For some, Aston Villa hosting Rotherham United in the second round of the Capital One Cup may be of little interest – a low-key midweek run-out for Paul Lambert's team, a fun quick night on the big stage for the third-tier visitors.
But for others, this means a lot. This tie evokes history, as it was the first ever final of the League Cup, in 1961. It evokes glory, for those who were part of Joe Mercer's good, young Villa side – "Mercer's Minors" – who won 3-2 over two legs after extra-time in the second game. And it evokes tragedy, for Bobby Thomson, Villa's feisty forward who was involved in a car accident immediately after the win in which he lost a close friend.
It was not obvious, back in 1960, that the new League Cup would last as long as it has. Five of the bigger sides – Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday, Tottenham, Wolves and West Bromwich Albion – did not even enter that first year. But the players, especially those at Villa, were delighted to take part. "There was a lot of talk saying that we had enough football," Peter McParland, who scored the winning goal for Villa in the final, told The Independent. "But we were happy with it, if we had this midweek competition it meant we didn't have to train."
Thomson, who played up front with McParland, relished the entry into the new competition. "The League Cup was special to us, we'd just got promoted and won the Second Division, we went into every game wanting to play. I loved the cup ties, they were always a bit spicier, referees seemed to let you get away with a little bit more than normal."
So Villa, alongside their First Division campaign – in which they finished ninth – played an extra 12 midweek games on their way to the trophy. They beat Huddersfield Town, Preston North End, Plymouth Argyle and Wrexham (needing three replays in all) before they met Burnley – reigning First Division champions and European Cup quarter-finalists that year – in the semi-finals.
"They were going for the Treble that year," remembered Thomson. McParland called them "the sort of side that would give you a right run-around if they got on top of you." Villa never liked playing at Turf Moor much but they drew there and drew again back at home, taking the tie to a replay at Old Trafford.
The teams were inseparable, it was 1-1 in extra-time, before Villa received an unwanted gift. "I was trying to run through with the ball," recalled Thomson. "Jimmy Adamson – a proper, proper gentleman, wouldn't kick anybody deliberately – he tackled me, a perfectly fair tackle and won the ball. I went flying. The referee gave a penalty but I jumped up and said 'That's no penalty, ref'. But Stan Lynn – our right-back – had already got the ball by then and told me to 'Shut up'."
It was a different era. "This was in extra time, when we were fed up of looking at each other. If it had been Alex Elder or Tommy Cummings who'd kicked me up in the air, I would have said the same – if it's not a penalty it's not a penalty. Nowadays you see them like Swan Lake, the ballet dancers. And the referees then were fantastic, nowadays they have no control."
But Villa were in the final where they would face Rotherham United over two legs. Fixture congestion caused partly by the introduction of the League Cup meant the final was played at the start of the following season. "They were always a good, tough, strong, hard Second Division team," said McParland. "We knew it was going to be a hard game. But we were always confident, as it was a two-legged game, we could take care of them."
The first leg, though, at Millmoor on 22 August did not go to plan. Barry Webster and Alan Kirkman gave Rotherham a 2-0 lead. "We played poorly in the first game," said McParland, "and Joe Mercer gave us a bit of a rollicking for it."
The return leg at Villa Park which was played in early September (eight days later Villa began their defence of the trophy) was their chance to show they were good enough to win the cup and – eventually – they did. It took an hour but in the second half, Villa shooting towards the Holte End, they broke through with goals from Alan O'Neill and Harry Burrows.
In extra-time, the fitness of the First Division side told. For Thomson, "it was just a case of time". McParland, who had won the 1957 FA Cup final for Villa too, scored the winner. "I could tell you, as there is no tape of the game, that I beat six men in the box and knocked it in the back of the net. But I'd be kidding. The ball was popping around the goalmouth, it dropped to me about two feet out and I whacked it."
Villa had won the first ever League Cup and the players were delighted. They took home nearly £100 in bonuses each for winning it, almost five times their average weekly wage.
But tragedy was to follow glory. Thomson was driving home with team-mate Derek Dougan and journalist Malcolm Williams from the Express and Star in Wolverhampton. There was an accident and Williams was killed, colouring entirely how Thomson looks back on all of this. "I should have been really up in the clouds, but I wasn't, I was very deeply down. It was a very sad time. It was a cup to be won and we won it, but as far as I am concerned they could take that away from me and change the other situation."
Thomson and McParland both keenly follow the progress of the new Villa team, Paul Lambert's answer to "Mercer's Minors". "Some of them have got to get it into their head that they're good," insisted Thomson, "some of them went around last year with an inferiority complex."
McParland sees some potential, and recognises a similar task from 50 years ago. "They are young boys. They have been good so far. The wee boy [Fabian ] Delph is doing well. They've got a lot of promising players there, it is getting the best out of them that is Lambert's job."
Capital One are offering Villa and Rotherham fans who attended the 1961 final free tickets to tomorrow night's game
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