From the Archives: John 'Pop' Ward's title dream realised
Villa were highly successful in the Ron Saunders era, as everyone knows.
What some of claret and blue persuasion may not realise is the secret weapon in their ranks during the late 1970s.
John 'Pop' Ward was a jack of all trades who worked at the Bodymoor Heath training ground during the week and the Villa Park dressing room on matchdays.
Talking in 1978, he told the Villa News & Record: "I joined the club 10 years ago because they were short of a kitman. They asked me to do the job. Then Walter Cowans came in and so I started to do anything the club wanted of me.
"I now answer the phone, collect the towels, run the baths and even make the tea!"
Born in August 1893 at a time when Aston was a separate town to Birmingham, 'Pop' was definitely a character in and around the place.
He could name the Villa team line-up of 1900 no problem and recalled playing against Albert Evans, the left-back who was in the League and Cup double-winning team, during the First World War in France.
'Pop' told players of his memories at Villa Park being developed in 1924 as the showpiece stadium of its time.
He was recount tales of how fans used to climb the trees in Aston Park - before the Trinity Road Stand was built - to look over at matches in the ground.
He would recall the 1913 title-decider against Sunderland - "there were more fans in Aston Park watching the game than Villa Park."
This kind of banter made 'Pop' an influential stress-buster for players who were eager to achieve success.
While 'Pop' downplayed the importance of his role at the club he had supported for 80 years, manager Saunders saw him as a talismanic figure with the players - there with a kind word, an arm around the shoulder or a joke to lighten the mood.
In short, Saunders rated his contribution highly.
Saunders said in 1978: "He is an essential part of the team!
"His wit, coupled with his sarcasm, is second to none.
"He allows no-one to get away with anything and keeps everyone on their toes. Long may it continue."
Tragically, a few short weeks after hailing 'Pop' - pictured above far left - news filtered through to the claret and blue playing camp of his death, a few short days before his 85th birthday.
It was a hammer blow and the club actually closed down for the day of his funeral so everyone could pay for their respects.
Interestingly, days before his passing, 'Pop' wrote in the matchday programme: "I have one wish for Aston Villa. That's all.
"I would love to see us win the League Championship again. It's been 50-odd years since the last time and it would be marvellous if it came here again in my lifetime."
While it didn't happen "in my lifetime", it's somewhat fitting that his dream was realised so immediately, just three years later.
Ken McNaught, a famous member of the team who would go on to lift the trophy, said 'Pop' played a big role in that title-triumph.
He added: "He kept stressing: 'You're on the verge of greatness!' He used to tell us: 'You're going places. This team is really going to do something.'
"He was infectious. The gaffer was keeping our minds on the job, keeping us focused and demanding we take every game as it comes, as the old cliché goes.
"But 'Pop' was in the background telling us we were brilliant.
"He had natural enthusiasm. He always had a smile on his face - he was just happy to be in and around the club he loved.
"No job was too much trouble for him. He was happy to do anything. He was just thrilled be involved. I was always happy being in his company.
"He was always telling you how lucky you were playing for the Villa. He couldn't believe people got paid for that!"
Interestingly, while 'Pop' was clearly a big ally of Saunders, he also helped the first team stars when they were in trouble!
McNaught said 'Pop' was a godsend for players who came in worse for wear at the training ground during the week.
He added: "Pop was a great guy to keep onside because he always had a packet of mints on him.
"If the gaffer had suspicions of you being out the night before, he would always check your breath.
"He'd get right in close with you. The new lads thought he'd be going in for a hug but he was really checking your breath.
"The fact 'Pop' had a packet of polo mints was very handy for the lads who had been on the sauce the night before. 'Pop' was your first point of call as you drove in."
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