But for his more illustrious team-mates, the impact that James ‘Nat’ Cunliffe made upon the royal blue consciousness might have been considerably greater than the last impression he made during a 16-year Goodison career. Although naturally a centre forward, he spent most of his career partnering William Ralph ‘Dixie’ Dean and then Tommy Lawton in the inside right position. For an egoist it was a nightmare situation; for a footballer happy to ply his trade wherever he was asked it was perfection.
Cunliffe came to Goodison in 1930 from Aldington FC after quitting his job as an apprentice plater. Following three years in the A and Central League teams, the young Lancastrian finally got his break in spring 1933 when he played two league games against Aston Villa (marking his debut with a goal) and Middlesbrough. The Liverpool Post and Mercury was scathing about his contribution: ‘Cunliffe, and [Gordon] Watson, the young men who were “on trial” were lost from the first minute onwards, except when they caused one to look at the programme to find out who had missed an acceptable chance.’
The newspaper’s attitude would soon change. In the first months of the 1933/34 season, Everton – with an injury-stricken Dean – were faltering and there were growing calls for Cunliffe to be given a chance. A reserve-team appearance against Preston in early November was characterised by Cunliffe’s ‘bright display’ in which he showed ‘confidence and progressive ideas’. A week later he replaced Tommy White as centre forward in the first-team fixture versus Sheffield United and immediately struck a chord.
‘The introduction of Cunliffe for Dean and [Ted] Critchley for [Albert] Geldard lent life and pace and a youthful strain to the attack of the Everton side,’ reported Ernest ‘Bee’ Edwards in the Liverpool Post and Mercury. ‘Cunliffe did not get a goal because he got under his drives and gave them loft. Yet he played well, and his run through the middle is a thing of danger.’ ‘Pilot’ added in the Evening Express that he ‘came through the game with the utmost credit. He was fast and elusive, and revealed good ball control. He was always leading Holmes a merry dance. I admired his willingness to take a shot from all angles and if he can contrive to get over the ball instead of under it when shooting, he will keep goalkeepers busy. That is his fault, judging from this game. Several lightning drives flashed over the top, whereas had he kept over the ball they would have found a resting-place in the net. Still, everyone admires a trier, and Cunliffe did try.’
THE ROOKIE was virtually ever-present, mostly as inside right, through the remainder of the 1933/34 season, scoring nine league goals. But he really thrived when playing alongside Dean, who was largely fit through the duration of the 1934/35 campaign. Cunliffe played in all but three of Everton’s league games, scoring 15 times, and adding another two goals in the FA Cup, including the one which set up a famous FA Cup fourth round replay with Sunderland.
HIS FINEST season was the 1935/36 campaign, when he outshone even Dean’s scoring exploits and finished Everton’s top league goalscorer with 23. Twice he scored four goals in a single match. ‘The game between Everton and Stoke City at Goodison Road was a complete triumph for Cunliffe, the Everton inside left, who scored four of the five goals against the one obtained by the Potters,’ recorded the Daily Post in November 1935. ‘He was in brilliant form, apart from his goals, for he tripped along with the ball at toe to make clever passes, so that the line moved along smoothly and well.
‘It was, of course, as a goal scorer that he made his big hit, for each of his goals was a magnificent effort, particularly his third, for it was practically a self-made point from start to finish. He beat a number of Stoke defenders before finally coaxing Lewis out of goal and then turning the ball right away and out of reach of the Stoke custodian. I have never seen Cunliffe so sure with his shooting.’ Cunliffe’s form that season elevated him to the England team and he won his solitary cap against Belgium in Brussels. But the Everton team to which he contributed so much were in transition, stuck in a limbo between the eras of Dean and Lawton – the latter even briefly supplanting him as inside right. Everton finished the 1936/37 season (the last full campaign with Dean) 15th and the next (the first one with Lawton) just one place better.
CUNLIFFE had been a regular throughout these years, but when the 1938/39 season dawned he suddenly found himself out of favour, with Stan Bentham preferred in his place. He made just seven appearances that year, which was deemed too few to warrant a League Championship winners’ medal.
An accomplished crown bowler and a dressing room joker who was described by Joe Mercer as ‘the quickest thing on two feet’, Cunliffe was a popular figure at Goodison. After the interruption of the war, he was allowed to leave Everton and he played out his career with Rochdale.