To a generation of Evertonians, Duncan McKenzie personified the club’s preference for the solid over the spectacular during its ultimately futile pursuit of glory through the late-1970s. A fabulously gifted forward, McKenzie’s skills brought him adulation from Everton fans, deprived of such virtuoso talent since the club’s 1960s golden era. But McKenzie was ultimately a free spirit who would not conform to the strictures of Gordon Lee’s management. As such, his Goodison career was always doomed to a premature conclusion.
McKenzie started out at Nottingham Forest, where he cultivated a reputation as an entertaining forward of skill and bravura with a big game temperament. Off the pitch, he also became known for his party tricks: leaping over his coach’s mini and throwing golf balls phenomenal distances – a technique he had perfected as a youngster throwing stones across the River Trent. He joined Leeds United, during Brian Clough’s 44 day stint as manager in 1974, and in 1976 had a spell with Anderlecht. In December 1976, Billy Bingham spent £200,000 to bring him to Everton. It was a move applauded by fans, who willed some flair to Bingham’s workmanlike team. But within the game the prevailing wisdom was ‘Sign McKenzie and you’re sacked’ – a maxim that McKenzie failed to confound. Within a month of signing him, Bingham was fired to be replaced by Gordon Lee.
Lee brought with him a reputation as a dour, dependable man, who had little patience for what he termed ‘Flash Harrys’ or ‘coffee house ball jugglers.’ McKenzie, it seemed, belonged to this breed of player, but contrary to the stories of disputes and rancour, Lee and McKenzie had a civil relationship. The player respected the manager and in turn Lee selected him through his first eighteen months as Everton manager.
Wiry and lithe, McKenzie possessed pace and a low centre of gravity. He was at his best dropping off the forward line and leading attacks from deep. With his array of flicks, shimmies and dummies he seemed to delight in tormenting his opponents. ‘In those days the defenders kicked 10 bells of hell out of us and in many ways they deserved to be on the receiving end occasionally,’ he said in 2008. ‘It was payback time.’
There was no finer example of this than in Everton’s FA Cup Fifth round win over Cardiff City in February 1977. McKenzie robbed the Cardiff centre-half on the halfway line and set off for goal, with the Cardiff goalkeeper, Ron Healey, advancing to meet his arrival. ‘I must have taken it round him six or seven times,’ McKenzie told the Guardian’s Richard Williams, with a more than a hint of exaggeration. ‘And while I was doing that all the Cardiff defenders chased back and got themselves on the goal line. I pretended to shoot, and they all went one way. I pretended to shoot the other way, and they went that way, too. Then I popped it between the centre-half's legs.’ And yet Lee was less than impressed by McKenzie’s effrontery. ‘I got frightful earache off the manager,’ McKenzie remembered. ‘Gordon Lee said to me, 'Why didn't you just hit it?’
While such antics are invariably remembered with fondness by fans, they cloud other memories of over elaboration and hubris. It was ultimately these which saw McKenzie fall foul of Gordon Lee, who sought a more reliable alternative to the showman.
In September 1978 McKenzie was sold to Chelsea for £165,000, but his time in London was brief and he had returned back north, with Blackburn Rovers, by the end of the 1978/79 season. Still aged only 28, never again did he grace the First Division, instead playing out his career in the NASL.
Since retirement, he was become a popular figure on the after dinner circuit, an appropriate place, perhaps, for one of the game’s natural showmen. ’Entertainment is what it’s all about,’ he once declared. ‘Sure, it’s important to win, but there’s room for some fun and games along the way.’