In the last years of the nineteenth century, Dumbarton proved a fertile poaching ground for Everton Football Club. With the Scottish town’s various football clubs stubbornly refusing to give up their amateur status, their best players were attracted to Merseyside by the promise of a professional contract and the riches it could bring.
Richard Boyle, Johnny Holt and Abraham Hartley were all lured south by Everton, but perhaps the most distinguished part of this crop was John Bell, a star of Dumbarton’s back-to-back Scottish Championship wins at the start of the 1890s. A winger of great skill, he was to make one short of 200 Everton appearances, which spanned two spells and 10 years, also weighing in with 70 goals – an impressive haul for a man better known as a master dribbler than goalscorer. ‘One swallow does not make a summer,’ noted the early Everton historian Thomas Keates, ‘but one player of outstanding ability in a football team makes a great difference in its aggregate results.’
After making his Everton debut at the end of the 1892/93 season – Goodison’s inaugural campaign – Bell made his place on the Everton wing his own the following campaign.
Like all of the great mavericks, Bell has become a near-mythical figure. Sam Crosbie, an early Everton fan, wrote of an incredible incident involving Bell in Keates’ 1928 history of the club. ‘At one game we noticed a player circling around as if very dizzy. Jack Bell ran to him, took hold of his head, put his shoulders between his knees, pulled his head with all his might, and in a few minutes the player joined in the game. It turned out he had dislocated his neck, and would have been a dead man in a few minutes had not Jack Bell adjusted the dislocation.’ On another occasion Bell was run over by a cab on the Strand on the eve of an England v. Scotland meeting at the Crystal Palace. He brushed himself down, making little fuss of his injuries, and turned out the next day. Scotland won 2-1.
In all he would make 10 appearances for his country in an international career that spanned a decade. It is worth noting, however, that this tally might have been much higher were it not for the fact that Scotland’s selectors usually overlooked the ‘Anglos’ – as Bell and others who played south of the border were referred – and that the bulk of his caps came while at Dumbarton at the start of his career, and Celtic near its end.
Perhaps Bell’s finest game for Everton came in the 1897 FA Cup Final, when he harangued Aston Villa all afternoon. ‘This was a remarkable match – many good judges think it was the best game the final ever furnished,’ wrote Gibson and Pickford in their seminal Association Football and the Men Who Made It.
Villa took an early lead and, seizing the early initiative, could have gone further in front. But then Abraham Hartley played in Bell, who sidestepped past a defender and waited for James Whitehouse, the Villa goalkeeper, to advance, before rolling the ball past him and into the empty net. Everton then took the lead through Boyle – but it was all to no avail and Villa fought back to win 3-2 and lift a league and FA Cup double.
‘Everton played moderately in the first half, but in the second they were different, and better men, and were only beaten by a goal,’ Gibson and Pickford noted. ‘The game was made memorable by John Bell’s extraordinary efforts to win the match for his side, and no one admired his wonderful ability more than the supporters of Aston Villa …’
Bell was an erudite figure and an articulate spokesman for players’ rights. In February 1898, in a response to moves by Football League clubs to limit footballers’ wages, Bell was one of the leading agitators against this, helping form the first ever player’s union, the Association Footballer’s Union (AFU), of which he became chairman.
His work with the nascent Player’s Union brought him into conflict with Everton’s management, and for a while – as the 1897/98 season drew to its close – it seemed as if Bell might walk away from football altogether. Instead he joined Tottenham, then of the Southern League, and subsequently returned to Scotland, where he signed for Celtic. By now players in Scotland faced no impediment to their earning power. His departure back north of the border – combined with several notable player defections to the Southern League, which was also free from proposed wage constraints –marked the death knell of the AFU, seriously diminishing its credibility. Bell had previously campaigned against transfer fees, but had no objection to the £300 he cost Celtic, as he received a cut of it.
He returned to Merseyside after a two-year hiatus, joining New Brighton Tower in 1900, and returning to Goodison a year later. Through the 1901/02 season he galvanised a team in flux, scoring twice on his second debut against Manchester City, as Everton led the league through much of the first half of the season. Yet despite the veteran’s best efforts, Everton lacked the consistency to take a second league title and ultimately finished the season runners-up, three points behind Sunderland. ‘One match dazzling, next puzzling,’ recorded Keates. ‘Puzzling to the players as well as to the spectators. Good teams often get in a tangle and fail to win the very matches they feel confident they could, and would, win.’
This baffling inconsistency carried over to the next campaign, as Everton finished 12th – their worst position yet. At the end of the 1902/03 season, Everton’s directors sought fresh blood and Bell, who was now nearing his 34th birthday, was deemed expendable. Harold Hardman replaced him on the Everton flank and the Scot moved to Preston.
Here he would enjoy an Indian summer, helping revive football’s first great team. He inspired their Second Division championship victory in 1903/04 and brought them to within a few points of a league title in 1905/06. A year later, he brought an end to his lengthy career and Preston would never come so close to a championship again. Bell continued to work as a coach at Deepdale, later emigrating to Canada.