Mat Kendrick talks to a driving force behind Aston Villa's Old Stars.
When a 73-year-old legend like Johnny Dixon demands to play the full 90 minutes in a charity game, it doesn't just put the 'old' well and truly into Aston Villa Old Stars.
It also epitomises the competitive claret and blue spirit still coursing through a thriving organisation which is currently celebrating its milestone 50th anniversary year.
The time golden oldie Dixon stormed away in a huff after being rested, for his own good, at half-time is among many fond and amusing Old Stars memories of lifelong Villa fan Karl Court.
For the past decade or so Court has been heavily involved with the Aston Villa Former Players’ Association (AVFPA), which now incorporates the Old Stars team, and he is now the full-time general secretary and treasurer.
Court suggests the late, great Dixon’s desire to play in a friendly fixture several years ago was typical of how seriously the retired professionals still take their football whenever they dust off their boots and pull on the claret and blue again for a good cause.
“Bobby Thomson’s got on a couple of times this season and he’s 72,” reveals Court. “Johnny Dixon was the oldest. I think he was 73 when he played his last game for us.
“He was a lovely guy, Johnny. We thought because of his age we’d play him for half a game and then we’d bring him off.
“But he got upset and said: ‘I’m not doing this anymore, if I can’t have a full game you can forget it’.
“It’s absolutely incredible. We said: ‘You’re joking aren’t you? We’re trying to protect you’. And he said: ‘Forget it then!’
“Bless him, he was a great old stick. It’s great because we get players from all different generations mixing.”
It was Leslie Smith, the now deceased team-mate of 1957 FA Cup-winning captain Dixon, who established the Old Stars side as a way of raising money for charity and getting ex-Villans together in 1960.
In tribute to Smith’s foresight in setting up the organisation, which has since gone on to raise more than £4million for good causes, the Old Stars’ player-of-the-season award is named after him and his son presented it to the latest winner, Colin Gibson, at the 50th anniversary gala dinner yesterday evening.
The prestigious occasion, which brought together the largest ever collection of former players in one room, with around 75 congregating at Villa Park’s Holte Suite, is one of a host of annual events organised by the AVFPA.
Golf days and Ryder Cup-style tournaments are also commonplace as are greyhound racing nights, cricket matches, quizzes and question and answer sessions.
With all of the fundraisers open to the public and attended by Villa’s legends of yesteryear they provide star-struck supporters with a chance to rub shoulders with their down-to-earth idols.
“After all the games the players hang around and have a drink with the fans,” says Court. “The punters really love it because it shows that their heroes are normal blokes.
“We beat a Midlands XI 2-1 in our celebration game on Sunday and Steve Staunton scored an absolute screamer. We came back to the Holte pub at the end and there was this old fella in there celebrating his 70th birthday, I think, with his family.
“To see the fella’s face when Gordon Cowans and Tony Morley walked in was priceless and when a couple of the lads went over to chat with him it probably made his life, let alone his birthday.”
For Court himself it is a real labour of love. The 46-year-old was no more than a passionate Villa fanatic when a friend asked him along to watch an Old Stars match in the late 1990s.
Since then, he’s never looked back.
He grabbed a seat on the team bus for the next fixture and was invited to replace European Cup winning striker Gary Shaw moments after kick-off with the star striker still feeling the effects from an earlier England exhibition match in Germany.
Court declined that offer but he took Neil Rioch, now the AVFPA chairman, up on an offer to help out on the administration side, culminating in him combining his voluntary work for the former players with his daytime role of managing an automotive firm.
Eventually he started working for the overseas property firm of Rioch, whose original input almost two decades ago revolutionised an Old Stars set-up which was going through a lull.
Soon the duo decided to quit their day jobs and run the association full-time.
From humble beginnings in Rioch’s spare bedroom, it has now expanded, thanks in no small part to the Randy Lerner regime, to an office in the Holte pub at Villa Park.
It gives Court the chance to mingle with his heroes just a long throw away from his beloved club’s hallowed turf.
“For me as a fan, it’s a dream, all your Christmases come at once. Speaking to your idols, getting to know them. I’m like a kid in a sweet shop,” he admits.
Court, a useful footballer himself, has even shared the pitch with Villa’s past greats by sometimes turning out as a guest player for the Old Stars.
Not that they often need outside help to boost their ranks because the list of players to have turned out is like a Who’s Who of Aston Villa.
Around 100 of the club’s great and good have rolled back years during the past half a century, while a further 40 currently make themselves available for duty.
It is an illustrious list which down the decades has included European Cup, First Division, FA Cup and League Cup champions from claret and blue folklore.
Court believes the 25 or so Old Stars games per year take the players on a trip down memory lane by replicating the camaraderie of their playing days.
Even current team boss Chris Nicholl, the sixth manager following in the footsteps of Leslie Smith, Harry Kenning, Stan Arthurs, Dennis Jackson and John Chambers, often gives motivational team team-talks and furious rollickings - not that the players pay too much attention!
“The Old Stars’ dressing room is no place for anybody with a big ego with all the lads’ banter,” laughs Court.
“Obviously, as soon as they stop playing professionally, that goes. Every game the stick flying around the dressing room is merciless.
“Quite often you here them say: ‘Where else could we get this?’ If you get them out there once, they’ll keep coming back. It’s like all our yesteryears, once they step over the white line the competitive edge is there.”
Court works closely with Villa’s welfare and player liaison officer Lorna McClelland and offers the retired stars a similar service to the one she supplies for Martin O’Neill’s class of 2009-10.
Thus Court’s day can involve him being anything from event organiser one minute to counsellor the next.
Earlier this year the association helped comfort the relatives of five departed heroes after Eddie Lowe, Vic Crowe, Johnny Dixon, Paul Birch and Harry Parkes all passed away within a six-week period.
Court says it is important to lend a supportive ear to old players and their families.
“Too often when players finish, they’ve had this adulation for ten or 15 years during their career,” he explains.
“But let’s just stay at 35 they’ve had everything done for them and they stop through retirement, injury or whatever.
“What are they going to do? They’ve lost that bit of competitiveness because they’re not doing anything any more.
“They might get their golf handicap down a bit, but how many times can you play golf, go on holiday or go to the bookies? That’s why you see so many of them go down that slippery slope.
“We try to get involved as soon as anyone leaves the club. We try to get in contact with them and to see if they’ve got any idea what they’re going to do.”
With many modern day multi-millionaire footballers set for life when they hang up their boots and a large proportion of the foreign imports returning to their native countries upon retirement, Court fears for the future of the Old Stars team.
However, the involvement of Paul Merson, Steve Staunton and Mark Kinsella, who still turn out on a Sunday despite making their fortunes in the Premier League age, offers encouragement that there is plenty of football yet to be played by the former stars.
“We keep saying we need to improve our youth development set-up because some of the guys we’ve got playing now can’t go on forever,” adds Court.
“For the Old Stars to be going half a century is a fabulous achievement and one that will probably never be matched, but I’m not sure it will keep going for another 50 years.
“But there will always be a place for a former players association and what we try to do. We have gone from strength to strength in recent years and we’ve got some exciting plans for the future.”
Watch this space...