In modern terms the football journey taken by Scottish international half back, Neil McBain, would be considered to be wracked by controversy. Not only did he cross the Merseyside divide, leaving Everton to join Liverpool (by way of Perth), but he had earlier played for Manchester United, thus traversing three of England’s most hotly contested rivalries. Yet it was his transfer to Everton in January 1923 that attracted most controversy.
The elegant wing half (though some said too elegant) had handed in a transfer request at Old Trafford, having fallen out with United’s perfidious management. The United board held out for a fee that was described in one newspaper to be ‘so sustainable that it quickly frightened possible buyers away, and as the present fee, at any rate, there is no likelihood of the player joining the Everton camp.’ Yet the Everton board eventually submitted to pay a huge £4,000 fee for the player. The news of his impending departure from Old Trafford precipitated a public meeting to protest at the deal, and more than 1,000 angry United fans turned up. It was to no avail and over the following four years McBain was to make more than 100 appearances in the royal blue shirt of Everton.
McBain had started his career with Ayr United and acquired a reputation as a ball playing halfback. This was enhanced after the move to United in 1921, although, as the football historian Percy Young sharply pointed out, ‘his meticulous talent were found to be out of place [at Old Trafford].’ At Everton, however, the football philosophy was different. The aim was to build from the back, playing short passes and breaking with subtlety and verve. They would finish 1922/23 fifth and seventh a year later, although it was believed they played better football then (they also won two more points than the previous year). ‘No team in the country has served up more delightful football than Everton,’ reported the Athletic News.
In writing about how they played ‘the prettiest football in the league’, the leading football journalist of the era, Ivan Sharpe, pointed to the influence of defenders like McBain. ‘The purpose of Everton is to keep the ball on the ground. Their passes are short and sweet. There is subtlety in attack – mainly because the half-backs (Brown, McBain, and Hart) keep the ball delicately under control in defence and attack, and because in parting they glance it here, glide it there, and, generally, contrive and create, rather than bustle about and bash it to the wings in the manner too prevalent today.’
McBain was a regular until the 1925/26 season after he lost his place to David Bain then suffered injury while playing in the reserves. Local newspapers reported him being ‘desirous’ to return to Scotland and in the summer of 1926 he joined St Johnstone for £1000. This move was short-lived and in March 1928 he returned to Merseyside with Liverpool after St Johnstone had had problems meeting their payments of his transfer fee. He then moved to Watford, in 1929 become their player manager and thus began a 35-year-long managerial career that took him to Luton, Argentina and, finally, back to Ayr, where it had all begun.
In March 1947, aged 51 years and 120 days, McBain then manager of New Brighton, was called into action in the midst of an injury crisis and selected himself in goal for Division Three (North) match against Hartlepool. They lost 3-0 but McBain remains the oldest player to turn out in a Football League match.