Longevity is often the mark of greatness, and in Ted Sagar’s case the facts speak for themselves. In a Goodison career that extended from Dixie Dean’s heyday to the pomp of Dave Hickson nearly a quarter of a century later, Sagar was a consistently excellent custodian of the Everton goal, becoming one of the most decorated and renowned players in its history. No player has served has served an English club for longer than Sagar, and few goalkeepers of his generation combined such bravery, technical excellence and charisma. Oddly, his 450 Everton appearances seem a comparatively small tally given the length of his service, but this was an age before European or League Cup football and war also cut seven years from his prime.
Like Gordon West – Everton’s next great goalkeeper – Sagar hailed from the south Yorkshire coalfields. His childhood was marked by poverty and privations. When he was aged six, two of his sisters died within a week of each other. Within days a third, catastrophic blow was dealt when news of his father’s death fighting on the Somme reached home. As soon as he was old enough, Sagar’s family relied upon him as a breadwinner, and the teenage Sagar went down the coal mine working ‘permanent nights’ to stave off the spectre of the poorhouse.
Football was a release for the youngster and he was spotted playing for Thorne Colliery in the Doncaster Senior League by Hull City. The east Yorkshire side were nevertheless slow in offering him a contract, and in March 1929 Everton took advantage of their hesitancy.
Sagar made his Everton debut on January 18, 1930 in place of Arthur Davies, keeping a clean sheet in a 4-0 victory. This was a rare bright spot in a travesty of a season, in which Everton were relegated for the first time. Sagar made a further eight appearances, but his spirit in a demoralised Goodison must have been sapped further when Everton signed Billy Coggins from Bristol City towards the end of the season.
Coggins was ever present through the 1930/31 season as Everton swept to the Second Division title, but in the long run Sagar’s quality showed through. He reclaimed his place on the opening day of the 1931/32 season and missed just a single game as Everton lifted the First Division title. A year later – with Sagar keeping goal as football’s first ‘number 1’ – Everton won the FA Cup for the second time. In 1938/39 Sagar won his second league title as Everton goalkeeper.
Although relatively slight in build for a goalkeeper, particularly in the days when it was not uncommon for a centre forward to bounce both keeper and ball into the net, Sagar belied his relative frailty with superb athleticism and bravery. ‘Every goalkeeper is a specialist,’ he said in 1969. ‘And each man has his own strongest point. Some are brave to come out and challenge at a man’s feet. Others are fast and agile on the goalline. In my case, my biggest asset was a fair eye and a good pair of hands.’
In an age of dazzling wingers and powerful centre forwards, a crucial part of his game was stopping supply lines from out wide. ‘I tried to make collecting crosses my life’s work,’ he once said. ‘I would practice for hours on end, week in, week out, with a couple of lads pushing high balls into the box while another came in to challenge me. I very seldom got it knocked out of my hands.’
He was also a penalty kick specialist and saved many spot kicks; his strategy being to ‘kid’ the taker into shooting into a desired part of the goal. ‘My idea was to give the penalty taker plenty of net to shoot at,’ he recalled. ‘So I would stand nearer my left hand post then the right. Presented with all this room to shoot at, the kicker would almost automatically shoot in the direction I wanted and not realise he was being kidded. Of course, it was always an additional advantage if you could get away with moving before the ball was kicked. I saved many a spot kick because I was moving before the ball was and knew which way the shot was going.’
He was, wrote ‘Red Rick’, in a 1938 profile of Sagar in the Everton programme, ‘the most daring ‘keeper that ever played for Everton’ whose attitude ‘made one think of those glorious words: “thou shalt not pass.”
‘Many people say he runs out too much, I think he does too,’ recorded the correspondent. ‘But he gets the ball nine times out of ten. He should be locked up for stealing – look at the times without number he has snatched the ball from bobbing heads in the goalmouth.’ ‘Red Rick’ went on to rate Sagar second behind Billy Scott as the club’s greatest goalkeeper, but said he was ahead of Leigh Roose.
Sagar made his international debut in October 1935, when England defeated Northern Ireland 3-1 in Belfast. It was the first of a four cap career that was ultimately cut short by war. During the war, when stationed in Portadown with the Signal Corps, in the midst of an injury crisis Sagar was called upon to keep goal for Northern Ireland against the Irish Free State.
Like Neville Southall, whose diatribes at his own team mates used to reverberate around Goodison in the 1980s and 1990s, Sagar was renowned for his vocal contribution to the Everton team. His first nickname was ‘The Cat’ but as he became increasingly known for his outbursts, it was not long before he was rechristened ‘The Boss’.
He believed the ball had no business in the penalty area unless it was in his hands, and screamed at his team mates to clear it. When, at the end of the 1930s, T. G. Jones – a great footballing centre half – broke into the Everton team, Sagar’s short patience was tested on many occasions as the Welshman coolly dribbled the ball away, instead of launching a hoofed clearance away.
‘Ted didn’t say a lot in the dressing room, but on the field he was a different kettle of fish entirely,’ recalled Jimmy O’Neill. ‘If the full backs weren’t doing their job, he certainly let them know in no uncertain terms. He had quite a temper but after a game was over it was completely forgotten.’
‘He was so comical and then serious, and you never knew how to take him,’ recalled Tommy Lawton. ‘Like all goalkeepers, it was always somebody else’s fault when he was bending his back to pull it out the net.’
Although war sucked the prime from many players, some reckon Sagar’s peak came after peace came and he was in his late-30s. Certainly he had more work to do as he was faced with shot after shot in a struggling Everton team. In 1950/51, as Sagar – now in his fifth decade – was being edged from contention, Everton succumbed to relegation for the second time in his career. He played just eleven more games for Everton, finally calling an end to his career in 1953.
After football, like many footballers of his era he entered the pub trade, running the Chepstow Castle on County Road, before taking over the Blue Anchor pub in Aintree. He died suddenly in 1986, his ashes laid at Goodison Park, which had become his spiritual home. ‘It made his heart sing when he was surrounded by Evertonians,’ his widow Dolly told the author Becky Tallentire in 2004. ‘The fans loved Ted – they would always tell me to look after him because he played such an important part in Everton’s success.’