My Favourite Villan: Chris Arnot on Gerry Hitchens
Villa Park not only looked vastly different in Gerry Hitchens's hey-day; there was a different smell about it too.
An aroma of beery-breath and damp macks was overlaid with a whiff of Bovril. Cigarette smoke stung the eyes and the acrid tang of industry hovered overhead.
Birmingham factories were working full tilt in the late 1950s and early sixties. The majority of players had escaped from lathes or conveyor belts and most knew they would end up back there once their careers had run their course.
But Gerry had come from a slightly different background. He was first spotted playing for Highley Miners' Welfare in Shropshire and I remember him telling any interviewer who cared to write it down: "You don't know what hard work's like until you've been down the pit."
A willing workhorse was Gerry, ready to stick his head down a run for any ball that Vic Crowe chipped over the top. He wasn't a conventional target man, though he could soar above a defence and guide that leather ball goalward with powerful neck muscles.
Like his contemporary, Jimmy Greaves, he was also a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles with the striker's knack of being in the right place at the right time.
I was 11 in the 1960-61 season when he scored an incredible 41 goals for the Villa. It was my first full season at Villa Park and it took me a long time to forgive my dad for dragging me out of a derby match when we were 4-1 up "to beat the crowds".
The final score was Villa 6 Blues 2 and, predictably, Gerry bagged a hat-trick.
He should have played more often for England. Perhaps it was his misfortune to be around at the same time as Bobby Smith, the centre-forward who had his goals served on a plate by the gourmet Spurs double-winning side.
But Gerry's chance finally came with a friendly against Mexico. My mates packed into our back room to watch the game in glorious black and white and we hit the ceiling when he scored in the first minute.
Although Bobby Charlton stole the headlines, our hero played a full part in England's 8-0 victory. He scored twice more in an away match against Italy that summer.
Cause for celebration? Alas, no. Italian scouts were hovering and, to our stunned disbelief, he was soon on his way to Inter Milan.
Greaves, Denis Law and Joe Baker had also succumbed to the lure of the lira but, within a year, they were all back home, complaining about the sheer hell of living in Italy.
Gerry put up with the sun and the food for another 10 years, no doubt reflecting that being kicked by Italian defenders was better than being down the pit.
News of his death in 1983 was made all the more poignant by the realisation that he was playing in a charity football match at the time.
It was the footballer's equivalent of dying on stage. At 48, though, he was far too young.
The man who had ignited a damp-macked and beery-breathed Holte End with so many memorable goals was gone, never to be forgotten by those of us lucky enough to have seen him in his prime.
Click here for a host of interviews, features and highlights on our online channel AVTV.
Adobe Flash Plug-in Needed
This website requires a Adobe Flash plug-in. Please download the latest version of the Flash plug-in by clicking here