In the pantheon of Everton greats, few stand as tall as Brian Labone. Long-serving captain, stalwart of Everton’s defence, double league title winner, and FA Cup hero, few can match his achievements or length of service. But Labone was always more than just a great player. On the field he cut a noble, distinguished figure, his style of play reflecting not just his personality, but values that every Evertonian held dear – honesty, fair play, composure. In many ways, he was a throwback to a gentler, less cynical era in the game’s history. He represented Everton more times than any other outfield player and long after he hung up his boots remained a fine ambassador wwfor a club he dearly loved. Most famously he said that one Evertonian was worth twenty Liverpudlians. This may have been true, but few would dispute that the untimely death in April 2006 of such a great Evertonian surely diluted his calculation.
Born in Liverpool in 1940 and raised an Evertonian, Labone was always a man to defy convention. As a grammar schoolboy in the 1950s, for a period he considered following his studies through to university ahead of a footballing career. The lure of playing for Everton was too much to resist, however, and on leaving Liverpool Collegiate he signed as a professional in July 1957, simultaneously turning down the opportunity to join Liverpool. Skipping the legion of junior sides, he was put straight into Everton’s reserves and attracted immediate attention when called upon to mark Dave Hickson in the annual reserves versus seniors pre-season game. Later Labone would liken his ascent from schoolboy football to professionalism to ‘climbing the Matterhorn’ and admitted to turning white with concern every time T.E. Jones, Everton’s first-choice centre half, stumbled – lest he be called upon to deputise.
LABONE MADE HIS EVERTON DEBUT in March 1958 in a 2-1 defeat at Birmingham City and made a further three appearances that season, and four during the 1958/59 season. Although he had experienced just glimpses of the first team at this stage, by the start of the 1959/60 season Johnny Carey deemed the 19-year-old ready for an extended first-team run, even moving Jones to left back in order to accommodate the teenager. By then, John Moores’ millions had started to see several big-name arrivals at Goodison, but Labone kept his place and held his own. During the 1960/61 season Labone was ever-present as Everton finished fifth; still aged only 21 at the season’s end, he had become the cornerstone around which the Everton defence was built.
Labone by then was an England under-23 international and in making his England debut against Northern Ireland the following year he became Everton’s first England international since the war and would feature throughout Alf Ramsey’s tenure as England manager. Later, he credited Harry Catterick’s arrival in May 1961 and subsequent faith in him as being key to his progress. He told Ken Rogers in 1989:
When he first came, he was very straight and fair with me. Many of the papers were saying “Labone is promising, but it’s a tender age to hold the Everton defence together.” He stuck with me and we began to build an excellent side.
Tall and composed, even at such a young age Labone seemed to exude a natural authority and command of the Everton defence. His rise was at a time when centre halves were still expected to be cold-hearted, bone-crunching hatchet men who would do weekly battle with equally ruthless and full-blooded centre forwards. But Labone never resorted to such physical excess and could hold his own without letting his polished and unflappable style of play descend into ugliness. Such cruel tricks were the preserve of lesser men, and in 530 Everton appearances Labone was booked just twice.
There is, however, a school of thought that decrees his good nature was a weakness and that he lacked the killer instinct that might have brought him wider recognition. In his 2008 biography Alex Young said that he still believed Labone to be ‘too honest on the ground’ and admitted criticising him ‘for not kicking enough legs’. In an era when the likes of Young were marked men, he felt that Labone should have used his own physical prowess to protect less imposing players. But Labone never compromised his own standards and remained a gentle giant. He would, recalled Young, ‘knock opponents down, then pick them up’.
LABONE missed just two games in Everton’s title winning season in 1962/63, and following Tony Kay’s disgrace the following April succeeded him as captain. In 1966 he led Everton to FA Cup glory but, always something of an idiosyncratic figure, turned down the chance of appearing for England in that summer’s World Cup. His wedding to Pat Lynam, a former Miss Liverpool, clashed with the tournament and Labone asked to be overlooked. ‘I had fixed the date, made all the arrangements, issued all the invitations. What could I do?’ he said in later life, as if it were the entirely logical decision.
A year later, Labone dropped an even bigger bombshell. On 21 September 1967, he announced his retirement from football. The 27-year-old revealed that he wasn’t enjoying playing and would be quitting the game at the end of his contract – or sooner if Everton could find a suitable replacement. He said that it was too much of a responsibility to continue playing such a key part in the Everton defence when he wasn’t enjoying the game and that he would sooner go into his father’s business. Labone was one of the few middle-class footballers of his generation, and his father, who ran a successful central heating business, was a well-known figure in the city, recognisable from his Bentley and the fleet of company vans that bore his name. It is possible that Labone junior may have even found the family business a more prosperous alternative to professional football.
HARRY CATTERICK, not normally one to single an individual for praise, took the opportunity to give the defender a rare glowing reference. ‘It’s typical of Brian’s top-class character that he has told me 18 months before the end of his contract that he is going to leave the game,’ said Catterick. ‘Many a player would not have told his club until the last possible minute. Brian is one of the greatest club men I have ever known ... and we shall be sorry to see him go.’ Yet the announcement marked an upturn in form and soon after he returned to the England team in place of Jack Charlton. It took 14 months for Labone to change his mind, but both Everton and England were delighted when, in January 1969, he put pen to paper and signed a new two-year contract.By now, he was the most experienced player in the Everton dressing room and England’s first-choice centre back. This know-how, derived from more than 400 appearances, was integral to an otherwise predominantly youthful Everton team. In 1969/70 his was a majestic presence as he lifted the league title as captain. That summer, he travelled to Mexico for England’s defence of the World Cup, the last appearance of a 26-cap international career coming in England’s devastating 3-2 defeat to West Germany in Leon.
Football, over Labone’s lengthy career, had changed considerably, but the Everton captain had adapted his play to fit in with the shifting realities. He said: ‘As time went on, strikers became much more subtle. The old 2-3-5 formation was replaced by 4-2-4. The long ball down the middle was not quite so prevalent. Teams had to operate with twin centre backs, which is when John Hurst joined me at the heart of the Blues’ defence. The game became much harder and made you think a lot more, simply because centre forwards were becoming much more mobile. It was no longer a case of the five marking the nine, the traditional battle. Forwards would try to pull you out of the position and so you stopped marking numbers and had to concentrate that little bit harder.’
Catterick had, by this stage, christened Labone ‘the last of the great Corinthians’ and it was to be little coincidence that as Labone’s career went into sharp decline, so too did Catterick’s fortunes as Everton manager. In total, he made just 26 further appearances post-Mexico after being plagued by persistent back and Achilles injuries. His early withdrawal from an FA Cup semi-final with Liverpool in March 1971 – with Everton leading and on top – is credited as a turning point in Everton’s history. Liverpool came back to win 2-1, and neither Catterick nor Labone came close to winning further honours again. Labone’s final Everton appearance came in a League Cup tie against Southampton in September 1971. In retirement, Labone finally went to work for his father. When the family business was sold in the 1980s he worked in insurance and latterly in corporate hospitality at his beloved Goodison.
Labone was a gregarious character and could often be found holding court in one of several Liverpool public houses, usually with a former colleague from either side of the Merseyside football divide. He was a relic of an era in which the players still mingled with the fans and he always had time for supporters, even those who followed great rivals Liverpool.
WHEN RIBBED BY them about Everton’s perennial underachievement, he would always delight in countering that no matter what Liverpool’s success, ‘one Evertonian was worth twenty Reds’. When news came through of his unexpected death in April 2006, shortly after a supporter function, that was the phrase for which the blue half of Merseyside instantly remembered him.
‘Brian was quite rightly known as the last of the Corinthians – a fitting title which was given to him by Harry Catterick,’ said the Everton chairman, Bill Kenwright, in one of the most moving tributes after Labone’s death. He continued:
In a world where we very seldom use the word ‘never’ I am pretty certain that it will be a very long time before we again see a one-club player with more than 500 senior appearances to his name.
Brian Labone was not only a truly great footballer and a marvellous leader of men, he was – both on the football pitch and away from it – a true gentleman – something which is under-scored by the fact that he was only ever booked twice in a lengthy career. I will always remember his nobility. When I arrived at Goodison Park for a game, he was always the first to greet me – when I left afterwards he was always there to say ‘goodnight – safe home’.
He did that not because I am the chairman of the club he always loved but because he was my friend; he was also my idol. Everything that is good and wonderful about Everton Football Club can be summed up in two words – Brian Labone.
On the foot of the Dixie Dean statue outside Goodison Park are the words ‘Footballer – Gentlemen – Evertonian’... those words summed up Dixie – and they apply, equally, to the great Brian Labone.
ROGERS, KEN, Everton Greats, Sportsprint Publishing, Edinburgh, 1989