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The Prince of Fullbacks

The 1890s and 1900s were a fruitful period for Aston Villa Football Club, and Howard Spencer was a major part of that.

Laurence Griffiths

The current fullbacks on Aston Villa's roster tend to divide opinion. Well, some of them do. Everyone seems to agree that Matt Lowton is a good player. While on the other hand, Joe Bennett and Eric Lichaj both have had their ups and downs. But, I think we can all hope that our fullbacks can one day come to be as respected as Howard Spencer.

Howard Spencer was born on August 23, 1875 in the Edgbaston section of Birmingham. He signed for Aston Villa in April 1892, and made his debut for the club in October, 1894, in a 3-1 win over West Bromwich Albion. He was just 18 years old when he made his first appearance. It's no coincidence that Aston Villa came to be one of, if not the dominant club of this period when Spencer came along. He was a major part of Aston Villa's dominance in the 1890s and early 1900s.

During his period at the club, Spencer became known as one of the most well-known and well-respected players around, due to both his skill and his demeanor, both on and off the pitch. He was given the nicknames "The Prince of Fullbacks" and "Gentle Howard" because of these qualities.

Spencer was a part of four league-winning Aston Villa seasons, and three FA Cup winning sides.

Spencer's first trophy at Villa was the 1895 FA Cup, which they won, defeating West Brom 1-0 in the final. The next season saw Aston Villa win the league championship by four points over Derby County. (Same season saw a club then known as Small Heath get relegated, hehehe.) Spencer was part of a quality defense including James Cowan, Jack Reynolds, and Jimmy Crabtree.

The next season is arguably one of, if not the most successful Aston Villa season ever. Aston Villa retained their league title, winning by 11 points over Sheffield United. (Remember, just two points for a win back then, so this is a pretty large margin to win the league by.) And they defeated Everton 3-2 in the FA Cup final, to be the first ever English team to do "The Double". Spencer and the defense were again strong, allowing just 38 goals in the league that season.

In the opening month of the 1897-98 season, Spencer suffered a serious leg injury which kept him out the whole season. Aston Villa struggled to a sixth place finish that season, as the defense allowed 51 goals in the league. You can't say that all of that was due to the absence of Spencer, but that does show how important of a piece he was to Villa's team.

With Spencer back from injury, Aston Villa won the league again in both 1898-99 and 1899-1900. Ho hum for that Villa team, though. The final trophy Howard Spencer won with Aston Villa was the FA Cup in 1905. Spencer lead his team out as captain on cup final day, as Villa defeated Newcastle 2-0 thanks to two Harry Hampton goals.

Howard made just six appearances for England, which is a paltry amount for the caliber of player that Spencer was. However, in one of those six appearances, he captained England, becoming the first Villa player to do that.

Spencer was known as a fair and sportsmanlike player. The book "Who's Who of Aston Villa" says that Spencer was "was scrupulously fair - never known to commit a ruthless foul."

In the book "All in the Day's Sport", Roland Allen says this of Spencer:

"He was the outstanding example of what Aston Villa tradition on the football field came to mean. I shall never forget the neat-looking, scrupulously clean-playing, solid, safe-looking, full-back, tacking crisply, confidently, side-tapping the ball into place for the long, low, raking, perfectly placed clearance."

One story says of Spencer, that in one match he had suffered from a bad foul from an opponent. He went up to the player and, in a wonderfully 1800s way, said "Now, don't do that again! I won't have it! I won't have it!" Spencer had no further trouble in that match.

The Villa News & Record from 1906 said that Spencer was "the type of player worthy of emulation by all young players."

Spencer retired after the 1907 season, but continued training with the team and offered his services if the club ever needed him. They would. Spencer made three further appearances for Villa, with the last coming on November 30, 1907 against Newcastle.

Spencer was elected to the Aston Villa board in 1909 and remained there until 1936. After his football career, he came a very successful coal merchant. He died on January 14, 1940 at the age of 64.

He made 295 appearances in claret and blue, scoring two goals. But if you include his time as a director, he was associated with the club for 42 years.

Howard Spencer is the type of player you want playing for your team on the pitch, and the type of person you want representing it off the pitch.