John Aston

Manchester United footballer, coach and talent-spotter devoted to his club
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The Independent Online

John Aston, footballer: born Prestwich, Lancashire 3 September 1921; played for Manchester United 1938-54; capped 17 times for England 1948-50; married (one son, two daughters); died Manchester 31 July 2003.

Many more illustrious names than John Aston's intertwine the history of Manchester United, but few men have made a more varied and lengthy contribution to the Red Devils' cause, or been more steeped in their tradition, than the selfless, straightforward, quietly efficient Mancunian. An archetypal one-club man, Aston once declared: "After my family, United have been the number one love of my life," and certainly that devotion was strikingly apparent during 35 years at Old Trafford, where Aston was first a footballer of international class, then a briskly motivational coach, and finally a shrewd talent-spotter.

An integral part of Matt Busby's exhilarating post-war side, usually operating at full-back but also filling in effectively at centre-forward, Aston helped to lift the FA Cup in 1948 and the League Championship four years later, and earned a place in the England team for the 1950 World Cup Finals. Eventually he introduced his son, also John, to Old Trafford, then watched with quiet pride as the rookie winger shone brighter than any of his starry colleagues on the balmy Wembley night in 1968 when United became the first English club to win the European Cup.

Beyond that, Aston the elder occupied a unique position as the only man alive at the turn of the 21st century to have played on all four grounds which have been home to United and its predecessor club, Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway FC. As a boy he turned out at North Road and Bank Street; Old Trafford was his base throughout his career; and the fourth was Manchester City's Maine Road, used by United after their own headquarters had been devastated by Hitler's bombs.

Aston was 15 when he enlisted with the Red Devils as an amateur in 1937, and did not turn professional until after serving in the Middle East as a Royal Marine Commando during the Second World War. At the time he was an inside-forward and that was the berth in which he made his League début at home to Chelsea in September 1946. For his next appearance, 10 days later, he was switched to wing-half and then completed his transformation from attacker to defender by settling as the skipper John Carey's regular full-back partner during the second half of the season.

The conversion was a typically inspirational touch by his manager, Busby, who was seeking a left-back endowed with strength, stamina, pace and skill. There was no shortage of candidates who boasted the first three attributes but the fourth, which Aston possessed in abundance, made him an exceptionally effective addition to the rearguard. As his team-mate Johnny Morris put it: "John was so good with the ball that it was like having an inside-forward at full-back. A lot of our opponents simply didn't know what to make of it."

Undoubtedly it worked, as United emerged as the most entertaining team in the land, though they suffered the mortification of finishing as First Division runners-up in the first three campaigns after the war. In that era, though, the FA Cup was of massive, even overriding importance, so the serial League disappointments were mitigated enormously by a breathtaking Wembley triumph against Blackpool in 1948.

That day Aston's direct opponent was the nation's darling, Stanley Matthews. But although the "Wizard of Dribble" contributed enterprisingly as the Seasiders shaded the first half, Aston's incisive tackling and perceptive interceptions nullified Matthews in the second period as United surged to a 4-2 victory.

A consistent sequence of such composed, accomplished performances earned him a full international call-up that autumn and soon he had cemented his England slot for the next two years, occasionally on his favoured right side but more frequently on the left.

The highlight of this spell should have been England's first foray into the World Cup Finals, in Brazil in 1950, but instead Aston found himself part of the most excruciatingly embarrassing of all England anti-climaxes when they lost 1-0 to rank outsiders, the United States. Aston was blameless, the team's luck was outrageously bad and the result was a travesty, but years later he would still grimace as he recalled the woeful occasion.

Still he continued to thrive for United, but soon afterwards his invaluable adaptability was to cost him dearly. When the club's spearhead, Jack Rowley, was injured midway through 1950/51, Aston was switched to centre-forward and so devastating was his form - he plundered 15 goals in 22 games - that he retained the job, with Rowley moving to the left flank when he regained fitness. However, the upshot was the loss of his England place because the national boss Walter Winterbottom, himself a United old boy, insisted that a current left-back be selected.

The uncomplaining Aston never played for his country again, even after resuming full-back duties and helping the Red Devils to win the League title in 1951/52. Though he was in his thirties by then, his form remained impressive and it came as a hammer blow when, after nearly 300 appearances - a figure which would have been much higher but for the war - his career was ended prematurely by tuberculosis in 1954.

Aston's Old Trafford involvement was far from over, however. He took up coaching and played a part in the development of the Busby Babes before knee problems presaged a switch to become chief scout in 1970. It was a role he relished, but he lost it in 1972 in the backroom clear-out which accompanied the dismissal of Frank O'Farrell as manager.

Severely disheartened by that grisly exit, though never losing his affection for United, he picked up the threads of his soccer career only briefly, scouting for Luton Town and Birmingham City before leaving the game to work in the family pet foods business alongside his son.

Ivan Ponting

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