Showbiz football and Aston Villa were the topic of conversation whilst talking to Jason Ganner, a former England international badminton player. Badminton opened up opportunities to a remarkable life that led him to paths he did not expect to take. These paths led him to using the training facilities of his boyhood team Aston Villa, playing football with Eddie the Eagle and attending the Royal Garden Party.
Ganner has led a remarkable life but sport has been at the heart of his life. He lives and breathes his sport and football is a prevalent passion that consumes him enormously. Ganner loves sharing stories from the weekend matches or memories from his own playing career.
Football, rugby, athletics and cricket was what Jason Ganner went to school for and I am sure for many that are reading this now. His brother played football and it seemed the natural progression to get into a local team. He was keen to progress and progress but in a strange parallel he started to play badminton at the same time that took over his sporting attentions.
When he was thirteen or fourteen in the 1960’s someone watched him play Badminton in Alton, Hampshire and suggested that he played for the county junior team. He made rapid progress through the ranks and ended up playing first team badminton nationally which was the badminton equivalent of the First Division. Whilst playing badminton to such a high standard Ganner was also enjoying his football albeit a lower level as compared to his badminton.
“I played in the local Basingstoke league but it was difficult because I didn’t want to get injured for my badminton,” said Ganner. He decided the best thing to do was to focus on playing badminton and following football and his beloved Aston Villa.
This decision proved correct as Ganner had an illustrious badminton career. It took him to playing internationally for England and playing regularly in masters events, such as in Paris. Badminton would even play a role in Ganner playing for the showbiz football team.
Football is still ingrained in his life and he recalled how he came about to supporting Aston Villa. His brother was a West Bromwich Albion fan and to annoy him Ganner chose Aston Villa. His decision was vindicated as they won the 1957 FA Cup Final defeating Manchester United at Wembley. “That was how I followed ‘The Villa’ but is was from a distance,” said Ganner.
Watching live matches were fondly recalled where Ganner looked back at some live matches that his Dad took him to watch:
“I can remember the first match that my Dad took me to watch was Aldershot and Peterborough in the old Third Division South. My first ever top flight match my Dad took me to is Fulham versus Sheffield United.
“I didn’t get to see ‘The Villa’ until much later when I moved to Birmingham. I became badminton county captain of Warwickshire in 1977 and they [Aston Villa] were on my doorstep.”
What was remarkable was that Ganner supported Aston Villa all the way down south in Alton, Hampshire. His move to Birmingham later in his life that opened up so many doors. As luck would have it Ganner lived in Birmingham at a time where Aston Villa would embark on their most successful period in the Twentieth Century. Aston Villa secured their fifth league title at the turn of the century in 1900. They had won ‘The Double’ of winning both the league and FA Cup in 1896/97 season. Villa had already won two FA Cups before that.
Only one more league was added before the 1980/81 season but FA Cups still trickled in until that 1957 victory, being their last.
“Being a county recognised sportsman, I was able to use Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training facilities on a Sunday. I got to know their physio, Jim Williams and a few players.
“I got to know people like Andy Blair, Tony Daley and Nigel Spink whilst having some physio at Villa.
“My three daughters were born in Sutton Coldfield and had claret and blue running through them.”
Ganner reminisced one Saturday afternoon when Villa’s goalkeeper, Nigel Spink had provided some Players Lounge tickets for his family. Villa had won and the atmosphere was great and Ganner’s seven year old daughter Maria turned to Spink to ask:
“It’s great that you play football for Villa on a Saturday afternoon Nigel but what do you do for a real job?”
That is a beautiful statement when you think about it. Playing football professionally is the dream for many that kick the ball down the local recreation pitch or against a street wall. Having that opportunity to play professionally must at times seem like it’s not a real job but a marvellous dream.
Ganner had the opportunity to travel and play football for the showbiz football eleven. Here, Ganner was invited into the world of showbiz football by the actor, Jess Conrad at an Eric Sykes charity golf match. Ganner was representing the world of badminton and Conrad was asking if anyone fancied a game. He said that he would happily play if they needed him and passed on his number. This chance meeting enabled Ganner to play about ninety matches for the showbiz football eleven.
One such memory was recalled in playing in a charity match for the former Coventry City goalkeeper, Steve Ogrizovic at Highfield Road. This match actually happened before a Coventry City and Aston Villa Premier League match.
Ganner was rubbing shoulders with European Cup Winners Gary Shaw, Peter Withe and Tony Morley. This team also included a few cast members of The Bill, Eastenders, Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards and Brian Tilsley from Coronation Street. Who would pay big money to see this match? What if you were told that Eddie the Eagle scored on that afternoon at Highfield Road?
“I set up Eddie the Eagle by sliding it through to him and he slotted it in the near post,” said Ganner.
“Playing in the showbiz football eleven was quite a bizarre thing and from a different world. It allowed me to play with legends like Trevor Brooking, Martin Chivers and other people from the celebrity world.”
Ganner did not mind mentioning that he was by no means a footballer, especially compared to the famous players he had the privilege to play showbiz football with.
“Gerry Armstrong was my favourite player to play football with because he always nurtured and helped me through the matches. He would be constantly yelling to me to stay on the line over and over again.”
Ganner laughed whilst recalling Armstrong telling him to keep giving the ball back to him. He was not to do anything fancy with the ball because Ganner was not the footballer. Armstrong just wanted to Ganner to hold the ball up and give it back to him. Simple instructions that some professional players of today could do with listening to.
Nerves are something that you would not associate with Jason Ganner because he is such an exuberant character that loves to have fun with a laugh and a joke. Playing at full back meant he was always up against some tricky players. Rugby tackling Paul Walsh at Aldershot would testify to his jovial attitude whilst being tested by some scintillating skills.
“We were playing a Tottenham eleven and he was so bloody good and I was getting fed up with him beating me easily with the ball. One time he turned me and I rugby tackled him. I thought he was going to thump me, ha-ha.”
Sometimes nerves would set in because of the company he was keeping.
“Of course there were some nerves because you were playing teams like Arsenal Old Boys. One time I played Millwall Old Boys at The Den and I was nervous then.”
Ganner was enjoying looking back at these games where he played about ninety times in such esteemed company. What a magnificent experience this must have been.
“There was one time Mick Harford played against us for a hospital eleven. He lived local to the hospital and was only going to have ten minutes. He had played for Wimbledon the day before and was still a Premier League footballer.
“He came on after twenty minutes and they soon got a corner. Steve Foster told me to pick Harford up. He was about six inches taller than me and his shoulders were about six inches wider than mine. I remember going up to him and saying, ‘Mick if it comes our way it’s your ball.’ I’m not even challenging at all because I will just get wiped out.
“The charity games were great fun, they really were. Remember Di Canio pushing over the referee? On the Sunday of that incident we had a game that may have been against Stevenage Borough. They were non-league at the time and most of their proper team were playing.
“This winger was ripping me apart and I said to him, ‘let’s just have a little Di Canio incident with the linesman. You will go past me, I will trip you up in front of the linesman and he will flag. I will push the linesman over and I will let him in on it.’ We sorted it all out.
“What was amazing was that I did exactly that, took him out and pushed the linesman over after he flagged. The referee and some other players came over to me and the bloody referee gave me a red card.
“I told the referee it was fun but he was part of the Hertfordshire FA and rules are rules and he couldn’t let it go when so many people were watching. It was a charity game and supposed to be fun.”
We discussed the time when Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest dominated English and European football in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Comparisons were made with the managers, Brain Clough and Ron Saunders.
“Both were great tacticians but also were very tough. They took no shit from no one. Ron Saunders wouldn’t take no for an answer and was very strict. Brian Little was alleged to have left Villa because he had a fall out with Ron Saunders.
“I think that era other sides became prominent in winning European trophies. Ipswich won the UEFA Cup as well.”
There was a team and work ethic that all Aston Villa players brought into. Ganner mentioned that Dennis Mortimer and Nigel Spink summed it up very well. They said that Villa did not have the best players but they had the best team. Villa would get out there and get stuck right in against their opponents.
Aston Villa had a successful period where they won the 1980/81 First Division Championship. they topped this by becoming the champions of Europe. Villa won The European Cup the following season against the German giants, Bayern Munich.
Tony Morley was a player Ganner admired greatly and became excited in recalling his trickery on the wing to cross over for Peter Withe to score the winning goal. Ganner thought it was a mistake that he was not included for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. You cannot disagree as 0-0 draws would be the down fall of that England team in the random second phase group. Morley had the ability to unlock a defence with some mesmerising skill which may have been what was missing.
Ganner did not hesitate in stating his favourite Aston Villa player. “Gary Shaw was my favourite player for Aston Villa. Unfortunately an injury stopped him from playing more international football where he damaged his knee.”
In fact, Gary Shaw was selected for the forty man preliminary squad but was another Aston Villa European Champion not selected for Spain. Even if selected for the World Cup, it surely would not have beaten playing with Ganner at Highfield Road all those years later.
Nigel Spink is a person Jason Ganner knows extremely well and his performance in the 1982 European Cup Final is iconic. Spink started the match as substitute goalkeeper and had to replace the injured Jimmy Rimmer against Bayern Munich.
Spink went on to make some career defining saves that helped Aston Villa win through that Peter Withe goal. Some of the saves were truly remarkable and one where he seemed to pluck the low ball from behind him on the goal line to majestically hold on to the ball.
The great English goalkeepers of the 1980’s were discussed and looking back you can see why England used to boast it produced the finest goalkeepers in the land. Nigel Spink was part of the list of talented goalkeepers such as: Steve Sutton, Steve Ogrizovic, Gary Bailey, Peter Shilton, Chris Wood and Ray Clemence. The Welshman, Neville Southall was acknowledged but all of these goalkeepers were of international class. Spink’s name is not lost amongst these goalkeeping greats and had a superb top flight career. In another era he would have surely won more England caps.
Ganner recalled that showbiz football match at Highfield Road, especially as the match ended and the players leaving the pitch before Coventry and Villa appeared for the main event. Not sure anything would have topped Eddie the Eagle’s goal but Spink summed up the surreal nature of proceedings in asking Ganner, “what the fuck are you doing here?” as he entered the pitch for his warm up.
Ganner has avidly followed Villa since 1957 and certainly got the better end of the stick in choosing them over his brother’s West Brom. He was lucky to attend the 2019 Playoff victory at Wembley with his beloved family. He is proud of these family footballing days out.
The early Premier League days from 1992, when Villa were contenders were the glory days of the Premier League according to Ganner. It was competitive and anyone could beat anyone. Villa were close to winning the first ever Premier League and just missed out to Manchester United.
Aston Villa executed revenge on Manchester United in the 1994 League Cup Final. This competition was known as The Coca Cola Cup in those days and prevented United completing a domestic treble. Afterwards their manager, Ron Atkinson mentioned that his players had renamed it ‘The Vodka and Coca Cola Cup,’ in reference to their celebrations. Big Ron would have made a fabulous manager for that showbiz football team back in the day.
Ganner enjoys this match because ‘The Villa’ were very much the underdogs and were not given a chance against one of the finest Manchester United teams of the Premier League era.
The 1994 League Cup Semi Final victory against Tranmere Rovers is mentioned as a favourite match. Villa were trailing 3-1 from the first leg but they recovered to win by the same score line. A dramatic penalty shootout provided the path to Wembley’s Twin Towers
Ganner did not mention another team that is close to his footballing heart but it would be amiss if his efforts in power chair football were not mentioned.
Ganner has worked tirelessly for charity and one football team that are closest to his heart are The Wessex Warriors Power Chair Football Club. He was one of the founder members of this football club where disabled people are able have the opportunity to play football in these advanced powered wheel chairs. Weekends have been dominated in travelling up to Nottingham to manage the team.
These chairs cost thousands of pounds to purchase and to maintain their upkeep. It also costs thousands of pounds to be able to stay in the hotels and travel for these fixtures. Ganner has been a pivotal figure in fundraising and last year was invited to the Queen’s Garden Party for his fundraising efforts.
The Warriors have now since been taken under the umbrella of AFC Bournemouth and Hannah Powis, another founder member continues to do a fine job coaching the team, most recently at Premier League level.
Looking back at Ganner’s playing days was certainly amusing as he has a light hearted approach but there is an underlying passion for the game. He joked that he had trials for Fulham and Chelsea but who didn’t have trials? Everyone has a story as to why they did not make it and seem to have to justify it. Ganner was refreshingly humorous in recalling those times.
“I was lucky enough to have a very good career at badminton and play worldwide. I’m fortunate really. I was never going to make it as footballer and it is as simple as that. I was always getting bloody injured but in badminton I could hide behind the racket, ha-ha.”
His only goal for the showbiz football team suggests his assessment of not making it as a footballer is correct. He joked:
“My only goal for the showbiz football team was a messy one as it came off my shoulder. I was running off shouting, ‘bloody hell I’ve scored a goal,’ ha-ha.”
The excitement and joy was clearly present in Jason Ganner’s voice whilst recalling some of his footballing memories. He has a charming and charismatic way in delivering a story. He wouldn’t look out of place on a stage sharing these amusing anecdotes.
He is an undoubted sports personality and he is exactly the type of character football needs. Ganner’s passionate about his team but equally realistic about their chances and performances. Playing socially in the showbiz football team clearly was a fun and enjoyable time for him. He certainly provided some fun for others to enjoy in those matches.
Most of all he is ready and willing to help anyone that needs his help. Once you have Jason Ganner on your side you know that you are going to be on the winning team