Will Cuff’s career at Everton – incorporating numerous roles, including member, director, secretary, reserve-team manager, board member and chairman – spanned the virgin days of St Domingo’s, the era of Dixi Dean, and the post-war world, in which attendance records were broken by the week and a creeping – and, to Cuff, unpalatable – commercialism was infiltrating the game.
If George Mahon and Dr James Clement Baxter can be credited with laying the foundations of Goodison Park, it was Cuff who sustained this momentum and forged the modern institution today’s Evertonians know. Unlike his fellow founding fathers, Cuff eschewed local politics, but forged a career in football’s committee rooms, embarking on a career that would take him to the summit of English football power politics.
CUFF WAS BORN IN LIVERPOOL on 19 August 1868, the son of a prosperous butcher and a Welsh-speaking mother.
His father, Henry, was a devoted churchman and later became a trustee of St Domingo Chapel, serving the chapel until his death in 1911. After first living in Byrom Street, Liverpool, they moved to 34 Spellow Lane where Will grew up.
It has been speculated that Cuff played for St Domingo’s or Everton in his youth. Nothing confirms this – he would have been too young to play for St Domingo’s anyway – but it is known that he was a useful player for Walton Breck FC and Mount FC, where injury forced him to retire.
In 1890 Cuff became a member of Everton FC. He was a friend of George Mahon, St Domingo’s organist, while Cuff was its choirmaster. He supported Mahon’s stand against John Houlding, which led to Everton’s move from Anfield in 1892. Cuff also became a shareholder. In 1894, still aged only 26, he became a director of Everton FC – although this was a position less steeped in prestige than its contemporary equivalent. Directors were expected to serve as match-day stewards, as well as run the club from the boardroom.
In 1901 Cuff was appointed Everton’s secretary, (the only paid position in the club’s management structure). As secretary, as well as the general running of the club, he had a say in team selection and signings, although training was not among his responsibilities. Under his charge Everton lifted the FA Cup in 1906 and won the First Division title in 1914/15, but at other times seemed to be perennial nearly-men. In 1901/02, 1904/05, 1908/09 and 1911/12 they finished league runners-up and lost the 1907 FA Cup Final to Sheffield Wednesday too.
CUFF was a visionary too, and sought to promote Everton beyond Britain. In 1909 he was behind the decision to send Everton on a South American tour. The most lasting result of this exotic sojourn was the creation of Everton de Chile in Valparaiso.
In 1919 he took a three-year hiatus to concentrate on his successful legal practice, Cuff-Roberts, a Liverpool firm that lived long after his death (it was taken over and incorporated into Halliwells in 2004). In 1922 he returned as Everton chairman, and the Midas touch returned. Dixie Dean was signed in 1925, and Everton won the First Division Championship in 1928 and 1932, and the 1933 FA Cup. Off the pitch, Goodison was redeveloped by the architect Archibald Leitch.
Cuff was highly moralistic and ran Everton according to his personal principles. He would profess that he did not mind defeat so long as the team had played the ‘Everton way’. There was an unspoken understanding that Goodison would be the crucible of attractive football. He supported the creation of the Everton Shareholders Association in 1938, seeing it as a vehicle through which the democratic principles envisaged by George Mahon could be protected. ‘It existed to further the welfare of Everton and not primarily to fill seats on the board with its own nominees,’ he said. ‘So long as [it] was satisfied with this, the Association would continue to have his support.’ A year later he opposed ‘one vote per share’, fearing bloc-voting would rest too much power in the hands of wealthy members.
Such inherent decency saw him well liked and seemingly admired by all who encountered him. Dixie Dean referred to him as ‘the master’, a tribute that seemed to be echoed by all who shared a view about him. In the 1910s the Liverpool magazine Porcupine profiled Cuff, offering a revealing insight into his personality:
Although a solicitor of the Supreme Court of Judicature, there is nothing in his personality that smacks of the hard and crude fossildom of the typical man of the law ... his breezy temperament carries with it an infectious atmosphere of geniality ... he is one of the men who gets things done, done thoroughly, and yet in such a fashion that the disciplinary machinery seems to run on oiled wheels ...
And yet Will ever ‘bobs up’ with an unruffled exterior, and in his own electric individuality inspires everyone from Chairman of Directors to message boy with that espirit-de-corps which has, in so large a measure, contributed to the success of the world famed Association football club of which he may justly claim to be the bright particular star.
Cuff served as Everton chairman until the 1938/39 season, when they won their fifth First Division title, and continued to serve on the board of directors for another decade.
In tandem with his career at Everton, Cuff also developed a reputation as one of football’s great power brokers. He was an FA vice president and served on the Football League Management Committee from 1925. In 1939 he was made President of the Football League. He used this position to bring gradual change, such as the compulsory numbering of shirts, but was resolutely against other innovations, such as the football pools. One wonders what he would have made of John Moores’ later involvement with Everton. Throughout the 1930s Cuff, in his role with the Football League, and Moores, head of Littlewoods Pools, were constantly at odds. Cuff also wanted to retain the competitive ethos that made the Football League so vibrant and was working towards a transfer ceiling of £20,000 at the time of his death.
PERHAPS his most important work for the league came during the Second World War. A generation earlier football emerged from the First World War with its reputation muddied. Football was labelled unpatriotic because it continued until May 1915 while men died in the trenches. Rugby union and cricket, by contrast, had ceased playing virtually immediately. Thanks to the work of Cuff and the FA Secretary, Stanley Rous, football was well prepared this time and plans were hatched long before 1939 to cover the eventuality of war. The Football League season was abandoned as soon as fighting broke out in September 1939, and reorganised into regional leagues. Player contracts were abandoned and players allowed to ‘guest’ for other clubs. Football provided an important diversion during the privations of war, and was an important fundraising activity too, with many thousands diverted into war charities.
Cuff was, however, an arch-conservative and many of his ideas were steeped in the days when football was still an amateur sport. At Goodison there was little of the innovativeness that set Arsenal apart on and off the field in the 1920s and 1930s. His unwillingness to countenance the game’s developments, such as the football pools, is a reflection of his personality, and in some respects it held Everton and football in general back. By 1935, £800,000 was bet on football pools every week – some 16 times as much as was spent on attending games. In his role at the Football League, Cuff refused to formalise a link between football and gambling, even when a proportion of these vast revenues was offered back to the game by the pools companies. How might English football, and its infrastructure, have been improved by some of these riches? We will never know.
EVERTON were also one of the last clubs to ditch the old-style secretary-manager and by the 1940s the attitude of Theo Kelly, who treated players as mere minions, was utterly outmoded. Indeed it had a disastrous effect, seeing the departures of Tommy Lawton and Joe Mercer, and contributing substantially to Everton’s post-war decline. Tactically the unrelenting pursuit of attractive, attacking football, while pleasingly idealistic, was increasingly naive and outmoded as other teams’ approaches became more sophisticated.
On the other hand the panache and verve that earned Everton the reputation as the ‘School of Science’ has never died, even during troubled times. Perhaps that, in its way, represents Will Cuff’s greatest legacy.
Towards the end of his life, in the mid-1940s, he fell out with his colleagues on the Everton board as a power struggle was played out. While remaining on the board, he joined the shareholders’ association and was elected its president.
They have convinced me that their whole object is the welfare of the Everton club, which in my view has lost a lot of its prestige,’ he said. ‘I am very sorry to have to say that. It is up to you to regain that prestige and you can count on me to work heart and soul with this object in view. If we are going to fight this conflict, and it is a conflict, we must do it as gentlemen. I want us to have clean hands.
THINGS QUICKLY turned nasty, with Cuff accused by his enemies of vote rigging as part of a plot to return as chairman. Cuff furiously refuted the insinuations levelled against him. ‘It forges the latest link in a chain of insults levelled at me by so-called colleagues during the past seven years.’ [i.e. since he had retired as chairman.]
As Everton struggled to come to terms with their place in the post-war football order, finishing their first seasons back 10th and 14th, Cuff spoke of his fears for the club’s prospects. ‘I am very apprehensive about the future of the Everton club,’ he said. ‘I consider its prestige has deteriorated considerably in the last few years. It is now up to the shareholders to mend matters. All along my sole interest has been the well-being and welfare of Everton.’
Finally Cuff resigned his directorship at the end of the 1947/48 season, so bitterly opposed was he to the way the club was being run. He was not the only great figure to leave Goodison under a shadow in this time.
His wife of 54 years had died in February 1948 and Cuff spent the last year of his life living in the Holywell Hotel, Parkgate, still taking an interest in FA and Football League affairs and his law firm in Castle Street. But in the winter of 1949, after returning from London where he had helped make the FA Cup draw, he fell ill.
Cuff died on 6 February 1949. His funeral took place in Liverpool four days later and was presided over by the Reverend James Jackson, a former Liverpool player. A mile-long procession followed his cortege to Anfield Cemetery.
‘In that later era of aeroplanes and floodlights, Will Cuff would have been an anachronism,’ recorded Simon Inglis in his 1988 history of the Football League. ‘His death in 1949 coincided with both the peak of an era, and the start of a downward slide that would not be arrested fully until the 1960s. Cuff led the League into the post-war world, but he could not have taken it any further, not in his stiff collar.’
PERHAPS the best reflection of Cuff the man came from one of his enemies. Jimmy Guthrie was captain of Portsmouth’s 1939 Cup winning team and leader of the PFA; he was a belligerent character, who devoted much of his life to battling football’s bosses. But despite coming up against Cuff time and again – he was, said Guthrie ‘a doughty opponent in negotiations’ – he conceded that Cuff was ‘a great man’ for the League. ‘We admired him for his fighting qualities,’ Guthrie admitted. ‘He stood up for what he believed right.’