Football history : John Devey, an Aston Villa icon

John Devey

Aston Villa at one time held the record for the most FA Cup successes, seven, but now Arsenal and Manchester United are joint best with 11 trophies each. As the current team wait on the winners of the Liverpool v Blackburn replay for a place in the final, time perhaps for a reflective on one of the first Villa captains to lift the FA Cup, John Devey.

John Devey was born in Birmingham on Boxing Day 1866. He joined Aston Villa aged 25 after a grounding with several junior clubs in the Birmingham area. By the time he was 34 he had established himself as perhaps the greatest captain in the club’s history. As a forward he was peerless, and throughout his career he maintained the top ‘goals to games’ ratio of one in two. Even in his scandalously nondescript England career of just two appearances, mainly due to him being a contemporary of two of the finest players ever produced in these islands; John Goodall and Steve Bloomer, he scored a goal.

In the extremely physical game that was late 19th century professional football, Devey stood out because of his dribbling prowess and his uncanny ability to stop abruptly, pivot and get off a powerful shot.

Devey’s Aston Villa career was liberally sprinkled with trophies and goals after the first two campaigns failed to bring any silverware to Villa Park. His first season, 1891-92, yielded 34 goals in 30 appearances as Villa finished fourth in the League and lost the FA Cup Final to near neighbours West Bromwich Albion. Many Villa fans blamed goalkeeper Jimmy Warner for that reverse as the Albion had been comprehensively beaten in the two league games and, suspecting bribery, caused severe damage to the custodian’s public house.

Although it was an even poorer second season for the club, Devey still maintained his superior goals record, with 19 in 31 appearances for a staggering tally of 63 goals in 61 matches over two campaigns.

It was the third season, 1893-94, when the trophy ‘duck’ was broken, not inappropriate as John Devey was also an accomplished cricketer, scoring 6,500 runs for Warwickshire between 1888 and 1907. On the football field, Villa stormed to the Football League Championship and Devey finished top scorer with 20 goals in 29 league appearances.

Over the next six seasons Aston Villa claimed the mantle of League champions five times, including only the second ‘Double’ of League and FA Cup in 1897,  with the FA Cup being won in 1895 for good measure.

As the 19th century morphed into the 20th, John Devey’s Villa career of more than a decade began to wane and his penultimate season, 1900-1901, was the last campaign in which the fans saw the real quality that had helped the club dominate English football. Nevertheless, he still managed 15 goals in 32 games. Ironically in his last season, 1901-02 he only played four matches all season but still netted twice for that all important top striker ratio to be maintained.

Aston Villa were not about to say goodbye to their captain and icon. He retired as a player in 1902 having played and scored in his final game against Grimsby on December 14th 1901, for a career tally of 186 goals in 306 appearances. In July 1902, John Devey was elected to the board of Aston Villa FC, and he served his beloved Villa in that capacity until 1934. He died in 1940 aged 73.

Despite winning only two England caps, John Devey remains one of the top players from the early days of English football and few would exclude him from any Best XI of select of players who plied their trade while Victoria was queen.

By
Longest serving freelance football reporter for Sky Sports, 1,000+ games. Author of Breedon Book of Premiership Records and Three Lions.
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