For a period in the 1920s Warneford (Warney) Cresswell held the distinction of being the most expensive footballer in the world. The elegant defender, dubbed the ‘Prince of full backs’, signed for Everton as he was about to advance into the veteran stage of his career but nevertheless shone for nine years, encompassing more than 300 appearances, and winning every honour available to an inter-war footballer.
Born and raised in South Tyneside, Cresswell represented South Shields and England Schoolboys as a youngster, but the outbreak of the First World War, when he was aged 17, prevented the onset of his professional football career.
He guested for Scottish clubs Morton, Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian, as well as Tottenham Hotspur, during the war and when peace came he signed for South Shields, then of the Second Division. He played just under 100 games for the club before the record transfer to Sunderland in 1922 – the £5500 fee they paid their neighbours beating a record set earlier that year, when the forward Syd Puddefoot left West Ham for Falkirk for £5000.
CRESSWELL was by then an England international and would collect seven caps over the period 1921–29. He came close to winning the league title with an accomplished Sunderland team, which finished third three times as well as runners-up during his time at Roker Park. In February 1927 Everton bid £4900 for the full back in an attempt to plug a defence that would leak 90 goals by the end of the season.
Surprisingly Sunderland accepted and Cresswell – who remained the most expensive player in the world until Bolton’s David Jack joined Arsenal for £10,890 the following year – became an Everton player and was appointed captain. His experience and composure helped lift Everton from a relegation battle.
The impact he made on a talented but erratic team has often been overlooked because of Dixie Dean’s staggering goalscoring feats during the 1927/28 season. In scoring 60 goals Dean won Everton the League Championship and bought himself footballing immortality. But Everton’s defence shipped 24 fewer goals with Cresswell in the side compared to a year earlier. His nickname in Sunderland had been ‘the iceberg’, because of his cool demeanour when faced by attackers. He was entirely unflappable, repelling opposition attacks and mopping up what others left behind. Always one to favour a timely interception to a desperate lunge, he was soon attracting plaudits.
‘Cresswell was the more polished, and at times he seemed to carry his nonchalance to excess,’ wrote the Liverpool Post and Mercury of his performance in the first game of the 1927/28 season, against Sheffield Wednesday. ‘But he was always quick to recover, and often to the surprise of his opponents.’
In 15 months as an Everton player Cresswell achieved what he had frequently threatened – but never managed – in five years at Roker Park – the League Championship. On awarding the trophy to him in May 1928, League President John McKenna – once an Everton committeeman before the notorious split of 1892 – paid tribute to a team that had been dominated by Dean’s goals. ‘I need not tell you what a pleasure it is for me to be here to present this cup, this is the third time Everton have achieved championship honours,’ he said from the steps of the Goodison Main Stand. ‘The first time was thirty-seven years ago, in 1891. The team that won then were a similar body of experts at their business as the present team and they were the same again because they were gentlemen on and off the field. I congratulate the directors on having such a fine team and also for showing such fine judgement in selecting the players. It is a policy that Everton have always followed to get the best and place them on the field. The team are a credit to the club, a credit to themselves and to the game they play.’ Cresswell responded: ‘As captain I am proud to receive the cup, it has been a great season, and if all goes well I hope we achieve the self-same honour next season.’
YET EVERTON suffered an alarming decline after their title win. They finished the 1928/29 season 18th and came bottom in the 1929/30 campaign. The slide baffled as much as it hurt but it precipitated one of the most successful periods in the club’s history – three trophies in three years: the 1930/31 Division Two title, the League Championship a year later and the 1933 FA Cup.
Cresswell, by now in his mid-thirties, was integral to Everton’s renaissance. His ‘coolness and methodical football was one of the features’, noted one observer of his performances, who added that he helped present ‘an almost insurmountable barrier’ to his opponents.
THE FA CUP WIN was the crowning glory of a distinguished career, but Cresswell suffered surprising pre-match nerves. As kick-off approached, the mood in the Everton dressing room was one of high excitement and nerves and Cresswell asked to leave the room. According to Will Cuff he asked a police constable if there was a private room where he could smoke before going onto the pitch, ‘To settle me nerves, d’ye know, man!’ The policeman obliged, Creswell smoked his pipe and went off to join his team-mates, and was the day’s most consummate performer.
‘[City inside forward Alec] Herd, tried at centre-forward, ploughing a lonely field and doing best with his head, but being utterly unable to get through the avenue that was “surrounded” by [Tommy] White, Cresswell, and [Billy] Cook,’ wrote one Merseyside correspondent. ‘City piled on pressure and pace without finality; the more they tried the more they broke their own curbed belief; they ran into the clinches; they were easy prey for two men of direct opposite tastes in defence; Cook the lover of the lusty kick and Cresswell the fine-art dealer who with head and the took all raids as his special pleasure. He shattered them all.’
Cresswell was the team’s steadying influence,’ recalled Joe Mercer years later. ‘Apparently wise and imperturbable as an owl.
Everton’s board, however, could be entirely ruthless. The next season Everton faded to mediocrity again. A poor performance in an FA Cup third round defeat at Tottenham, in which Cresswell was responsible for a goal, had alarm bells sounding. The Liverpool Post and Mercury correspondent wrote: ‘Cresswell battling bravely and at times very cleverly was not always secure.’ ‘Pilot’ writing in the Evening Express went further: ‘Everton’s dismissal from the F.A. Cup by 3-0 at Tottenham may in time, prove a blessing in disguise. Although it was by no means an inglorious failure, the match showed up weaknesses in the Everton side – weaknesses which have been duly noted by the ruling officials – and I anticipate that immediate action will be taken to remedy them. I know that the directors have made up their
minds to infuse more youth into the League meet tomorrow night some sensational changes may be made. It must not be imagined that the directors are disgusted at the Cup failure. They are not. They think, however, that now is the time to set the Goodison house in order, and even if they fail in their bid to secure new men, especially forwards, I have reason to believe that some youngsters will be given a chance to make a name for themselves.’
These proved prescient words indeed and for the next game, at Sheffield Wednesday, Cresswell lost his place to Ben Williams. Although he regained his place for a period the next season, it marked the beginning of the end for Cresswell at Goodison. Through the 1935/36 season he made just four appearances for the first team and was starting to eye managerial positions. His last games for Everton came in the Liverpool Senior Cup Final against Liverpool, with the clubs sharing the trophy after tying a replay 1-1. ‘Williams and Cresswell proved sound and cool and got through a lot of work, rarely putting a foot wrong,’ recorded the Post and Mercury.
A month later Cresswell became Port Vale manager. He had already shown his aptitude for spotting fresh talent while at Goodison. In one of his Central League appearances, against Stoke City, he spent the first half being given the run-around by an unknown youngster who had been hugging the Stoke City flank. At half-time, a club director happened to be in the dressing room and Cresswell urged him to snap his opponent up: ‘You see this boy. Go and buy him. Sell the Royal Liver Building to get him if you have to – but get him.’ The young pretender was Stanley Matthews.
AT PORT VALE, he introduced strict fitness-based training methods and after a year moved to Northampton Town, where he was in charge until the outbreak of the Second World War. Post-war he drifted into non-league football and when work dried up he returned to his native Northeast, running a Sunderland pub. His son, Corbet Cresswell, was in the Bishop Auckland team that won the FA Vase three years in a row in the 1950s and his great granddaughter, Kate Haywood, is an Olympic swimmer, named BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year in 2003. In 2006 she was a Commonwealth Games silver medallist.