Holte History: Willie Groves


Most of the Holte History articles will be about a player, manager, game, etc, that has a major part in Villa's story as a club.

But this week's profilee isn't a Villa legend. He wasn't at Villa for very long. And he actually played a major part in a Villa FA Cup final loss. Rather this profile is to talk about a player with whose signing for Villa holds a unique place in football history.

Willie Groves was born November 9, 1869 in Leith, Scotland. Early on in his life he played as a inside forward for local sides Edinburgh Thistle and Leith. But in 1886 Groves made the move to Hibernian.

At Hibernian is where Groves started to make his imprint on the football world. He made his debut as a 16 year old in the 1885-86 season, and was a major part of Hibs' Scottish Cup winning side of 1887. Groves' goal in the semifinal lead to a protest by opponents Vale of Lethen. The defeated opponents claimed Groves had taken payments to play for Hibs, which would be illegal as the Scottish game was still amateur at the time. (This was the first monetary controversy involving Groves, we'll get to the other later.) Hibernian were later exonerated, but not until after they defeated Dumbarton 2-1 to win the cup.

In 1888, Groves left Hibernian to join the newly formed Celtic Football Club. He would make another Scottish Cup final with Celtic in 1889. The 1889 final, between Celtic and Third Lanark, came to be known as the "Snow Final". Snowy conditions lead to the two clubs to agree that the game would be played as a friendly, which Third Lanark won 3-0. Some Scottish FA members challenged the decision of making the match a friendly, and demand it be counted as the final. It was eventually decided to replay the final the following week, which Third Lanark would again win, this time 2-1. Groves time at Celtic also included a call up to the Scottish national team for a Home Nations Championship match against Ireland. Groves scored a hat trick as Scotland won 7-0. He only made 3 appearances for Scotland and scored 4 goals.

In 1890, Groves made the move south of the border and joined West Bromwich Albion. During his time at West Brom, he was moved from inside forward and made into an attacking left half. And then in 1892, West Brom met a heavily favored Aston Villa in the FA Cup Final. (Which was the first FA Cup final to feature nets on the goals!) Villa dominated the final early, but West Brom ended up opening the scoring and would go on to roll over Villa 3-0.

And then in 1893, Villa used the old "if you can't beat them, get them" trick and signed Groves and fellow West Brom player Jack Reynolds. West Brom appealed to the FA over what they considered to be the poaching of their 2 best players. As a result Villa were fined £25, and forced to give West Brom £100 for Groves. This was the first time a team paid £100 for a footballer. Which means that for a short time Aston Villa were the payers of the world record transfer fee. Think about that: £100 was the world record transfer fee, and Aston Villa paid it. Some of the other players who have been record transfers are Cristiano Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, and WILLIE GROVES.

Groves only spent a little over a season at Aston Villa. But he was part of the 1893-94 First Division Champions. He, along with Reynolds, were part of a defense which allowed just 42 goals in the 30 game season, which was the lowest of any first division team. However, that would be the extent of Groves' time at Villa, as he would leave the club in November 1894, after contract disputes.

Groves would return to Scotland after this. He rejoined Hibernian and helped them to the 1896 Scottish Cup final which they would lose to Hearts. Later that year, he rejoined his other old team Celtic, and played for them for a short time. He would be forced to retire a short time later, after developing tuberculosis. And in a sad end to the Willie Groves story, he died in poverty on February 13, 1908, at just 38 years old.

In today's footballing culture, where the Stephen Warnocks of the world are getting paid absurd money, its fun to go back to the times where £100 was considered an adquate fee for an English First Division Team's best player.

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