A player who followed in Everton’s famous tradition of number nines, only Dixie Dean and Graeme Sharp have ever bettered Bob Latchford’s phenomenal goalscoring for Everton. Latchford may have lacked the charisma of a Dave Hickson, the grace of an Alex Young or the scintillating pace of Roy Vernon, but in an Everton career that spanned more than seven years he was a Goodison icon, a player who, the fans used to chant, ‘walks on water’. A modest, articulate man, he helped restore pride to Evertonians during a time when living in Liverpool’s shadow had become a way of life.
Born in Birmingham in 1951 into a footballing family, Latchford’s elder brother, David, was a goalkeeper at Birmingham City, while a younger brother, Peter, another goalkeeper, played for West Brom and Celtic. Their destinies as goal-stoppers and goalscorers, according to Bob, were forged in kickarounds in the family back garden. Bob joined David at Birmingham, making his debut at the age of 18 in 1969. He would later play in attack alongside another teenage prodigy, Trevor Francis.
Latchford averaged nearly a goal every other game in more than 190 appearances for Birmingham, leading them into the First Division in 1972. But Birmingham were not a wealthy club and when, in February 1974, Everton came in with a bid for Latchford, manager Freddie Goodwin held out for a players-plus-cash offer, eventually accepting Howard Kendall, Archie Styles and £80,000 in a deal worth £350,000 – a British record fee that stood for more than three years.
Everton’s post-1970 decline was partly the result of a hideous lack of goals – they had finished the First Division’s third lowest scorers with only 41 goals during the 1972/73 season and second lowest scorers the season before with 37 (a total considerably boosted by an 8-0 hammering of Southampton) – and Latchford was signed to redress this problem. Yet he failed to score in his first two games, which made him even more anxious about the move, but in his third – a 2-1 defeat at Leicester – he did and ‘everything lifted off my shoulders. That weight that was there, that expectation, fell away.’ For the next five years, he barely stopped scoring and even during his brief spell in an Everton shirt during the 1973/74 season finished second top scorer with seven goals from 13 games.
Following the transfer of Joe Royle to Manchester City at the start of the 1974/75 season, Latchford was given the responsibility of being the Blues’ principal goalscorer. He responded brilliantly to the task. In his first full season he scored 17 league goals as Everton finished fourth, just three points behind champions Derby, having led the First Division into April. ‘We should have won the title,’ he told this author in 2006. ‘We had two really bad results against Carlisle, who finished bottom. We were 2-0 up at Goodison and lost 3-2 and they turned us over 3-0 away. If we’d beaten them twice we’d have won the League by a point. That’s how close we came. Those two games could have turned my career and kick-started an era of Everton winning things.’
Injury limited Latchford’s effectiveness during the 1975/76 season as the club, under Bingham’s management, started to wane. At one point, he requested a transfer after Everton refused to accede to his request for a pay rise amid rising inflation, before backing down.
Rejuvenated for the 1976/77 season, he scored 25 league and cup goals as Everton reached the League Cup Final and FA Cup semi-final – but he was unable to save Bingham’s job.
Under his successor, Gordon Lee, Latchford played the best football of his career under a man whose life, Latchford claimed, ‘revolved around football’. His first full season – 1977/78 – under the new Everton manager was also his most famous. With the signing of Dave Thomas – a direct winger whose speciality was early accurate crosses – the big striker prospered and the net bulged. After taking five games to get onto the scoresheet he opened his account in the 5-1 mauling of Leicester and after a goal against Man City hit four past QPR – the most he had ever scored in a senior match. Commenting on Latchford’s second goal, a diving header from a Thomas cross, Lee said, ‘That was the kind of goal I was dreaming about when I bought Thomas. Latchford is deadly when he gets the ball in the area at the right time and with the right pace behind it. Thomas can do this for him.’
That season the Daily Express had offered a £10,000 prize to a player who could claim 30 league goals. Although the contest may seem parochial by today’s standards it generated enormous interest and enthusiasm from Everton’s success-starved fans. By New Year Latchford was two-thirds of the way to reaching the magical total. After a lean patch, in which he scored just twice in the first nine games of 1978, five goals in four games over the Easter period saw him well on course for the prize.
WITH 28 GOALS to his name and three games remaining, Latchford then struck two blanks. It left him with the Herculean task – reminiscent of Dixie Dean half a century previous – of having to score a brace in Everton’s final league game of the season, against Chelsea.
Nearly 40,000 packed Goodison to see the game and when Everton swept into a commanding 3-0 lead – without Latchford getting onto the score sheet – it was assumed to be one of those freak days when anybody would score but the main man. However, he scored the fourth and with ten minutes remaining Everton were awarded a penalty. Latchford finished off a 6-0 drubbing from the penalty spot to collect the money. And yet his success would plague him for years: half of the £10,000 prize was donated to the PFA benevolence fund and he kindly shared the rest of it out among the other players and ground staff, taking home just £192 himself. Years later Latchford was still trying to convince the taxman that he didn’t owe anything!
By now Latchford was an England international, the first of 12 caps coming against Italy in a November 1977 World Cup qualifier. In August 1978, Latchford made headlines again after scoring five times in a League Cup tie against Wimbledon – overshadowing Martin Dobson’s hat-trick in the same game. But that represented a high point of sorts, for thereafter he found goals harder to come by. He scored 11 league goals through 1978/79 as Everton made a faltering title challenge, but this tally fell to six in an injury-hampered 1979/80 season, three of which came in a 5-1 drubbing of Leeds United. There was a glimpse of the Latchford of old in September 1980, when he scored five goals in two games,
but injury struck again in November and he missed most of the last six months of Gordon Lee’s tenure, making only a solitary substitute appearance in the last game of the season against Wolves.
THIS WAS to be his final action in an Everton shirt. When Howard Kendall replaced Lee, one of his first acts as manager was to approve the £125,000 sale of Latchford to Swansea City. The irony of Kendall’s arrival bringing an end to Latchford’s Everton career, as his had once done to Kendall’s, was lost on no one.
‘We qualified for Europe, we got to FA Cup semi-finals, we were competing for championships,’ Latchford told this author. ‘But it was dark days because we ended up coming short. And Liverpool were so dominant. If you took that Everton team and put it in the era we have now, the fans would be jumping for joy.’ At John Toshack’s Swansea, Latchford scored a nine-minute hat-trick on his debut against Leeds as the Welsh club rose, improbably, to the top of the First Division table. He later played in Holland for NAC Breda, and then for Coventry, Lincoln and Newport County. Finally, he joined non- League Merthyr Tydfil in 1986, winning the Welsh FA Cup in 1987.
Although he was for a period in the 1990s a youth coach at Birmingham City, where a young Andrew Johnson came under his charge, Latchford slipped out of the game, preferring to concentrate on his business interests. Following the death of his wife in 2000, he immigrated to Germany to be with his new partner and young son. He retains ties to Everton through the Former Players Foundation, for whom he is a generous and committed fundraiser. ‘Evertonians are so enthusiastic about their players,’ he said. ‘It staggers me every time I come over.’ I asked him, with his Midlands roots and home in Germany, where his heart lies.
I might have started at Birmingham,’ he said, ‘but my soul is at Goodison.