Looking back, it seems inconceivable that Kevin Ratcliffe’s Everton career nearly ended before it had even really begun. In 1981, still short of his twenty-first birthday, Ratcliffe was the subject of a bid from Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town. Everton resisted, but a year later, unhappy at flitting in and out of the team and having to play in an unfamiliar left back role, Ratcliffe was on the verge of requesting a transfer. Before this happened, however, he returned to the team in December 1982 as first choice centre back and within a year he was captain, set to embark on an adventure that would make him Everton’s most successful ever captain.
A boyhood Evertonian, Ratcliffe’s long association with the club began when he signed as an apprentice on leaving school in June 1977. Already a Wales Schoolboy international, he went on to represent his country’s under-18 team before making his Everton debut against Manchester United at Old Trafford in March 1980. The Liverpool Echo concluded that he had had an ‘impressive debut’ giving Joe Jordan ‘little scope’. A month later he was a surprise inclusion in team that lost to West Ham in the FA Cup semi final replay. Ratcliffe later recalled how the day stayed with him. He told Bluekipper.com: ‘Looking around the dressing room and on the coach, people like Peter Eastoe, Bob Latchford and Bob Latchford were crying, saying “You’ve got plenty of time to get to another final, we’ll not get another chance.” They were quite right.’
Still a novice there followed an early international call up and he was included in the Wales team to face Czechoslovakia in a World Cup qualifier in September 1981. ‘It was as if he’d been playing international football all his life, dealing comfortably with opponents like [Marian] Masny and [Zdenek] Nehoda,’ Rolant Ellis later wrote in Gwladys Sings The Blues.
But at Goodison, all was not well. Gordon Lee was sacked at the end of the 1980/81 season and replaced by Howard Kendall. But Kendall initially preferred Mick Walsh or Mark Higgins as Mick Lyons’ central defensive partner, eventually settling on a Billy Wright-Higgins partnership, with Ratcliffe left back. Kendall resisted paring Ratcliffe and his fellow left footer Higgins together for as long as possible, but Ratcliffe’s unhappiness at full back was palpable, leading to talk of a Goodison exit. Ipswich, Stoke and Blackburn were all linked with the young defender, but Kendall would not sell. ‘Howard told me at the PFA Awards that Stoke were after me,’ he recalled. ‘I said, “Are they?” and Howard said, “Yes, I’ve told them to fuck off! – Which was nice to hear.’
Ratcliffe’s perseverance finally paid off in December 1982. Everton were still reeling from a 5-0 mauling to Liverpool the previous month, when Kendall decided to reshape his team, dropping Billy Wright and pairing Ratcliffe with Higgins. There followed a marked improvement in form, as Everton rose from fifteenth to finish the campaign seventh, also reaching the FA Cup quarter final.
At last Evertonians were offered a proper glimpse of the qualities that would set Ratcliffe apart as one of the most outstanding centre backs in the club’s history. He was an astute reader of the game, a player who would anticipate rather than dive in. Somewhat one footed, his distribution was nevertheless accurate and consistent. Although never a physical giant he was powerful in the air and not averse to mixing it with his opponents. Indeed, Ratcliffe was in many ways the antithesis of a gentle giant like Brian Labone: hard, uncompromising, not averse to using dirty tricks if the occasion demanded it. After retirement, he was open about kicking Bayern Munich’s Ludwig Kogl out of Everton’s famous 1985 encounter with the Germans. Later his grudge encounters with Wimbledon’s Vinnie Jones would be notorious.
Ratcliffe’s hallmark was his pace, however, and few forwards – Ian Rush being a notable exception – ever seemed to trouble him. Evertonians would joke that he left scorch marks on the pitch, and through his mid-eighties heyday he could justifiably boast to being the First Division’s fastest defender.
Ratcliffe struck up a solid partnership with Higgins, but by December 1983 injury had effectively wrecked his team-mate’s career. Derek Mountfield came in alongside Ratcliffe, and Higgins’ captaincy went to the Welshman. Within three months, Ratcliffe had also assumed captaincy of his country and within six had become the youngest captain since Bobby Moore to lift the FA Cup, after Everton’s 2-0 victory over Watford.
Although his contribution is often overlooked in favour of some of his more glamorous colleagues, between 1984 and early-1988 Ratcliffe was virtually ever present, picking up an FA Cup, two League Championships and a European Cup Winners’ Cup in the process – an unprecedented haul for a Blues’ captain. His footballing talents were obvious to anyone who saw him play, but as captain he was at the centre of team building, a man adept at fomenting the unique one-for-all-all-for-one mentality that was so crucial to Everton’s successes.
Speaking to Bluekipper.com, he said of these great teams and their philosophy:
‘Everyone had a different talent in them. Eighty per cent of the goals came from Kevin Sheedy. Trevor was very skilful. Nev was probably the best keeper in the world at the time, and with Reidy, Sharpy, Andy & Inchy it was just such a good mixture. But the biggest thing about it was that we were nasty!! We were a nasty bunch who wanted to win every game. We had a big togetherness, a team spirit like I've never come across before or since. Now you just see a few on the bench, we had about 10, it was our trademark, when you scored everyone on the bench was up dancing. Them lads weren't playing but they were made to feel one of the lads. We never treated anyone any differently, the lads on the bench were just as important. Your Kevin Richardson's and Alan Harper's whoever it was, they were made to feel part of the team.’
Despite playing more than 450 times for Everton, Ratcliffe’s attacking contribution was minimal. Kendall rarely let him venture past the halfway line, and in more than a decade he managed just two goals, although both were memorable efforts. The first came against Norwich City in January 1983 when he ran half the length of the pitch before slipping the ball past Chris Woods in the Norwich goal. The second came in February 1986 when a mishit half volley trickled past Bruce Grobelaar to record a famous victory over Liverpool. The shot, Ratcliffe later joked, had ‘a bit of swerve on it’ and not even Southall would have stopped it.
Still aged only 26 at the time of lifting his second league title, greatness beckoned for Ratcliffe. And yet he was cut off in his prime. Struck down with groin and hernia problems during Everton’s futile defence of their 1987 title, he returned after a lengthy absence in October 1988 shorn of some of the pace that had once been his hallmark. He led Everton to the 1989 FA Cup Final, but Evertonians grumbled that he was no longer the same player. Niggling injuries curtailed his impact through the 1989/90 season and lessened hopes that there would be a renaissance. Sometimes he was played at left back in order to accommodate Martin Keown.
Following Howard Kendall’s return as manager in November 1990, Ratcliffe was restored as one of the manager’s first choices each week. But all too often he was called upon to carry Kendall’s sometimes baffling defensive experiments, not just at centre back, but full back and even sweeper too. His ailing form saw him the target of some terrace abuse – an undeserved outcome for one of the club’s greatest servants. Yet Ratcliffe was characteristically selfless in his response, saying he would sooner take criticism than have a young player experience it.
After a torrid first half in a League Cup tie against Leeds Utd in December 1991, described by When Skies Are Grey as ‘the nadir of Kendall’s defensive madness,’ Ratcliffe was substituted and never again played for the first team. It was wrote WSAG, ‘a sad end.’
A month later, following the signing of Gary Ablett, the captain’s armband was handed to Dave Watson and Ratcliffe was placed on the transfer list. It was assumed that the centre half, who had only just turned 31 and who had stood out just months earlier when Wales rose to their finest ever victory against World Champions, Germany, would immediately be snapped up. Sadly that was not the case and he spent an undeserved year languishing in the reserves before he was signed by Cardiff City.
With the South Wales club his career enjoyed a brief resurgence and he returned to the international fold, playing his last game in Wales’ 1993 win over Belgium. With Cardiff he added another medal to his collection, lifting the 1992/93 Third Division Championship. At the end of the 1992-93 season, the fanzine O Bluebird of Happiness, recorded: ‘Everyone connected with City will recognise the galvanising effect the arrival of Kevin Ratcliffe had on the team… we won 17, drew 2 and lost 2 of 21 league games [he played in].’
There followed a brief spell at Derby County. In 1994 Ratcliffe joined Chester City as assistant manager and continued to play for a year. The following summer he was appointed manager, leading Chester to the 1997 Third Division play offs and retaining mid-table respectability the following term in the midst of crippling financial problems. He left in August 1999 after falling out with the Chester chairman, becoming Shrewsbury Town manager in November that year. In January 2003, Ratcliffe masterminded the most humiliating result in Everton’s history, when his Shrewsbury team defeated his former club 2-1 in the FA Cup third round. However, a disastrous run of results followed and in May that year, Shrewsbury were relegated from the Football League. Ratcliffe resigned within days and has since built a career as a football pundit.
‘Casting my mind back over the past ten years,’ said Ratcliffe in 1989, when he became only the fifth Everton player to be granted a testimonial. ‘It is amazing how many of my best memories are of the fans rather than the matches or goals. Even during the lean years there was a massive hardcore at every away game who lifted us more than they could imagine. And by the time we had lifted ourselves to Wembley and Rotterdam, they brought tears to our eyes. To play before supporters like that, to share their joy has been an honour.’ Such modest words can be seen as defining Kevin Ratcliffe: a fine player and great servant, perhaps most importantly he was also a true born and blue Evertonian.