Just as Mick Lyons seemed to typify Everton’s 1970s malaise, so David Unsworth has become synonymous with the wretched 1990s and early-21st century, when Everton lurched from crisis to crisis. A fiercely proud Evertonian who always wore his heart on his sleeve, Unsworth was a brave, physical, hard player, sometimes lacking sophistication in his approach, but usually effective, committed and always giving his best. Alas, this wasn’t quite enough to allay the worst period in Everton’s recent history, but if nothing else, Unsworth brought heart to a team sorely lacking in it.
Born in Preston, Unsworth came through the Everton youth ranks in the early-1990s. Only John Ebbrell had made the step up in the previous decade, but Unsworth immediately made his mark, scoring on his debut against Tottenham Hotspur in May 1992. Chances were subsequently rare until Mike Walker’s appointment as manager in January 1994.
Walker invested huge faith in the 20 year-old, but he took his chance. Everton’s defence was a one-paced disaster zone and it was left to Unsworth to sweep up, to charge back down the lines and clear up the unfolding mess. His tackles were crisp, precise and hard – hard enough to rev up a crowd deprived of other meaningful action in a moribund three-sided Goodison.
Come the start of the 1994/95 season, Unsworth was a first choice in the Everton defence and a crowd favourite. He had played his early football in midfield, but by then was usually partnering Dave Watson in central defence, although he also played left back too. Tall, strong and fast, he seemed the embodiment of the modern defender. Powerful in the air – yet never quite as indomitable as Dave Watson – and an outstanding tackler, he soon attracted plaudits, despite playing in a team that was propping up the Premier League. He was also nominated Everton’s penalty taker, and over the years would prove amongst the most superb takers in the club’s history.
Unsworth was outstanding in Everton’s 1995 FA Cup run, subduing Jurgen Klinsmann in the semi final and proving equal to the challenges posed by Manchester United’s formidable forwards in the final. His form saw him rewarded with an England call up at the end of the season, and he made his international debut against Japan at Wembley.
And yet when the 1995/96 season kicked off, it seemed as if Unsworth had spent all summer in the gym. Bulked up like a heavyweight boxer, it seemed to diminish some of his pace and agility. Mistakes crept in and his head dropped. He was left out of the England squad, then the Everton team, with Royle preferring the doughty but limited Craig Short in his place.
As some of David Unsworth’s limitations came to be exposed, so too did those of Joe Royle’s game plan. When things became really dire, less than two years after the FA Cup win, it seemed as though the solitary tactic began with Unsworth’s left foot and ended with Duncan Ferguson’s head. Some fans began to take their frustration out on Unsworth, his confidence dropped further; Joe Royle left; and with little more than 100 appearances under his belt, the defender was left to contemplate life under a fourth different manager.
In June 1997, Howard Kendall returned as Everton manager for a third time. He had always been reluctant to use Unsworth in his second spell, and this time deemed him expendable, exchanging him for West Ham’s Danny Williamson and £1 million. It was a bum deal, with Williamson playing just a handful of appearances before his retirement from injury.
Unsworth spent a successful season in London, but sought a return north after just a year. In the summer of 1998 there followed a bizarre interlude at Aston Villa, whom he joined for £3million, but immediately sought to leave when he caught word that Everton, now managed by Walter Smith, were interested in signing him back. Without playing a single game for Villa, he returned to Everton for £3 million.
Smith, who admired physical presence in his charges, utilised Unsworth mainly as a left back, although he slotted in as an auxiliary centre half on occasion too and on the left of midfield. He became something of an enigma, at times an excellent defender, his form was undermined by lapses of concentration and poor distribution. There were several low points – with Marco Materazzi he conspired to hand Sheffield Wednesday’s Benito Carbone two goals in a fixture at the end of the 1998/99 season that left Everton in serious relegation trouble; and he was abysmal in Everton’s 2001 FA Cup humiliation to Tranmere – but Unsworth always had the strength of character to bounce back. He may have sometimes resembled a pub footballer, but at a time when the loyalty and motivations of some of his team-mates could be called into question, Unsworth always gave his all. In 2002 he was awarded a testimonial.
In 2004 he fell foul of David Moyes’s policy of awarding older players just one year contracts, and, offered a three year deal at Portsmouth, moved to the south coast. When that move did not work out, in January 2005 he joined Ipswich Town on loan, where he was reunited with Joe Royle. Released from his Portsmouth contract in summer 2005, he joined Sheffield United on a free transfer, returning to the Premier League a year later. In the January 2007 transfer window, Unsworth joined Wigan Athletic, and his penalty goal on the last day of the 2006/07 season condemned Sheffield United to relegation. Unsworth spent the 2007/08 season at Burnley and subsequently joined Huddersfield Town. However persistent injuries restricted him and he announced his retirement in spring 2009.
Although he never really lived up to his potential, Unsworth was a fine and dedicated servant, who always spoke with the same affection and pride for the club that he showed each time he pulled on an Everton shirt. Shortly after his 2004 departure, he attended a Merseyside derby in the Gwladys Street. His arrival on the old terrace was marked with less incredulity than may have been expected – for Evertonians always knew, that, at heart, Unsworth was one of them.