Feature: The Makers of the Villa - No.1 William McGregor
Among the stalwart friends of Aston Villa in its young and struggling days, not one was more enthusiastic or trustworthy in loyalty than Mr William McGregor, who afterwards became such a shining light in the football world.
I think the fact that the Scottish influence so strongly permeated the club, and also because the organisation sprang from a religious body, had very much to do with his leanings, though his delight in the game itself was always very keen and real, as you would have found out if you noticed the flash of his fine eyes when they were watching a close and exciting game.
His connection with the club began when Mr George B Ramsay was captain, and the oldest members of the Villa will recollect what a power and a prop he was at the period which came between the time of "Billy" Mason's secretaryship and that of the present holder of that office.
Few people know it today, but there was a time when the prospects of Aston Villa, from the financial point of view, were very poor indeed, and when stable and courageous men were required to come to the help of a club that had been - shall we say - indifferently served by people who had been trusted by the members.
That is a subject which has only been touched upon to show the value of Mr McGregor's friendship at a time when it was most needed.
In this connection, it gives me a good deal of pleasure to re-introduce a Villa name that has not been heard for some time - that of Mr Fergus Johnstone [father of Charles F Johnstone, the once-famous sprinter and writer of excellent football notes in the Mail].
These two noble old Scots - W McGregor and F Johnstone - carried the credit of Aston Villa for some years, and until matters settled down under the George B Ramsay regime, they were the sponsors and the mainstays of the Perry Barr organisation, for the most implicit confidence was placed in them, and it was well deserved.
William McGregor was a broad-minded and generous man in all sporting matters. He had the reputation of being an intensely religious man. Of this I cannot speak confidently, simply because he never obtruded his views upon me; but this I am sure of, he was the soul of honour, and he had a strong affection for the game he afterwards wrote about so well.
Some of my readers may recollect that he kept a shop in Summer Lane, and he had for an assistant Andrew Hunter, the brother of Archie, one of the prettiest dribblers and most skilful players the game has seen. What a place of gossip that used to be! You could get all sorts of "tips" there; and long before Mr McGregor took to writing himself, he was one of the greatest friends pressmen had, for he was not only willing, but eager to give information, and he had a great admiration for sporting scribes.
I remember on one occasion he had been reading some football notes which he described to me as "bonnie", and said he would like to be able to do it. I advised him to try, and he took my advice - which resulted in a very wide and deservedly high reputation for him.
He was one of the most ardent believers in the scheme for making a limited liability company of the club, and one of the reasons for this was the financial worries which I have hinted at above. Some of us thought he and his colleagues were making a mistake; but his arguments and logic were too good for us, and the scheme fructified to the great benefit of the organisation; and as "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" nearly all the other clubs followed suit. It has to be admitted that it savoured a little of the "loaves and fishes" but it stabilised the clubs, and it was done at a time when it was most required.
This, however, is touching rather much on the sordid side of football and I like to remember the handsome descendant of the Clan McGregor as a sportsman of the old school, with a heart as merry and gay as that of a lad, and who can spin yarns in the Doric dialect with a refreshing humour that was good to listen to.
Footballers of the top grade were his heroes, and he could watch a match and extend admiration for the clever doings of the opposing side almost as much as his own; and he could lose with smiling grace and dignity. He seldom judged a player harshly, and was a merciful critic as a rule. Having such a keen knowledge of the game, he knew a trier, and was never hard upon him; he carried his religion into practice, and spoke well of his neighbour every time he had the chance.
William McGregor is known, and always will be known, as the Father of the Football League, and to him belongs the credit of the "fixity of fixtures" which used to worry him so in the old days. Many a time he had deplored to me the somewhat careless abandonment of games in the years prior to 1888, when the public were either disappointed in matches arranged "according to the card" or were chagrined by the absence of many of the most popular players.
He was not at first in favour of professionalism in football but he saw the inevitableness of it, and supported it when it was proved to him that the honour and fair name of the game demanded it.
As everybody knows, William McGregor's name became of worldwide celebrity, and he was regarded, and rightly regarded, as the nestor of the association game; and no sportsman of his age, or any other, had a more loyal following.
During the later years of his life he was not, I think, so closely in touch with Villa affairs as previously; he became, so to speak, a more cosmopolitan leader of football, but his heart was always with the club he did so much to serve and improve, and he lives in it annals as a staunch and faithful friend at a period when such friendship was of great and much-needed assistance.
Of him it may be truly said that he left the game of football better than he found it, and by his work and example lifted it to a position which put it among the greatest pastimes of the country.
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