Hailed as the ‘new Tommy Lawton’ on his arrival at Goodison as an England schoolboy centre forward in May 1962, John Hurst made his name for Everton not as a striker but wing half, then central defender. In a lengthy – only thirteen men have made more first team appearances for Everton – and distinguished career, ‘Gentleman Jack’, the quiet man of the Everton dressing room, proved one of the First Division’s most impeccable and consistent defenders, winning a league title medal in 1970 and providing sterling service through the first half of the new decade.
After plying his trade in the Central League and winning an FA Youth Cup Winners medal in 1965, Hurst made the step up to the senior side in August 1965 when he was named twelfth man for the opening day clash with Northampton Town. He had to wait another week before making his debut as a substitute – the first in Everton’s history – for Fred Pickering in an away fixture to Stoke City. In this debut season, the teenager made 21 league appearances in a variety of roles, including wing half, centre back and centre forward, scoring twice, but failing to make a single appearance in Everton’s successful FA Cup run.
As Harry Catterick reshaped the cup winning team over the 1966/67 season, Hurst found himself a regular place as Brian Labone’s central defensive partner. Comfortable in possession, Hurst was an adept reader of the game, always more likely to make a timely interception than a last ditch tackle. The quietest member of the dressing room, his ascent seemed somehow less meteoric than some of less unassuming colleagues. But in March 1967, Hurst showed the football world his true value when he won the man of the match award in the FA Cup epic against Liverpool. Entering the game as a largely unknown twenty year old against Roger Hunt, a World Cup winner just months earlier, before more than 60,000 spectators Hurst proved unflustered and marked Hunt out of the game.
Everton subsequently fell in the FA Cup quarter finals, but Hurst’s Wembley chance came a year later, when he recovered from jaundice to play on the losing side in the 1968 Final. An ever present over the following two seasons, he played a crucial role in the 1969/70 Championship triumph, also weighing in with some vital goals. His goal against Manchester United in only the second game of the season was described by the Daily Post’s Horace Yates as ‘a perfect cross shot.’ Yates added: ‘Here one of the greatest destroyers in modern football showed that he had not forgotten the schoolboy days when he was England’s centre forward. A scorer also at Arsenal on Saturday, he firmly underlined his claims to all round status. His achievements made a mockery of the fact that Sir Alf Ramsey had named eight Everton players for his World Cup squad and still found it possible to omit Hurst.’
That Hurst’s international hopes did not progress beyond the England under-23 team can be attributed to the continued excellence of Bobby Moore, then Colin Todd in his position. But for Harry Catterick, Hurst was a vital figure in his talented emerging team in the late-1960s.
Speaking in a full and frank television interview in December 1969, he said of the defender: ‘John Hurst bolts up this defence along with Brian Labone. They play this twin centre half role so common in modern football. I think they compliment one and other very well. John has great defensive strengths because he’s so powerful, he’s very very good in the air and he reads play exceptionally well.’’
Catterick was always, however, a taskmaster and said that Hurst’s key weakness was a lack of self-belief. ‘He has far more ability than he displays at times,’ he added. ‘He has greater attacking flair and when this situation is on for him to break from the back, he rarely does it. When he does, it usually means trouble for the opposition.’
Hurst continued to excel for Everton and by 1975 was, along with Roger Kenyon, the sole survivor of the 1970 title win. However he was not part of Billy Bingham’s long-term plans and sold to Oldham Athletic in the summer 1976, aged 29. He provided five years of effective service at Boundary Park, retiring in 1981. He returned to Everton in 1995 as Youth Team coach under Joe Royle, later rejoining his former team mate when he took over as Manchester City manager.