Images of Gordon West in his 1960s heyday invariably show a great cat of a goalkeeper clawing the air in an attempt to keep the ball from crossing the line. Stopping shots was what he did, and West elevated goalkeeping into an art form. He never set out to be a spectacular goalkeeper and was scornful of those who liked to show off between the posts. But his combination of magnificent agility, relentless desire to guard the Everton goal and natural charisma meant he was one of the most eye-catching custodians of his era. He matched these attributes with great consistency. One of the most successful players in the club’s history, with Neville Southall and Ted Sagar he ranks among the genuine greats to have worn the Everton goalkeeper’s jersey.
Born in Darfield, South Yorkshire, West’s was a meteoric rise. As a teenager he had been a Sunday league centre back, but when a friend was invited to Blackpool for a trial and asked to bring a friend along West said to say that he was a goalkeeper. Little did he know that this was the beginning of a career as goalkeeper which would eventually see him challenge Gordon Banks, the greatest of them all, for his England jersey.
Blackpool signed him straight away and by 1960 he started to challenge their first choice goalkeeper, Tony Waiters, for the green jersey. Waiters, like West, would represent Alf Ramsey’s England. West played 33 times for Blackpool, but when Harry Catterick offered £27,500 – a record fee for a goalkeeper – to bring him to Goodison in March 1962, the bid was accepted.
Still aged only 18, West immediately replaced Albert Dunlop as Everton’s first choice goalkeeper. Brave, agile and strong, it was immediately apparent that West bore all the hallmarks of a great goalkeeper – something the club had not possessed since Ted Sagar’s 1930s heyday. He was a supreme shot stopper and commanded his penalty area with authority. West was also noted for his long throws, which he modelled on Manchester City’s great German goalkeeper, Bert Trautmann. This provided the basis for numerous Everton breakaway attacks. He was virtually ever present through Everton’s League Championship season in 1962/63.
The great football writer Brian Glanville once wrote a book called ‘Goalkeepers are Different’ and there is much truth in his adage. In a sport in which its professionals are renowned for their blandness West – like Neville Southall after him – bucked this trend and was one of the game’s great characters.
Despite his reputation as one of the best goalkeepers in the country, he was a player plagued by self-doubt and before games was wracked with nerves. He reputedly vomited before games because of the tension, but has since said that such suggestion were overplayed – he was in fact too nervous to even eat anything. ‘I have gone home and cried after defeat,’ he said, ‘It was all immaturity I suppose.’
With the Kop, who dubbed him ‘Mae West’, he shared a lively relationship, defined by their presentation of a handbag to him before a game. ‘I remember my first derby game and I didn’t know about the rivalry between the two clubs,’ he told the Evertonian in 2001. ‘So I went down and stood in front of the Kop and they were all sticking two fingers up at me, poking and swearing – all aimed at me. I just couldn’t believe anybody could be like that.’
‘The year after I thought I would sort the Liverpool fans out, so I started blowing them kisses and showing them a bit of my bottom. I thought it was really funny. The following year, that’s when I got the handbag. It ruined my life. You ask anybody in Liverpool about Gordon West and they will mention Sandy Brown’s goal and the handbag – and I’ve played for England. It is unbelievable. All my life I have gone out and had a pint and I have had people asking, “Where’s your handbag?”’
His weight, particularly by the 1970s, was often a source for criticism. In Three Sides of the Mersey, Catterick’s trainer, Stewart Imlach, recalled Fridays at the club when each player would be weighed, and if they were caught overweight would be sent back for an afternoon training session. ‘Westy was always overweight,’ he said, ‘And he’d come into the room and take all the plasters off his leg. He had a little razor and he’d go into the medical room and shave his legs. There was a little table just by where they weighed, and Westy used to stand by this and he’d be pushing his hand on the table to take half a stone off!’
But West was no clown. He was a giant in a team of great players and was integral to the club’s successes through its ‘golden era’. ‘Westy was an intelligent and acrobatic giant who commanded his defenders like Field Marshal Montgomery during the heat of the battle,’ recalled Alex Young. ‘He had soup bowls at the end of his wrists which he combined with near-flawless judgement to pluck the ball out of the air. The legendary Lev Yashin and Pat Jennings had similar anatomical extremities.’
There were, however, occasions when it was not just West who asked questions of his ability. Harry Catterick was ruthless, and dropped West on several occasions, sometimes at the merest hint of lost form. Twice during the 1963/64 season he was dropped in favour of Andy Rankin, who maintained his place in the Everton goal for the first half of the 1964/65 season. Injuries troubled West during the 1965/66 campaign, but he returned to win an FA Cup winners medal. For the remainder of the decade he was Everton’s first choice goalkeeper.
In 1968 West made his England debut, which he described as the pinnacle of his career. Only the excellence of Gordon Banks restricted him to three caps, although more may have been forthcoming had he taken up the chance to travel to the 1970 World Cup Finals in Mexico. Perhaps the course of football history may have been radically different had he done so. Banks was struck down with food poisoning on the eve of England’s quarter final with West Germany and was replaced with Chelsea’s Peter Bonetti – included in the squad because of West’s withdrawal. But the move was a disaster – Bonetti was at fault as England let slip a two goal lead and lost 3-2.
West lost his place to Rankin early in the ill fated 1970/71 season, but returned to be ever present through the 1971/72 season, putting in one of his most consistent seasons. It was surprising then when Catterick broke the transfer record for a goalkeeper a second time in the summer of 1972, when he bought Huddersfield’s David Lawson for £80,000. West was stunned by his arrival, later claiming he’d never even heard of Lawson before Everton signed him. Still only aged 29, he persevered, but when Billy Bingham became manager a year latter there was no way back.
He dropped out of the game, working as a sales representative for a bakery, before returning in the mid-1970s with Tranmere Rovers, where he combined goalkeeping back up with coaching duties. In the early-1980s West dropped out of football, working as a security guard at Woodvale air base. Still based in Merseyside he remains a regular visitor to Goodison and a much loved figure among fans.