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.