13 Birm­ing­ham

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Shortly be­fore his death in Novem­ber 2017, foot­balling great, Jimmy MacEwan, looked back over his early days in the beau­ti­ful game, long be­fore the big money and celebrity it brings to­day. He was talk­ing to SHEILA PENNELL

My son, Eric, re­cently got in touch with the Birm­ing­ham Mail to ask the sports edi­tor, Mat Ken­drick, if “my Dad, Jimmy MacEwan, is the old­est liv­ing As­ton Villa foot­baller”. And it turned out — I was! Or should that be “I am” as I’m still here and en­joy­ing life. I’ve had to have two sets of new knees, but that’s a small price to pay for my mag­i­cal foot­balling mem­o­ries. And it all started in a rented two- bed ten­e­ment in Baf­fin Street, Dundee.

I was born on 22nd March 1929, the only son of Betsy and Jimmy MacEwan. Mother worked at the jute mill, mak­ing sacks and, at 14, my older sis­ter May joined her. Dad was a docker, and my ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of Mother telling me to “kid on I was asleepin’” when she helped Dad to bed at night, the worse for drink. I’d gaze through the win­dow as Dad walked past af­ter work, never call­ing in, in­stead walk­ing straight on to the boozer at the end of the street. And there he’d make merry, with his mates, till pub- clos­ing time. Later, I re­alised that Mother didn’t want me to see the shame of her hav­ing to put him to bed. But, on the plus side, there was al­ways food on the table and the rent was paid.

And when I started at Gle­be­lands in­fant and ju­nior school, and played footie with my class­mates in the play­ground, I was a happy soul. Se­nior school was Sto­b­swell, and soon I was play­ing in the school foot­ball team — in­side- for­ward mainly, some­times cen­tre- for­ward. I just en­joyed it and didn’t care if we won or lost against other schools, but of course our teach­ers wanted us to win!

A vivid mem­ory was Mother tak­ing me to the doc­tor’s when I was around 11- years- old. I’d had this lovely chubby face that sud­denly went thin and craggy. The doc­tor sent me to see a con­sul­tant, who asked me if I smoked. Well, what 11- year- old would dare say yes? I was smok­ing about 10 of my old man’s dog- ends be­fore school in the morn­ings! I ad­mit­ted it even­tu­ally and packed it up. But no one thought smok­ing was bad in those days — even for some­one hop­ing — maybe, just maybe — to be a pro­fes­sional foot­baller.

A bonny lass called Ma­bel fol­lowed me on from in­fants to se­niors. She’d hang out of her ten­e­ment win­dow on a Satur­day night and I’d shout up: “Are ye com­ing to the ice rink with me tonight?” and she’d be down those stairs in a flash. And Satur­day night was tin bath night, af­ter a mud­splat­tered day on the foot­ball field, so I was scrubbed up nicely for our dates. That ice rink is still there — the Dundee ice hockey team prac­tise there now.

Soon I was play­ing am­a­teur foot­ball for Ash­dale. By then I was a car me­chanic, had taught my­self to drive, and was signed up to play for East Craigie — sadly, no cash in­volved! Luck­ily, I got Satur­days off at the garage. But next came a pro­fes­sional con­tract with Ar­broath for the princely sum of £ 156 a year — not enough to give up the day job so I worked hard all the week at the garage, trained two nights a week then played on Satur­days.

That was 1946 and I had a good four- year spell at Gay­field Park where, or so I’ve read! — I “blos­somed into a goal scor­ing right- winger- cum- cen­tre- for­ward”. The next move was Raith Rovers in 1950. And that was a first — £ 4,000 was the most Raith had ever paid to sign any­one. I still lived in Dundee and made the ar­du­ous jour­ney to Kirk­caldy by ferry and car.

But Na­tional Ser­vice beck­oned and I did my two years in the RAF. Once I was de­mobbed, I car­ried on with Raith where I left off. Me and Ma­bel got mar­ried in 1952 and moved into a ten­e­ment next door to my par­ents, but ours was a three- bed, not two. I was go­ing up in the world! And we soon needed those bed­rooms when our sons, Eric and Dun­can, ar­rived on the scene.

We thought our lives were set to be in Scot­land for ever, so who would have thought a team like As­ton Villa would want a 30- yearold? But Joe Mercer spot­ted me and my pow­er­ful bandy legs! I was whisked away, and played as an out­side- right for Villa be­tween 1959 and 1966. I made more than 150 ap­pear­ances and scored 31

goals. I helped Villa win the Sec­ond Di­vi­sion ti­tle in my first sea­son with them and the fol­low­ing year — 1961 — we cel­e­brated League Cup glory beat­ing Rother­ham in the fi­nal.

Villa was a trans­formed side af­ter that — we had an un­bro­ken run of 17 games with­out de­feat. And when we were de­feated by Liver­pool at An­field, we bounced back a week later by beat­ing Charl­ton at home with an 11- 1 score­line.

Foot­ball took me all over the world, and into train­ing and man­age­ment too. I had an of­fer to go to South Africa, but that was never on the cards. It took me all my time to con­vince Ma­bel to leave her beloved Dundee to come to Birm­ing­ham — that was far enough

for her! And she wasn’t the least bit in­ter­ested in foot­ball — all the men in her fam­ily were cricket mad.

There was a time too when I could have had a free trans­fer back to Dundee United, for £ 25 a week and £ 1,000 in my pocket. But by then Ma­bel was happy and she felt there were bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties for our sons in Brum.

Re­grets? I’d loved to have played for Rangers as that would have vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed me a Scot­land cap. Now I just sit back and cheer on Andy Mur­ray — he’s my hero.

I never meant to fol­low in my father’s foot­steps — down at the pub a lot — but af­ter my foot­balling years I did work at Ansells Brew­ery till it closed down, so maybe I took af­ter him in some small way, af­ter all.


In 1959 Joe Mercer ( right) signed Jimmy for As­ton Villa. Here he is pic­tured with fel­low play­ers John Neal and Bobby Thom­son.


Jimmy scor­ing against Black­pool in Septem­ber 1962.

Jimmy with his son, Eric.

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