The Mersey Millionaires: Everton’s incredible class of 1963

The Mersey Millionaires: Everton’s incredible class of 1963

Almost 22 years had elapsed since Everton, one of the Football League’s most successful teams, had last laid their hands on a trophy. The title had been claimed in 1939 but since then, Everton had suffered the ignominy of relegation to the Second Division in 1951. Despite returning to the top flight in 1954, they had yet to achieve a top-half finish.

The only source of consolation for the success-starved supporters was the fact that deadly rivals Liverpool were becalmed in the division below having been relegated the same season that Everton were promoted. Such a fortuitous alignment of the stars will probably never happen again.

Everton started to make considerable progress during the 1960/61 season and, backed by the financial resources of John Moores, the Littlewoods Pools magnate, funds had been provided for new manager Johnny Carey to mount a serious title challenge. By December 1960, Everton had climbed to second place and were many pundit’s favourites to win the title.

However, after beating Burnley 3-1 on Boxing Day, they lost their next seven games and didn’t win again in the league until 4 March. The writing was on the wall for Carey. Although his team had garnered a reputation for playing entertaining football, Moores had arrived at the conclusion that Carey wasn’t ruthless enough; not the winner he needed. 

In mid-April, Moores and the manager travelled to London for a meeting at the Football Association on the proposed abolition of the maximum wage. In the taxi ride from Euston station, Carey demanded that Moores clarify his position. He did: Carey was out of a job. Ever since that fateful conversation, the cry of “Taxi for” is heard from the fans when they want the manager dismissed.

Moores had taken a bold gamble. Carey was hugely popular amongst Everton fans and there was general dismay at the decision to dismiss him. At the next home game, for which he was still in charge, Moores was booed and slow-claps echoed as chants of “we want Carey” could be heard emanating from the terraces.

Moores was a brilliant businessman and, as the pioneer who had founded Littlewoods Pools, at the time the largest private company in the United Kingdom and the largest employer on Merseyside, he was used to getting what he wanted. He had already provided significant funds for Everton to compete in the transfer market and he now wanted a return on that investment. “If we don’t do well then something should be done about it – and something will be done about it,” said the owner. Just 48 hours later, Moores had appointed his new manager.

Moores couldn’t have failed to notice that title-winning Burnley in 1960 and Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1958 and 1959 were managed by ex-players in Harry Potts and Stan Cullis. These were men who had been brought up on the traditions of their clubs and were famed for being strict disciplinarians. As a result, Moores knew what he was looking for.

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Most commentators believed that Joe Mercer, who had played for the club when they last won the league and was now managing Aston Villa, matched the criteria perfectly, confidently predicting his appointment. However, it was to be another ex-Everton player who was to assume the mantle. Mercer, it seemed, was never in Moores’ plans.

Across the Pennines, Sheffield Wednesday were enjoying their most successful season in years. In April 1961, they were lying in second place and were the only side to challenge Tottenham for the title. Their manager, Harry Catterick, led the club to promotion in 1959 and the FA Cup semi-final a year later, building a successful side on a strict budget.

However, he was deeply unhappy with the lack of support from the board at Wednesday. In December 1960 he wanted to sign striker Joe Baker from Hibernian but the directors refused to pay the fee demanded. Catterick felt that Baker’s goals would deliver the title, and he started to question whether the club’s ambition matched his own. He felt they were more concerned with improving the stadium, not the team.

After their chairman backtracked on an offer to increase his salary, Catterick resigned on 10 April 1961. Sheffield Wednesday have never finished as high again in the top-flight since his departure. Indeed, Owls fans of a certain age still wonder what might have been.

In a supreme twist of irony, Catterick’s first game in charge of Everton was away at Sheffield Wednesday, with his new side winning 2-1. That defeat ended any slender hopes the Hillsborough side had of winning the League.

Everton ended the season in fifth place but a massive 16 points behind the eventual champions, Tottenham. Catterick took his new side on a tour of the United States and the players were soon left in no doubt that the new boss was keen to impose a strict regime of discipline.

Roy Vernon had been Everton’s leading scorer with 21 goals but he had a reputation for defying authority. Vernon chose to test Catterick’s resolve when he breached a curfew during the tour. The manager sent him home the next day. His teammates, stunned at the draconian sanction, realised that things had changed. Where Carey adopted a laconic approach to such matters, Catterick made it clear that anyone challenging his authority would be looking for a new club.

Catterick believed that he possessed a talented set of players at Everton but that inconsistency and a lack of discipline were endemic. He started to remedy this immediately. Any player who was not living up to expectations would be summoned to a meeting with Catterick in a small room underneath the Main Stand, where they would receive a verbal lashing. Never afraid to use a touch of psychology, Catterick made them wait for up to an hour before he appeared. It soon gained the nickname “The Bollocking Room”.

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Carey had used Moores’ riches to bring some talented payers to the club. He signed the likes of Roy Vernon, Alex Parker, Billy Bingham, Alex Young and Jimmy Gabriel. They would play an important role for Catterick in the coming campaigns. In addition, midfield dynamo Bobby Collins, a record signing from Celtic, looked set to be a key figure in the manager’s plans.

Catterick reinstated top scorer Vernon to the side but, after a convincing 2-0 home win against Aston Villa, Everton proceeded to win only one of their next seven games and had slumped to 20th in the table. Fans’ doubts regarding the sacking of Carey made a swift return.

Catterick’s methods, however, soon started to pay dividends as they lost just two of their next 17 games, culminating in a devastating 3-0 destruction of double-winning Tottenham. By year’s end, Everton were in second place, but a disastrous February, in which they didn’t win a game, saw them drop to fifth. Catterick decided to act and got the chequebook out again, paying Blackpool £27,500 for a 19-year-old Gordon West – a British record fee for a goalkeeper – to replace the inconsistent Albert Dunlop.

At the same time, he also paid Bolton Wanderers £35,000 for inside-forward Dennis Stevens – the cousin of Duncan Edwards – with Catterick having reservations about club captain Bobby Collins. The Scot had long been a fans’ favourite, almost on a par with Alex Young, with his combination of skill and aggression. He had scored 18 goals during the previous campaign, however, a series of niggling injuries had caused him to miss 11 games by the end of November and Catterick was pondering that perhaps the 31-year old’s powers were on the wane.

Collins returned to the side in December and scored six goals in his next eight games but the manager’s mind was not for turning. He confronted the player and told him he was no longer the footballer he used to be, with the Scot overcome by rage. Collins was a man who could teach Sicilians a thing or two about holding grudges, as both Catterick and Everton were to discover over the next few seasons.

In March, Collins signed for Don Revie’s Leeds, who were playing in the Second Division, although so highly rated was he by other managers that Bill Shankly tried to sign him for Liverpool. Over 15 years later, Catterick would later reveal in an interview that he understood that Billy Bremner would be travelling to Goodison as part of the deal, only for Revie to renege on the agreement.

Catterick later accepted that he made a lapse of judgement in selling Collins, who was to become a constant thorn in Everton’s side as he led the Leeds revolution under Revie. In a final riposte to Catterick, he was honoured with the Footballer of the Year award in 1965 at the age of 34.

After Collins’ departure, Everton only won five of their remaining 12 fixtures and didn’t win any of their six remaining away games. The Toffees’ poor form was to cost them dearly as they only won three games on their travels and crucially lost four – two at Portman Road to the eventual champions, Ipswich. Everton finished in their highest post-war position of fourth, just five points behind the leaders, but there was the sense that they’d missed out. Despite that, Catterick’s methods were starting to have an impact.

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There was a real sense of optimism amongst Everton fans that 1962/63 could finally be their year. A crowd of 69,500 packed into Goodison saw them beat Manchester United 3-1 in the opening fixture of the season. Catterick hadn’t made any signings during the summer, so the starting line-up remained West, Meagan, Thompson, Gabriel, Labone, Harris, Bingham, Stevens, Young, Vernon and Veall.

Moores had already made his expectations clear in his programme notes, stating clearly: “Nothing below top place will satisfy.” The manager was on notice. Although Ipswich were the champions, it was Tottenham and Burnley who were identified as the main threats to Everton.

Catterick still felt the side needed a winger, remaining unconvinced that Ray Veall was the answer. After a move for Chelsea’s Peter Brabrook fell through, the manager found a solution closer to home. He decided to swoop for 22-year-old Johnny Morrisey, who was playing for Liverpool. Catterick was a master of subterfuge and decided against dealing with his rival Bill Shankly. Instead, in an impressive legere de main, persuaded the Liverpool directors to sanction the transfer. Shankly was so incensed he offered his resignation. The board never went behind his back again.

Catterick had made another big decision at the start of the season. Vernon, the top scorer for the last two seasons, was made captain. The player had clashed with his manager several times so Catterick hoped that by giving the Welshman more responsibility, it would encourage him to control his lack of discipline.

Vernon was famously anti-authoritarian and every Monday morning would walk into the changing room and tick off the list of club rules that he had broken over the weekend. He was an inveterate smoker and allegedly had perfected the knack of smoking in the shower without getting his cigarette wet. Catterick tried to frighten Vernon into giving up by sending him for a medical examination with a high ranking consultant who looked suitably concerned after examining the player’s chest x-ray. As he put his shirt back on, Vernon coolly lit up a cigarette. Nevertheless, the decision to appoint him captain worked as Vernon was to play a decisive role that season.

Everton made a blistering start to the season, winning six of their first seven fixtures and were top of the table at the start of September. Ironically, they also suffered their heaviest defeat of the season, losing 3-0 at Leyton Orient who were managed by none other than John Carey.

A crowd of over 72,400 packed into Goodison Park to witness the first Merseyside derby for eight years in which Johnny Morrisey repaid the manager’s faith by scoring in a 2-2 draw. The only real blip thus far had been Everton’s unexpected 2-1 aggregate defeat to Dunfermline Athletic, who were managed by Jock Stein, in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Catterick went ballistic after the defeat and ordered the team to train early the next morning. 

A draw away to Tottenham in November and a home win against Burnley in December ensured that points were taken off two of their title rivals and, as the new year approached Everton, lay top of the table.

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Britain was about to experience its coldest winter since 1739 as an Arctic freeze enveloped the country, decimating the football schedule in the process. Temperatures dropped to 20 degrees below zero and snowdrifts of up to 15 feet were commonplace. Indeed, the English Channel froze off the Kent coast.

This meant that Everton went from 22 December until 12 February without playing a league game. Catterick correctly anticipated that this would inevitably lead to a fixture backlog and decided to add some reinforcements to his squad. In December he returned to Sheffield Wednesday to buy the brilliant left-half Tony Kay for a club record fee of £55,000. Catterick always steadfastly maintained that Kay was his best ever signing. 

In addition, Everton and Tottenham were rivals to sign skilful winger Alex Scott from Rangers. Bill Nicholson thought he had sealed the deal but the persuasive Catterick convinced Scott to change his mind as he became an Everton player for a fee of £40,000.

The Big Freeze had also caused an unexpected headache for John Moores. The lack of football fixtures meant that the Football Pools industry had lost an estimated £12m pounds in revenue in just four weeks. They had to think of an alternative way to keep the money flowing, and a meeting of the Pools Promoters Association came up with the simple but novel idea of creating an expert Pools Panel who would forecast the results if more than 31 games were cancelled.

When winter finally relinquished its grip on the country, Everton played their next game away at Leicester City, losing 3-1. Somehow the Foxes had managed to complete six matches during Everton’s enforced period of inactivity and were now lying top of the table. It wasn’t going to last.

Everton, with Tony Kay taking the place of Brian Harris in midfield and Alex Scott being given the right wing ahead of Billy Bingham, started to catch up. The fixture backlog meant that Everton were to play at least two games every week to complete the season, but this regular, competitive schedule appeared to help. Despite that, they remained stuck in third place behind Tottenham and Leicester throughout March and most of April.

The team stumbled slightly towards the end of March, losing to Sheffield United and Arsenal and being dispatched from the FA Cup by West Ham. Nevertheless, this meant that Everton now only had the league to concentrate on, which removed the complication of additional fixture congestion. In contrast, Tottenham were still in the Cup Winners’ Cup and Leicester had the FA Cup to contend with.

Everton survived a difficult away clash at Anfield on 8 April, emerging with a valuable point in a gritty draw, before the crucial Easter period saw them play four games in eight days culminating with the visit of Tottenham to Goodison. Four days later, Liverpool offered their rivals a helping hand as they crushed the Londoners 5-2 at Anfield. The following day, Everton earned a crucial away win at Blackpool.

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People were desperate to get their hands on tickets for the big Tottenham clash on 20 April, billed as the title decider. In the Liverpool Echo, stories emerged of people allegedly paying an incredible £100 for a ticket and featured one supporter who even swapped his Ford Anglia car for a chance to see the game. Over 67,000 crammed into Goodison Park, with thousands more milling outside the ground.

The game was gripping with Tony Kay superb in midfield. Everton’s talisman, Alex Young, delivered, scoring the only goal of the game with a trademark header from a cross delivered by Roy Vernon. It was Young’s 22nd goal of the campaign. Legend has it the roar of the crowd when the ball hit the back of the net could be heard all over the city. Everton were two points clear with five games remaining. They were top and stayed there for the rest of the season.

Everton won three of their next four games but Tottenham also won their next two fixtures so when Fulham came to Goodison for the final game of the season on 11 May, the Blues needed a win to guarantee the title. Everton duly delivered, winning 4-1 thanks to a hat-trick from captain Vernon, who had contributed another impressive tally of 24 goals as Tottenham lost away at Manchester City to hand the crown to Everton.

At the end of the game, the players, the manager and the chairman emerged onto the Main Stand to deliver a champagne toast to the ecstatic crowd. Such was the frenzied atmosphere that Moores had lost his hat after celebrating the second goal and proceeded to shout himself hoarse for the rest of the game. 

Catterick had always stressed the importance of outstanding home form if you were to win the First Division, revelling in the fact that Everton didn’t lose a single home game all season for the first time in their history. Vernon and Young were a lethal strike duo that took them to the title, notching 46 of Everton’s 84 goals. The signing of Gordon West also provided Everton with a top-class goalkeeper, with the defence conceding just 42 goals, 20 less than Spurs. It was a season of records as Everton amassed 61 points – their biggest total at the time – and the average gate at Goodison Park exceeded 50,000, to this day a record.

Everton’s title win was treated with grudging respect by many commentators outside the city, who labelled Catterick’s side as the “Cheque Book Champions” with insinuations that they had used the financial resources of John Moores to buy the league. Everton spent in the region of £290,000 to assemble their side but other clubs – namely Manchester United and Tottenham – had spent £115,000 and £99,999 on Denis Law and Jimmy Greaves alone, failing to reinforce other areas of their teams.

With the maximum wage now abolished and the transfer market in England having been reformed with players no longer bound by the retain and transfer system, the Football League had been revolutionised. Quickly, the big city sides with their wealthy backers would dominate the honours. Everton were merely the trendsetters.

Perhaps the final words should go to Harry Catterick himself, who told the Liverpool Echo: “We won the title as I wanted to win it, with brilliant teamwork, sound methodical football, and brimming confidence.”

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

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