An outstanding centre-forward in Harry Catterick’s great teams of the late-1960s and early-1970s, with Howard Kendall Joe Royle is part of an exclusive club to enjoy success as both an Everton player and manager. One of the finest goalscorers in the club’s history, Royle first emerged as a gangly teenager in the mid-1960s and ably succeeded Alex Young as the club’s number nine. His most effective footballing business was conducted at a young age – because of injuries beyond his 22nd birthday Royle was never quite the same player – and he departed Goodison still aged only 25. Twenty years later, he made a long-awaited return as manager, saving the club from relegation and leading them to FA Cup glory in 1995. Although further success remained elusive, he remains one of Goodison’s most favourite sons.
Born in Liverpool and an alumnus of Quarry Bank School, Royle was an outstanding schoolboy athlete, who attracted the attention of several clubs, including Manchester United, before signing on at Goodison.
As a player, Royle’s Everton career began in contentious fashion. Aged 16 years, nine months, in January 1966 he became the club’s youngest ever player when he was selected in place of Alex Young for a First Division game at Blackpool. His debut was quiet as Everton lost 2-0, but the fury at Young’s omission – considered sacrilege by some of his most ardent fans – caused some supporters to attack Harry Catterick outside the ground. A week later Royle was back in the reserves, Young was reinstated and continued to rule the Royal Blue Mersey for a further few years.
However, there was a beckoning realisation that Royle represented a special talent. At the end of the 1966/67 season Catterick recalled Royle, who had been scoring prolifically for the reserves. By now the gangly former Lancashire Schoolboys skipper was more the complete article, and he duly repaid Catterick’s faith by scoring three times in four games. At the start of the 1967/68 season, Catterick handed the 18 year-old, the illustrious number nine shirt. His reward over the next four years? 95 goals in 190 games, spanning an FA Cup Final in 1968 and two semi finals in 1969 and 1971, a League Championship triumph in 1970 and the first of six England caps in 1971.
Unlike Young, who he came to replace, the 6ft 1inch, 13 stone Scouser was very much the archetypal target man. An imperious aerial presence, he thrived on the wide play of Johnny Morrissey and Jimmy Husband. With his large flat forehead adding to his prowess, Royle was also able to use it intelligently, regularly bringing into play his team-mates from midfield. Although lacking Young’s delicate skills, he possessed good feet and was a fine finisher. Never in the club’s history has a home grown centre forward made so vast a goalscoring impact at so young an age: 16 league goals from 33 starts in 1967/68; 22 from 42 starts the following season; 23 goals when Everton lifted the league title in 1970 and Royle was ever-present; and 17 goals from 40 starts in 1970/71. Before long Evertonians idolised Royle - the local lad made good. ‘They’re peculiar about their number nines here, the way Liverpool are about their number sevens,’ Royle later said, modestly omitting his own name from the pantheon. ‘Whether it was Bob Latchford or Alex Young or Dixie Dean or Tommy Lawton, they’ve always loved them.’
Royle was always a man for the big occasion and never was he better than in Everton’s famous top of the table clash with Leeds in August 1969. Although just seven games into the new season, the outcome of the match was psychologically crucial so early in the title race. Jimmy Husband put Everton ahead after just four minutes, but it was Royle who stole the show with a virtuoso display. On 20 minutes he crashed a header against the Leeds’ bar but recovered quickly to head into the empty net. Four minutes prior to the interval he span and shot into the top right corner to make the score 3-0. Leeds pulled the score back to 3-2, but thanks to Royle – who the Football Echo claimed had had ‘the game of his life’ – Everton took full points and retained their place at the top of the League, where they remained almost uninterrupted until the end of the season. In total, 19 of Everton’s record haul of 65 points could be directly attributed to the centre forward’s goals – even without taking into account his wider role within the team.
Still a week short of his 21st birthday when Everton lifted the league title, this was to be apex of Royle’s playing career. Like many of his colleagues, persistent injuries started to impair his effectiveness. Royle was struck with a back problem which put severe limitations on his involvement in the Everton team. Having been virtually ever present in the four years leading to the end of the 1970/71 season, Royle made just 58 league starts over the next three years.
During this period, Harry Catterick was replaced as manager by Billy Bingham and Bob Latchford was signed from Birmingham City. Although Latchford and Royle partnered each other on a handful of occasions, their styles were, perhaps, too alike for one to be the ideal foil for the other. When Manchester City made a £200,000 bid for Royle in December 1974, Bingham deemed it too good to resist. Yet who knows what might have happened had Royle stayed a few months longer? Everton led the First Division going into April 1975, but just two wins in their final ten games saw any title hopes fade. Could Royle have made an impact at this critical juncture?
Royle spent three years at Maine Road, where his form earned him a brief England recall. In November 1977 he joined Bristol City, moving to Norwich City for £60,000 following The Robins’ relegation in 1980. Despite a second successive relegation in the 1980/81 season, he was a popular figure amongst the Norwich support, winning the club’s Player of he Year Award. Knee injuries limited his contribution the following season, at the end of which he called time on his 16 year-long playing career.
In July 1982, Royle was appointed manager of Second Division Oldham Athletic, where on, severely limited resources, he proved to be amongst the most outstanding young managers in the league. In 1990 he led Oldham to the FA Cup Semi Final and League Cup Final – the year he was shortlisted for the England manager’s job. The following season he led Oldham out of the Second Division as Champions, and kept them there for three seasons. In 1994 he again led Oldham to the FA Cup semi final, where, as in 1990, they were thwarted by Manchester United.
By this point, Royle was amongst the most sought after managers in England and had already rejected a plethora of bigger clubs. Most famously he turned down Manchester City in 1989 after Oldham fans paid for a scoreboard message which read, ‘Please Joe, don’t go.’
He always hoped that Everton would make a move, but after Mike Walker’s appointment as manager in January 1994, admitted that he felt the chance had passed him by. In November 1994, with Everton rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, Walker was sacked and Royle made his long awaited Goodison return. It was a month short of twenty years since he had been sold to Manchester City.
Everton had suffered their worst ever start to the season in 1994/95 and had won just one of their opening dozen games and been knocked out of the League Cup. Player morale was shattered, while individuals were failing to live up to their potential. Royle fostered a new team spirit in a hitherto macabre dressing room. He was helped by a sixteen day break between fixtures, allowing him to reorganise and reinvigorate his team.
When Everton emerged for the first time under Royle’s charge – against Liverpool on 21 November 1994 – they were a very different proposition to the side last seen under Walker. The midfield was packed tight with harriers and scrappers – Royle dubbed them his ‘dogs of war’ – who chased every last ball and played for their shirts as if their very lives depended upon it. The club’s senior players – Neville Southall, Dave Watson, Barry Horne and Paul Rideout – all seemed to be enthused with an additional sense of responsibility. Duncan Ferguson, a hitherto misfiring loan signing, seemed a different player. 21 points and 18 positions separated the two sides, but on the night Everton were the only team in it, running out 2-0 winners.
Everton embarked on a seven match unbeaten run, without conceding a goal. But as his new team rose up the table, Royle had his critics. Purists claimed that he was ‘borstalising’ the School of Science with his no-nonsense tactics. The Liverpool manager, Roy Evans, claimed that his team were ‘hacked’ out of the January derby and Kevin Keegan accused Everton of ‘indiscipline’ when two players were sent off and a further five booked when Everton met Newcastle at St James’ Park the following month. It was true that the ‘dogs of war’ bore little resemblance to the elegant teams in which Royle had once played, but such an approach was necessary given the dire situation he inherited.
Everton escaped relegation with a game to spare, but the highlight of the season was, without question, the club’s fifth FA Cup win. After narrow early round victories over Derby County and Bristol City, Everton faced Premier League opponents from the fifth round onwards. A 5-0 Fifth Round thrashing of Norwich City was followed by a close 1-0 victory over high-flying Newcastle. That set up a semi final against Tottenham Hotspur at Elland Road. Media talk in the run up to the fixture had been of a Spurs V Manchester United ‘dream final’, but Everton defied all such expectations with a resounding 4-1 win. ‘I shouldn’t be here, should I?’ a defiant Royle asked reporters after the game. ‘Sorry about the dream final lads. It could have been more in the end. I was disappointed when they got a penalty which TV will tell whether it was or wasn’t. We played a lot of good football, which is perhaps surprising to one or two of you having read the previews. So bollocks to you. And that’s double ‘L!’’ The 1-0 victory over Manchester United in the final seemed, in many ways, inevitable, and appropriate given how the same team had thwarted Royle at Oldham. It also served as vindication for the Everton manager’s approach.
Royle’s short term objective had been to save Everton from the nightmare of relegation. Long term, it was to revitalise the club, and substantial transfer funds were made available to this end. Despite the FA Cup win, Everton needed significant fresh blood. Already he had made Duncan Ferguson’s loan signing permanent and acquired Earl Barrett; but just two new names – Craig Short and Andrei Kanchelskis – were added during the summer of 1995 when more were needed to bring not just success but the brand of football Evertonians demanded. Everton overcame cup disappointments and a slow start to the 1995/96 season to finish sixth, but European qualification was denied them by UEFA, who removed an English berth after farcical representations in the previous summer’s Inter-Toto Cup by Wimbledon and Tottenham Hotspur.
Again, Royle was cautious in the transfer market during 1996/97 pre-season, adding only Paul Gerrard and Gary Speed to his squad, while cup winners, Barry Horne, Gary Ablett and Daniel Amokachi were allowed to move on. A reputed world record bid for Alan Shearer failed, while other high profile links came to nothing. Everton began the new season in brilliant fashion, beating title hopefuls Newcastle in the opening game and running Manchester United close in the next match. But the old frailties soon became apparent. A lack of quality, in part because of Royle’s inability to bring enough or the right players in, cost Everton dearly, while the rugged brand of football had evolved too slowly for the liking of Everton’s demanding support. The signing of Nick Barmby in November 1996 for £5.75 million – the third time in two years Royle had broken the club record – briefly lifted his team, amidst some suggestions that Everton may emerge as title dark horses. But such talk proved vastly premature and Royle’s tenure unravelled spectacularly.
Things started to go badly wrong for Royle shortly before Christmas 1996 when Andy Hinchcliffe suffered a cruciate ligament injury. Not only did Royle lose one of his best defenders, but a player who was capable of turning defence into attack with one sweeping pass and whose set pieces were one of the most potent parts of Everton’s attacking armoury. The following month Andrei Kanchelskis joined Fiorentina and Anders Limpar – who had been frozen out of the team – joined Birmingham City, severely blunting Everton’s attack. Claus Thomsen, a comical midfield harrier, was signed from Ipswich Town, but it was not enough to replenish Everton’s diminished and flair starved squad. Long ball tactics became even more prevalent. Not only did this make Everton predictable, but they were boring too. The responsibility ultimately rested with Royle, for he had continually resisted the opportunity to bring in creative options since he became manager, always preferring the solid over the spectacular.
January and February 1997 became Royle’s winter of discontent. Dumped out of the FA Cup by Second Division Bradford and in the midst of a six straight league defeats, Royle reacted to press criticism by blanking journalists and banning the press from Bellefield. It was, concluded the Daily Post, ’Madness of course. Childish of course [and] it makes Everton look stupid.’ Another critic wrote: ‘We do not sign the players, pick the team or tell the how to play. You do and you have spent £26 million in the last 27 months. By blaming the press for some of your problems you reveal a fundamental weakness in your ability as a manager of a top club.’ The criticism was harsh, but possessed more than a germ of truth.
By March 1997, Everton seemed to have turned the corner. The football was still dire, but the team had stopped haemorrhaging points. Then on transfer deadline day, Royle unexpectedly left the club. A triple transfer – the re-signing of Barry Horne from Birmingham and the Brann Bergen duo, Tore Andre Flo and Claus Eftevaag – had been earmarked. Flo was considered one of Europe’s outstanding young centre forwards, but Eftevaag was a mere makeweight and the wisdom of signing back Horne at a loss was open to question too. Peter Johnson blocked the deal, and Royle felt he had no choice but to depart – just 29 months into a job he had coveted for years.
In February 1998, Royle returned to management with Manchester City, now in the First Division. They were unexpectedly relegated the following May, but Royle led them through back-to-back promotions to the Premier League. When Everton met City at Maine Road in December 2000, Royle had the last laugh – leading his team to a 5-0 victory. And yet it was not enough to preserve City’s Premier League status. After relegation in May 2001, he was sacked, despite previous promises that he had ‘a job for life’ at Maine Road. In November 2002, Royle returned to football as Ipswich Town manager. In the teeth of a perilous financial situation, he twice led them to the Championship play offs but was unable to bring a return to the Premier League and left the club in May 2006.