On 19 April 1913 the sound of a whistle began the FA Cup final, and more than 121,000 spectators were plunged into cheering on their side. After a season of competition, the moment had arrived when Aston Villa and Sunderland would decide the outcome of the 42nd edition of the competition. A reporter for the Dundee Evening Telegraph wrote
“The game opened in fine style. The wing men on each side got the ball and carried it down the field, the play went rapidly from end to end, and there was very little loose of wild kicking. But this was too good to last. After about fifteen minutes the play became much more scrappy; the backs on both sides, but especially Sunderland, kicked too hard, and gave the ball to the backs on the other side.”
Sixteen fouls marred the affair, including one that translated into a missed penalty kick. Numerous players were suspended after the match, as was the referee for allowing at least seventeen minutes of stoppage time. “The match was an unpleasant proof that the possession of special skill and the stimulus of a special occasion may have no effect in producing a decent spirit of sportsmanship.” As the final slogged on, the teams looked even, though nobody watching seemed to enjoy it all that much.
On 1 July 1916 the sound of whistles began the Battle of the Somme and more than 500,000 men were plunged into the deepest, darkest heart of hell. After a week of artillery bombardment, the moment had arrived to begin the ground battle. Private L. S. Price wrote:
“As the gun-fire died away I saw an infantry man climb onto the parapet into no man's land, beckoning others to follow. As he did so he kicked off a football; a good kick, the ball rose and travelled well towards the German line. That seemed to be the signal to advance.”
The crowd that watched Aston Villa play Sunderland, nearly incomprehensible by our modern-day attendance standards, would be dwarfed by the number of dead and wounded from the ensuing 141 days of bloodshed. The more than 1.1 million combined casualties of British, French, and German forces would have filled the Crystal Palace more than nine times. The battle slogged on, with both sides looking evenly matched. No sane person enjoyed it at all.
In the 78th minute, everything came together for the claret and blue squad. “After an interlude created by one player kicking at another while he was on the ground Aston Villa scored the only goal of the match.” Charlie Wallace, who had missed a penalty earlier, was able to send in a set piece “in the form which is perhaps most dangerous... hard and head-high.” On the other end of the ball was Tom Barber, who had joined the club from Bolton Wanderers in 1912. The Evening Telegraph had this to say about Barber:
“Tom Barber, Aston Villa’s right half-back... is a native of Newcastle. As a schoolboy he played for Todd’s Nook, and after a short term with Newcastle Hamsterley he assisted Shankhouse. Then he had a turn with West Stanley, from which club he was secured by Bolton Wanderers. He served four seasons with the Lancashire club, and was then transferred to the Villa at a big fee. It is interesting to note that Peter M’William, the ex-Newcastle United half-back, and now manager of Tottenham Hotspur, considers Barber to be the best wing half playing in English football.”
He was about to become an Aston Villa hero.
On 20 February 1915, the Birmingham Daily Gazette ran an article on page 7 by “Brum” lamenting the fact that Birmingham City were likely to lose that evening’s FA Cup tie to Oldham Athletic at St. Andrew’s (they did, 2-3). The pending match was obviously the big story of the day, but immediately to the right, in the second column, was a brief story by “Argus Junior” under the headline “TOM BARBER JOINS.” The very brief story began, “Tom Barber, the well-known Aston Villa half-back, has joined the Footballer’s Battalion.” It then reminded readers why they should care about Barber.
As the war effort ramped up, the Football Association increasingly came under pressure to stop play across England. Just months before, on 3 September 1914, the Evening News had run an excoriation of the sport:
“This is no time for football. This nation, this Empire has got to occupy itself with more serious business. The young men who play football and the young men who look on have better work to do. The trumpet calls them, their country calls them, the heroes in the trenches call them. They are summoned to leave their sport, and to take part in the great game. That game is war, for life or death.”
For a short time, there was an uneasy truce between army and sporting life. Soldiers would train during the week and then be permitted leave to play for their clubs on the weekends. The army, however, would not pay for soldier transport and this was a largely untenable solution.
Eventually the FA would give in and shut down the official footballing apparatus in England. The Cup that Birmingham City were about to lose in on the day that Tom Barber joined the army would be the last until the 1919-20 edition. Stadia around the country were being turned into barracks, supply depots, and training grounds for soldiers, and footballers and officials were joining the ranks themselves.
One of the prominent groups of footballing Tommys was the aforementioned Footballer’s Battalion. The 17th Battalion of the Middlesex regiment was comprised largely of players, officials, and fans of football. Aston Villa actively encouraged participation, and even agreed to pay players half of their wages while they were in service to assure that their families would be provided for.
Other clubs, too, encouraged enlistment in the Battalion. In London, one poster read:
Do you want to be a
Chelsea Die-Hard? If so
Join the 17th Battalion
'The Old Die-Hards'
And follow the lead given
by your favourite Football Players
By March of that year, more than 120 professional footballers had joined the Battalion, including the entirety of what would later become Leyton Orient.
At the match in 1913, Barber managed to get his head on Wallace’s cross and the ball “flew off, safe and sound, into the net.” It was to be the only goal scored in the match and ensured Aston Villa of their fifth title in the competition. Barber’s achievement would lead to him becoming one of the most significant names in Aston Villa’s long history. Reports after the goal would refer to him as “the well-known Villa half-back” or “the famous Aston Villa footballer” who scored in “the famous Cup final in which Aston Villa beat Sunderland.” If he was in search of glory in his life, he had found it. He had become one of the most important names at one of the country’s most important clubs.
The Footballer’s Battalion was deployed to France in November 1915. They quickly saw action near the mining town of Loos, which had been the site of a pitched three-week battle in September and October. More than 20,000 British soldiers died there and were never given a proper grave. It was into this area that the footballers were thrown.
Their biggest action, as was true for many in the war, would come in 1916 in the Battle of the Somme. They were present at the Battle of Delville Wood, a battle that began in trenches named Aston and Villa. Soliders were given the task of taking a few hundred yards of territory that stretched east from there. Those few football fields’ worth of ground would take weeks to secure.
On 22 August 1916, during that offensive, the Birmingham Daily Gazette ran the following in the fourth column of page three:
TOM BARBER WOUNDED.
Tom Barber, the famous Aston Villa footballer, has been wounded in the battle of the Somme, and is now in hospital at Aberdeen, shot in the leg.
He was one of the lucky ones, as thousands died in the offensive. After recovering at Aberdeen, Barber was placed in the Labour Corps and served the rest of the war undertaking munitions work in Glasgow.
Aston Villa would next win the cup in the first year it returned after World War I. They had beaten Queens Park Rangers, Manchester United, Sunderland, Tottenham Hotspur, and Chelsea to advance to the final at Stamford Bridge. The team that lined up for the final included WWI veterans Sam Hardy, Tommy Weston, Frank Moss, Clem Stephenson, and Charlie Wallace. Wallace was returning to a Cup final for the first time since sending in the cross that led to Barber’s goal in the 1913 Final.
Led by manager George Ramsay, Villa took the match into extra time and triumphed over Hudderfield Town off of Billy Kirton’s 100th-minute goal, the only one of the day. It would give Ramsay his sixth FA Cup title, a number that stood alone as a managerial record until Arsène Wenger equalled it with his victory in 2015 over Aston Villa.
Tom Barber was not part of the 1920 triumph of Aston Villa. While some of his teammates were able to return from the trenches in playing form, complications from his wound at the Battle of the Somme would see Barber in and out of hospitals for the rest of his life. He died of tuberculosis on 18 September 1925 when he was just 36 years old.