League Championship, his European Cup and his League Cup medals in 1983.

Alongside all that achievement there was also longevity and consistency, he made 406 appearances for Villa in a wonderful decade, scoring 36 goals before leaving for Brighton in 1985.

Strangely, he never received a full England cap, playing for the “B” and U23 sides and sitting on the bench for the home internationals of 1981, but never quite making it to the pitch.

After Brighton, he wound up at small heath for a year before managing Redditch United then becoming Ossie Ardiles assistant at West Brom. He completed a sports degree, coached at Villa’s academy, worked with Wolves ladies team, Forest Green, and the PFA and has gone on to become a respected voice in coaching circles.

He has also retained a healthy interest in the Villa, becoming a well-known voice of dissent during the last days of Doug Ellis’s reign as Chairman and speaking out on numerous occasions about the decline of the once great club he’d come to think of as his own.

He regularly attends games to this day and occasionally provides commentary on matches, with a pirate.

But he will always be remembered as the captain with the trophy over his head, one of the true greats of our history and a living legend.

My words cannot do him justice; hopefully those that remember can make a better fist of it.

Johnny Dixon

Possibly the greatest Captain Aston Villa have ever had was born on the 10th December 1923 in Hebburn-on-Tyne, County Durham.

He started his career at Spennymoor United then played a handful of wartime games with Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough before moving to Birmingham and settling at Villa Park after writing a letter to the club requesting a trial in 1944.

He signed professional forms in January 1946 and made his debut aged 22 on the opening day of the first post-war league championship.

However, it took him until the 1948-49 season to really establish himself in a Villa side that was still finding itself and was a peculiar mix of aging stars and youngsters.

Once he’d found his place though, he was rarely out of the side and as the forties turned into the fifties he hit his prime.

At 5ft 10in and just under 11 stone, Johnny’s strengths were in his ball control, his passing and his balance, he could run all day, was comfortable with the ball and liked to keep it simple, he was also decent in the air and could play down the flanks.

What’s more he could finish; he scored 144 goals in his 430 games for Villa and was top scorer in four of the first six seasons of the fifties, including 28 goals in the 1951-52 season.

He was brave and committed too, and in an era where the laws were more liberal than today’s he could more than hold his own without ever resorting to foul play. In fact his sportsmanship was legendary and there is no record of him ever having been booked or sent off.

He was a teetotaller, non-smoker, and gentleman, known for his good humour, good manners, friendliness and dignity; it was a natural step for him to assume the captaincy, which he did in 1954.

His crowning glory came in 1957 when he captained Villa to an unexpected FA Cup win over Manchester United and the Busby babes.

The story of that final doesn’t need re-telling here, but I will just remind you that it was Johnny Dixon’s cross that Peter McParland headed in for our second goal on the day.

By the time of that final he was Villa’s longest serving player, but his patience had been justly rewarded, and maybe there might just be a little something in this quote for Gareth to chew on:

"With about 10 minutes to go, I realised suddenly we were going to win. For 13 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."

Johnny Dixon, like Dennis Mortimer is a man captured forever in our minds in a single image, perched on the shoulders of his team mates with the FA cup held proudly above his head and a huge smile on his face; just reward for years of service.

Villa were relegated two seasons later, but he helped us back into the top flight the following season, despite by then being nearer to forty than thirty. Injuries were starting to catch up with him, and by the time of his last season in 1960-61, he played just one game, against Sheffield Wednesday. Fittingly, he scored in it and managed to break his nose for good measure.

He retired as a player after 17 years of Villa service.

Like Mortimer, international football eluded him, and whilst Dixon himself was far too polite to say so, his manager Eric Houghton was quoted as saying "Of course Johnny Dixon should have played for England. Plenty of worse players did!" I’m sure Dennis Mortimer will find more common ground in that statement!

After his retirement, Dixon remained at Villa Park for six years, coaching the reserves and youth team before setting up an ironmongers shop in Erdington with a proud claret and blue sign at the front and a picture of the 1957 cup winning team behind the counter.

Even when he retired from that at sixty-one, he was still fit enough to be turning out for the Aston Villa old stars in charity games from time to time.

Sadly Johnny Dixon passed away in January of this year aged 85.

He will not be forgotten.

So what of Gareth? He’s certainly now in very best of company, but these two, fine Villans and legends both, only make it all too concise and too clear what’s missing from Gareth’s picture.

For me, the fact that they won those trophies with Villa, and served the club with such memorable distinction is at least as important as the trophies themselves, and what’s more, in giving so much they made the winning of those trophies all the more special, both to them and to us.

I wonder what these two would make of him, and I wonder what he might make of himself. Is there an image somewhere in the future of our memories of Gareth Barry with a trophy above his head, with a smile and a look in his eye of vindication?

Is it better to hope that you’ll be the fifth player in line to collect a medal for a club that pays your wages, or dream that you’ll be stood at the top of the stairs with your hands on a trophy and your team behind you, your place in history secured?

I suspect I’ve given away my opinion in asking the question.

If he goes, then I will wish him well, he has come a long way and served this club magnificently well, but I hope he stays long enough that one-day somebody gets to write,

“Possibly the greatest Captain Aston Villa have ever had was born on the 23rd February 1981 in Hastings.”

or failing that, at least long enough to catch Tommy Smart in 7th place with 452 appearances!

(As ever, my apologies for any errors/idiocy.)

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