Everton greats fall into three distinct categories. There are the goalscorers; the illustrious number nines and sublime poachers who form a proud tradition dating back to the days of Fred Geary and Jack Southworth. There are the artistes; the incomparable geniuses who bestowed upon the club the lore of the School of Science. Finally, there are the mavericks, the one offs, who combined ability and force of personality to find their way into Evertonian hearts.
Alex Young is a special case because he transcends such ready categorisation. He was a great goalscorer, one of Everton’s best. He was also a fabulous, uniquely skilful creator of goals. What sets Young apart, however, was the unique hold he had over Everton fans. It has been said that if he had played for Liverpool or Manchester United he would be as revered than a George Best or Kenny Dalglish. But even if the wider public did not come to appreciate Young’s sublime talents, no discerning fan of the game – Evertonian or not – could have failed to have been impressed by the man they called the ‘Golden Vision’. After all, this was the player who inspired a Ken Loach film about him; who prompted an attack on Harry Catterick, when he was dropped for a game at Blackpool. One of the most enduring images of the era is a fan being led off the Goodison pitch by a bobby, still defiantly holding up a placard with the legend: ‘Sack Catterick, Keep Young.’
Young was born in Loanhead, a coalmining village in Midlothian, in 1937. In common with many such communities it was a hotbed of footballing talent – in Young’s junior school team alone were Ian King, later of Leicester City, and Malcolm Howieson, who would play for Grimsby Town; John White, who played with Young at Hearts and for Tottenham, went to a neighbouring school. Like many youths from such a background, Young seemed destined for life down the coal pit and was taken on as a colliery apprentice aged 15.
Young’s escape from such drudgery came via football. He was spotted by Hearts playing junior football for Broughton Star, aged 16. Loaned out to Musselburgh Union and Newtongrange Star, local junior teams, until deemed ready for the rigours of senior football, all the while he combined playing with work at the coal mine. Aged 18, at the start of the 1955/56 season, he made his Hearts debut in a League Cup tie; by the season’s end he was an established Tynecastle favourite and had played a part in Hearts’ first Scottish FA Cup win in half a century.
This would emerge as the greatest Hearts team in the club’s history, and as well as Young it boasted players such as Dave MacKay, Ian Crawford and Willie Bauld. Twice they lifted the Scottish League title, in 1958 and 1960, and would also lift the League Cup in 1959 and 1960. Young quickly cultivated a reputation as a forward of grace and élan. In 1960 he won his first Scotland cap, against Austria; staggeringly, just seven more would follow – the majority of them earned while playing for Hearts that same year.
By now Young had started to attract the attention of a host of English clubs. The financial incentives south of the border made it attractive for ambitious young players and Young was keen on a move. Speculation linked him with switches to Preston North End, West Bromwich Albion and Everton, but it was Preston, managed by Cliff Britton, who, in November 1960, followed up their initial interest. Hearts agreed a fee and Young agreed terms with Britton, but when the Preston manager put the move before his board, they would not sanction the signing on fee. For the sake of £1000, the Lancastrians lost out on a football great.
At this stage Everton moved in, bidding £55,000 for Young and the full back, George Thomsen. Young was valued at £42,000, which was a record for a player coming out of Scotland. He arrived at Everton injured and still needing to complete his national service, which severely restricted his progress through the remainder of the 1960/61 season. He made his debut at Goodison on December 17, 1960, against Tottenham, who would finish the season League and FA Cup winners, but made little impression in a 3-1 defeat. Young stepped down from first team action for a further six weeks and did not return until a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Bolton – Everton’s fifth consecutive defeat, which had seen them drop from third to fifth and knocked out of the FA Cup third round. The poor form continued: Everton lost 4-0 at West Ham and were knocked out of the League Cup by Shrewsbury Town, despite Young’s first Everton goal. It was, Young would recall, ‘one of the most embarrassing evenings in the club’s history.’
But as spring came there were the first stirrings of an understanding building between the Young and Roy Vernon. On the last day of March 1961, Young scored a brace and Vernon the other goal in a 3-1 win over Blackburn Rovers. Suddenly the hype that had surrounded his move was beginning to become justified. The Liverpool Echo reported: ‘Young is a thoroughbred, a great mover with the ball, fast, active, razor sharp in his reactions. For his size, he is a good header of the ball. He is clever, artistic and can score goals.’
Everton won six of their final seven games, finishing fifth – their highest position since the war. But it was not enough to save Johnny Carey’s job as manager, and he was replaced by Harry Catterick. Although Young would remain under his charge for seven years, he never shared a good relationship with the new manager, who seemingly preferred more muscle and brawn in his number nine than the slight Young could ever offer. He was suspicious too of the growing adulation Young received from the Goodison crowd. ‘It turned out that the more the fans loved me, the more the manager disliked me,’ he recorded in his memoirs. ‘I was engaged in a constant battle with Harry and learned not to trust him.’
Part of Young’s problem was that he was not a traditional centre forward. He lacked the physicality of the blood and thunder striker who characterised the position. He was slim, delicate, even frail, possessing more the physique of a winger or inside forward. He was prone to injury and never a prolific goalscorer. Sometimes he disappeared from play or was out muscled by the defensive hatchet men who were increasingly fashionable during this time. But none of this lessened his effect on the Everton forward line. He was a graceful player, who floated around the attack, bringing in colleagues with a flick or a shimmy, or coasting past opponents with a drop of the shoulder. He was a formidable header of the ball, seemingly hanging in the air as if suspended by string. His passing was precise, accurate and, on occasion, visionary. He was a cool finisher in front of goal. Within a year of his arrival, he was a Goodison icon. In October 1961, the Liverpool Echo’s Leslie Edwards wrote of Young: ‘It is not necessary for a player with his extraordinary gifts to play a blood and guts centre forward game. With a slight feint of the shoulders he gets them going the wrong way. Then he drifts past them almost lazily. Like Matthews and other men of football genius he always seems to have time to think and space in which to move. He won’t get a packet of goals, but he’ll make hundreds of others.’
Young and Vernon would effectively play just three full seasons together, in which time they claimed some 116 league goals between them. Vernon, clinical and whippet like -- the ultimate penalty area player – was the perfect foil for the Scot and they built up a subliminal understanding. Certainly both men played the finest football of their careers when partnering each other.
Everton finished the 1961/62 season fourth, Young scoring 14 goals, with poor away form and a bad start costing the club a serious stab at the league title. The following campaign he was ever present as Everton lifted their sixth league title. Fittingly, as Young was now Everton’s talisman, when they met their nearest rivals, Tottenham, in mid-April, it was he who scored the only goal of the game. That victory handed Everton a crucial initiative in the title hunt, and three weeks later, after a 4-1 win over Fulham, they were crowned champions. ‘Never shall I forget those final five minutes of the Fulham match,’ said Young. ‘When the crowd was stamping and shouting so much that my head was reeling with the noise and it seemed we could feel the playing pitch vibrating under our feet.’
The 1963/64 season was less happy for Young, despite Everton coming close to retaining their title. Injured over Christmas, strong speculation linked Catterick to a replacement centre forward, with Sheffield Wednesday’s David Layne his seeming target. Catterick, however, surprised everybody, waiting until March, when Young was recovered, to make Blackburn’s Fred Pickering a domestic transfer record signing. Young was consigned to the reserves for much of the remainder of the season, his Everton career seemingly nearing its end. He requested a transfer, which was accepted, but he later retracted the demand.
Yet while speculation linked Young with moves to Rangers, Spurs, Manchester United and even a return to Hearts that summer, only Third Division Brentford bid for his services, and Catterick wanted much more than the £30,000 they offered. At the start of the 1964/65 season, Young was included as inside right in an illustrious forward line that also included Pickering, Vernon, Alex Scott and Derek Temple. Evertonians expected goals galore, but in accommodating so many attackers they had, ironically, become one dimensional and over reliant on Pickering, who scored goals with abandon. In March 1965 Vernon was sold to Stoke City. Young scored just three league goals in an injury hampered campaign as Everton finished fourth.
Young’s most persistent injury problem was unnaturally soft feet – which earned him the tag ‘tenderfoot’ – that were exceedingly prone to blisters. The affliction seems obscure, but it was enough to keep Young out for large tracts of the season and no cure seemed to be able to rid him of the problem. When his ever devoted followers became aware of his affliction he became inundated with suggested remedies. ‘My home and the club offices were absolutely deluged with letters giving me advice on just what to do in order to get back into the soccer scene,’ he later remembered. They ranged from the bizarre to the ridiculous. One fan suggested he paddle on Crosby beach three times day, to benefit from the salt water; another that he wrapped his feet in newspaper; others suggested that he rubbed them down with a lemon, or even a potato.
The 1965/66 season showed Everton to be a team in transition. Rarely did they figure in the top ten, finishing eleventh. In September 1965 they were beaten 5-0 by Liverpool at Anfield. Young continued to partner Pickering in attack, but had had to adapt his game to take on some additional defensive responsibilities, particularly away from home. Evertonians were increasingly unhappy, particularly with Catterick. This bubbled over in January 1966, when the Everton manager left Young out of the line up to face Blackpool at Bloomfield Road. While Young was playing for the reserves, 16 year old Joe Royle made his debut in his place, but was unable to stop a 2-0 reverse. After the game, angry supporters surrounded the Everton coach, and in a surge forward Catterick was knocked to the ground and reputedly jostled. The incident, which was exaggerated by the press, was taken as an example of Evertonians’ unstinting devotion to their hero.
Perhaps Young’s omission was a piece of reverse-psychology on behalf of the Everton manager. The following week, in an FA Cup tie at Sunderland, Young was restored to the line up and scored as Everton won 3-0. It was the first in a run of games that led Everton to Wembley, and an FA Cup Final against Sheffield Wednesday. Having played virtually the previous two years as inside right, Young was restored as centre forward in the absent Pickering’s place, with Mike Trebilcock partnering him.
And yet Young’s only Wembley appearance threatened to peter out amidst disappointment. Twice he was denied, first when a perfectly valid goal was disallowed for offside, next when he was hauled down by Ron Springett for what seemed a stonewall penalty, but nothing was given. Wednesday took a two goal lead, which Everton famously overcame to win 3-2. It was, Young recorded, ‘a glorious comeback and a tremendous advertisement for the competition.’ ‘I think Alex Young had a great match,’ said an elated Dixie Dean afterwards. ‘He did everything right for me.’
The FA Cup victory reinvigorated Young, who, after earning a Scotland recall that summer following a five year hiatus, started the first 33 league games in the 1966/67 season for Everton. Many of these were in his preferred number nine shirt, and he showed that aged 30 the old magic had not deserted him. On the final day of the season he returned from a month long injury lay off to destroy Sunderland. In an outstanding display, in which his mark was clear on each of Everton’s four goals, Everton won 4-1 with Johnny Morrissey scoring a hat-trick. ‘Young spread destruction through their ranks with his wonderful ball distribution, artistry and sheer cheek,’ wrote Michael Charters in the Liverpool Echo. ‘In this he was matched by Ball and their superiority was so pronounced that they almost put on a music hall double act at times.’ According to Labone, it was the best individual performance he had ever seen from Young and Alan Ball wanted him – and not Morrissey – to have the match ball at the end. ‘Young beat Sunderland almost on his own that night,’ claimed Labone. ‘He played on the wing and I never felt so sorry for a man as I did for the Sunderland left back. For him, it was a nightmare. For Young, it was a great personal triumph.’ It was the zenith of Alex Young’s genius: a virtuoso display of grace and trickery.
Catterick had by now rebuilt Everton around the Harvey-Kendall-Ball midfield. Young played the majority of the first half the 1967/68 season either on the right wing or deputising for Joe Royle at centre forward. But as the campaign progressed he began to be squeezed out in favour of Jimmy Husband and made only occasional forays from the substitute’s bench. He came on as a substitute for Jimmy Husband in the FA Cup semi final victory over Leeds United, but despite Catterick assuring him of a place on the bench for the final against West Bromwich Albion, Young was left out.
By then Young had played his last game in an Everton shirt. It was at West Ham on 11 May 1968, a month after the screening of ‘The Golden Vision’, Neville Smith and Ken Loach’s BBC1 play about Young. Although he lined up alongside virtually a reserve side, as Catterick rested players for the following Saturday’s FA Cup Final, Young ran the show with an imperious performance that drew loud applause even from the West Ham fans.
In July 1968, Everton accepted a £7,500 bid from New York Generals for Young and for a period he seemed set to leave, before changing his mind. Four weeks later, Glentoran paid £10,000 for Young to take over as player-manager. The move was ill-fated, however, and Young was uneasy at Northern Ireland’s rising sectarian violence. He returned to England with Stockport County, but the Third Division was no fitting stage for a player like him. After making just a single appearance in the 1969/70 season he called time on his illustrious career.
Young returned to Scotland, where he lived quiet post-football existence, first running a pub, then working for his family’s soft furnishings business. His son, Jason, was a forward for Scotland’s youth teams alongside Duncan Ferguson, but after breaking his leg was consigned to a career in the Scottish lower leagues with Livingston and Stranrear.
Everton always retained a place in Alex Young’s heart. In 2003, he wrote: ‘I left Everton football club in 1968. But I can honestly say that Everton has never left me. Most professional footballers embrace some sort of superstitions. But I am the sort of person who can walk into a room and immediately sense vibes about a place – and when I first walked into Goodison park in November 1960 I could feel something almost spiritual. People may say that’s just so much mumbo-jumbo, but I still get that feeling when I go back. Everton possesses a kind of magic – and it is a magic generated by the quality of players who have graced the stadium over the past 125 years.’
But the relationship was always reciprocal, even among those palpably too young to have witnessed him play. For Alex Young was a rare thing, not just a great footballer but as a man, he was one of the very few: A footballing hero blessed with genius, but possessing the highest virtue of them all– humility.