Signed as an amateur from Tranmere Rovers for the recommencement of league football in September 1946, Billy Higgins’ Everton career is defined by a single moment of glory at its midpoint and a tide of controversy and opprobrium at its end.
Born in Birkenhead, Higgins signed professional terms with Everton in May 1946, earning wages of £5 a week. Nominally a centre forward he played across the Everton forward line without ever really making a first team place his own. He appeared just seven times during the 1946/47 season and 14 times during the next campaign.
His crowning moment in an Everton shirt came in January 1949, when a crowd of 63,499 crammed into Goodison to see Everton take on Manchester City in an FA Cup third round tie. Twice Everton had faced City in the league over the Christmas holidays and both games had ended goalless. This time Higgins wore the famed number nine shirt and all afternoon tore into City with a tireless and effusive display – but still, as ninety minutes approached it remained goalless.
The game’s deciding moment was its last. Alex Stevenson drove down the wing and accelerated past the City full back, before centring from the goal line. ‘Higgins,’ recorded the Liverpool Echo, ‘hurled himself past Fagan to head the ball into the net – a mighty effort.’
‘He would have required the wings of a dove to fly far away from his colleague’s rapturous attention,’ wrote Ernest ‘Bee’ Edwards in the Echo. ‘They kissed him, they hugged him, they were aided in their congratulations by spectators entering the field to break all rules of a well-governed ground.’ It was, concurred ‘Stork’ in the same pages, ‘one of the greatest climaxes I have seen for an age.’
But if Higgins expected this to be a breakthrough goal, he was sorely disappointed. When Everton faced Chelsea in the fourth round tie, he was dropped in favour of Harry Catterick and first team outings thereafter remained as rare as ever.
In the summer of 1950, Higgins was approached by his former team mate Jock Dodds with an incredible proposition. Dodds had recently retired and was working as an agent for Colombian football clubs, who were awash with money at the time. Colombian teams had recently started acquiring some of the best foreign footballers in an attempt to boost the domestic league, luring them with vast wages. Because the country’s football association had left FIFA, they were free from the jurisdiction of football’s world governing body and could dispense with trifling matters like player registrations and transfer fees.
The wages on offer were extraordinary. Stoke’s England defender, Neil Franklin, was offered £5,000 per year, plus a £5,000 signing on fee, with half paid up front in sterling to join Santa Fe. Given that a maximum wage was still imposed, a First Division player like Higgins was lucky to earn one tenth of that in a good year. Higgins followed the cash and secretly signed for Millionarios, where – and this seems the most extraordinary detail of all – he partnered a young Alfredo di Stefano in attack.
The move was ill-fated, and like most of the so-called ‘Bogotá Bandits’ he suffered homesickness, returning to England after five months in an inevitable blaze of publicity. When he returned to the dockside, he and his two small children were met by a Pathé news crew, while his wife faced the cameras. ‘As the wife of a professional footballer we never know where we are going to be next,’ she said. ‘All I want is a home to settle down with the children.’
The FA invariably took a dim view – despite the players only seeking a fair wage for themselves and their families – and handed the bandits hefty bans. Everton interceded on Higgins’ behalf and got the ban reduced to six weeks – not that they intended on playing him again. Higgins was ostracised by the club and no other club would come in for such a notorious figure. There was talk of a move to Racing Club de Paris, before Higgins walked out of English football for a second time in December 1950 and joined Bangor City as a semi-professional