Considered one of the greatest players of football’s Victorian era, Nick Ross captained Everton through the inaugural Football League season. His time at Goodison was brief and seemingly unhappy, but he is worthy of recognition as one of football’s first genuine legends.
Born in Edinburgh, Ross was part of the first generation of Scots to play football and started out aged 12 with Edinburgh Rovers, one of the country’s first teams. Later he played for Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian, whom he captained aged 20.
Ross came to England in 1883 as part of Preston manager William Suddell’s Scottish recruitment drive, which saw many of the best players drawn to England by the promise of financial incentives. These were, of course, illegal until the Football Association gave in to professionalism in 1885. But Preston’s willingness to make under the table payments gave them a head start, allowing them to assemble the best team in the land.
Ross’s greatness was immediately apparent. ‘If one were asked to name three of the greatest full-backs that ever graced the Association game, one would be compelled to include the late Nicholas J. Ross as one of the illustrious three,’ wrote William Gibson and Alfred Pickford in 1906. ‘Nick Ross could kick artistically – and otherwise; he could “place” the ball beautifully to his comrades; he could take care of himself in a charge; he rarely came second best out of a scrimmage, but it was not all nor any of these qualities that made him a man in a million. Ross was probably the best full-back that ever lived, because he knew everything that a back ought to know, but because he had the faculty of winning matches. He possessed the indefinable something, that magic quality which, for lack of a better word, we call genius.’
Opposing wingers seemed to fall apart when faced by Ross. If they tried to go around him they would lose the ball or be forced into touch. If they tried to pass to another player, Ross would anticipate the movement and intercept. He was neither tall nor particularly thin, but seemed a dapper, elegant figure on the field. He was aware of his abilities, but never egotistical.
‘He was supposed to play back – and he did – but as a matter of fact he played practically everywhere,’ wrote Gibson and Pickford. ‘He was quick to discern not only the weakness of his own side, but also the weaknesses of his opponents… In actual play… he seemed like a man possessed, yet in spite of all his fire, all his dash, all his activity, he always remained cool in an emergency, collected in a scrimmage, calm in the wild whirl that often sends twenty-two strenuous men wild with excitement.’
Ross joined Everton on the eve of the inaugural Football League season in 1888. He represented a fine bargain, with the club’s management committee paying just £17 10/- to secure his services – which equated to his summer wages at Preston. He was paid £10 per month – a substantial amount at a time when Everton’s annual turnover was only £2,251 – but such incentives were necessary to lure one of the finest players of the era.
Everton, however, were no Preston and in some respects had represented a surprise addition to the Football League. Throughout this debut league season they struggled to find their rhythm and Ross, who also filled in as an auxiliary centre forward on occasion, at times seemed like a luxury.
There was also a sense that Ross, as captain, was treated badly by Everton’s management committee. A letter to The Liverpool Courier in February 1889 recalled an incident prior to the game against West Bromwich Albion at Anfield. The opposing captain complained about the condition of the ball and asked Ross to request a new one, but when he did was publicly rebuked by a member of the committee. ‘Such treatment of a first class player is sufficient to cause him to be most careful in giving him content to play for the Everton club,’ noted the correspondent.
Worse still for Ross, he attracted the opprobrium of some ‘so-called supporters’ and was subjected to ‘threats and foul abuse’ according to the Everton Executive. As the season drew to a disappointing conclusion they were forced to issue a public statement of confidence in their star player and declared anyone guilty of ‘hooting or mobbing’ players and referees to be ‘enemies’ of the club.
Ross, however, had evidently had enough of Everton’s fickle fans and at the end of the season rejoined Preston. He had missed their ‘Invincibles’ season when they won the league and FA Cup double without losing a game, but trophies were not far away. Indeed if it was revenge he sought after his unhappy year at Anfield, he soon got it as the Lilywhites pipped his former club to the 1889/90 title by just two points. Twice in the subsequent two seasons he finished a league runner up. In March 1893 Everton were to end Preston’s FA Cup ambitions, beating them in the semi final after two replays.
This was to be Nick Ross’s last stab at glory. The following year he took ill with tuberculosis – an often lethal condition in the Victorian era – and died, aged just 29. ‘He had the dual temperament of fire and water,’ recalled Gibson and Pickford. ‘His flame never danced and flickered; it glowed steadily and lit up all the scene.