The December 1913 signing of goalkeeper Tom Fern was a happy accident that served Everton excellently for more than a decade. A couple of weeks previously an Everton director had been dispatched to Leeds to watch the Lincoln City centre forward David MacFarlane. The front man missed out through injury, but the scout returned to Merseyside with a ‘strong recommendation’ to sign the goalkeeper. £1500 sealed the deal and the new player made his first appearance alongside fellow debutant, centre forward Bobby Parker, when Everton faced Sheffield Wednesday on 6 December 1913.
Both would be resounding successes at Goodison, but it was the goalkeeper who attracted the notice of the Liverpool Courier. ‘Everton’s angling at Lincoln has resulted in a big catch,’ its correspondent wrote. ‘Though he has figured for such a long time in Second Division football, Fern is reckoned a keeper of the highest class, and certainly he has performed wonderful work for Lincoln City during the four and a half seasons he has been with them. On his only appearance in the city – against Everton Reserves in a Central League game – Fern, in addition to making several grand clearances, had the distinction of stopping a couple of penalty kicks.’
A bulky player, Fern had made over 160 consecutive appearances for the Citizens, and quickly captured the imagination of a home support that had lacked the presence of a reliable goalkeeper since Billy Scott’s departure several years earlier. ‘The Everton directors have undoubtedly been fortunate in securing the services of Fern, whose custodianship bore the hall-mark of class,’ the Courier wrote of his second appearance, away at Bolton. ‘His anticipation of shots turned out accurate in every instance, and the grit and persistency with which he on one occasion saved his charge, at a time a host of opponents were endeavouring to force the ball into the net, merited the unstinted applause of the big gathering. He gave early evidence of his ability in dealing with high and low shots, and his safe-keeping no doubt inspired confidence among his backs, each of whom was seen to great advantage.’
Fern appeared in all but two of Everton’s league matches as they lifted the League Championship for the second time in 1914/15. Indeed further glory may have come his way that year. Everton progressed to the FA Cup semi-final but a finger injury kept him out and Fred Mitchell took his place instead. The stand-in had a nightmare, having a clearance charged down, which led to Chelsea’s first goal, and diving late to a long shot for the second. Fern returned for the crucial league run-in, but an historic double was elusive.
War led to football’s suspension for four years and Fern played intermittently in the regional leagues. But when peace came, although now in his mid-thirties, he returned to the first team and gave four more years’ service, eventually making way for Alfie Harland.
In June 1924 he joined Port Vale, apparently so he could retain his Liverpool home and his position as secretary of Fazackerly Cricket Club. Fern put in a request to the Everton board to use the club’s training facilities, but the board recorded, ‘This player’s application for permission to train on the ground was not entertained.’ And in one mean-spirited gesture, thus ended the career of one of Everton’s finest custodians.