The weekend of 10th and 11th November 1923 is one that stands alone in the history of English football.
On Saturday 10th November, Aston Villa won a First Division encounter against highly regarded Notts County at Meadow Lane by a single goal. The win allowed Villa to climb above their East Midlands hosts into 3rd place. Amongst their number was 24-year-old Thomas Edgar Ball, who, along with his Villa team, produced a resolute rearguard action to keep the Notts’ attack at bay.
Villa’s 1-0 victory is clearly recorded in football’s record books. However, the events of the next thirty hours or more remain unclear.
Reports seem to have been clouded as to the exact date through the passage of time but during the late evening of either Saturday 10th or Sunday 11th November, Ball, who had joined Aston Villa three years earlier from a colliery team in the north east (some suggest from Newcastle United) was visited at his home in Perry Barr, Birmingham by landlord and former policeman George Stagg.
Despite being a neighbour, Stagg had argued with Ball on several occasions over the footballer’s dog and chickens “trespassing” on his land. To think – in 2010 many top-flight players own racehorses, but in 1923 it was chickens!
On arriving at Thomas Ball’s home, Stagg shot the Aston Villa defender dead. Once again, mystery shrouds this tale of events. Some say that Ball was returning from walking his dog when an argument with Stagg ensued. The former policeman fired a shotgun to scare Ball but when the footballer tried to grab the weapon Stagg shot him twice. George Stagg was then reported to have helped Thomas Ball to his home in Brick Kiln Lane, but he died before help arrived.
Again this is disputed. Ball’s wife Beatrice, of whom it is said she spent the early evening with her husband at the Church Tavern in Perry Barr, claimed that after hearing a shot she rushed out of the house to find her husband staggering along the road bleeding profusely. Mrs Ball reported a second shot was fired, that passed over her head.
What is clear is that George Stagg was arrested and charged with the murder of Thomas Ball at West Bromwich police station. At his trial, forty-five year-old Stagg was found guilty of killing the footballer and sentenced to be hanged.
Yet again mystery surrounds the case. Some say that George Stagg’s life was spared when his death penalty was “reduced” to a life sentence and that he died on February 1st 1966 at the Highcroft Mental Hospital in Birmingham. Others suggest Stagg was hung in Stafford soon after his trial.
Thomas Ball made 77 first team appearances for Aston Villa without once troubling opposing goalkeepers. He was buried at St Johns Church, Perry Barr, where his grave is decorated with stone footballs.
Ball’s shocked team-mates recovered from the devastating death of their colleague to finish 6th in the First Division, with Huddersfield Town winning the Championship. Villa would also reach the FA Cup final before going down 2-0 to Newcastle United at Wembley. At the time of writing this tale, Thomas Ball remains the only English professional footballer known to have been murdered.
August 2010, and a trip to see Southend United at Wolverhampton Wanderers gave me the chance to stop off at St Johns Church to visit Thomas Ball’s grave. On finding Ball’s final resting place, we discover a man maintaining the monument.
The gentleman is Jeff Hilliar, Jeff heard the tale of Thomas Ball many years ago and set about learning more about our tragic hero. On finding the grave, he discovered it to be in a desperate state. Mr Hilliar set about restoring it. Today, football followers from all over the country visit Thomas Ball’s grave, it is St Johns main attraction. Jeff Hilliar tells visitors the tale of Ball’s final day in such detail you could almost believe he was there!
Jeff’s turn of events (which I believe to be the closest to the truth), along with tales from Birmingham folk law will ensure that English footballs first known martyr will never be forgotten.
Jeff Hilliar takes time to tell Alfie and I the Thomas Ball story.