There’s nothing special about the grave of Liverpool’s greatest goalkeeper. Nothing glamorous about the sullen tombstone or the weeds that threaten to overrun the plot. It does the job without fuss or frivolity. A bit like Elisha Scott himself.
These days Belfast feels cosmopolitan. Trendy pubs fight with upmarket retailers for space on its bustling streets. In 1893, however, it was a very different place. Women toiled thanklessly in the city’s ubiquitous flax mills, while men jostled for work outside the gates of Harland and Wolff shipyard. The prospects for Elisha Scott, one of 12 siblings born into a ramshackle house on the Donegall Road, were as grim as any other child born into the morass. Just as well, then, that he had a precociously talented brother to look up to.
Billy Scott was a brilliant goalkeeper who would go on to star for Everton and Leeds. He was an established league player by the time his younger brother was making his own name, wowing the critics as a shot-stopper for local outfit Broadway United.
In 1912, at Billy’s insistence, Everton manager Will Cuff took his younger brother to Merseyside for a trial. Cuff was unimpressed by the slight, five foot ten teenager standing before him, thinking him ill-prepared for the tumble and rigour of top-flight football. Downcast, Elisha readied himself for a return home, only to receive a surprise invitation from the club’s cross-town rivals.
Liverpool chairman ‘Honest’ John McKenna didn’t hesitate, signing the Belfast man almost immediately. The 19-year-old was placed in the reserves, serving as understudy to first-choice goalkeeper Kenneth Campbell. It would be New Year’s Day 1913 before he made his full debut in a 0-0 draw away to Newcastle. In his only appearance of the season, he earned rave reviews. “Hats off to Scott, Liverpool’s youthful guardian,” the Liverpool Echo enthused. “His debut was brilliant and a pleasing augury.” Indeed, Newcastle reportedly offered £1,000 for him on the spot. Needless to say, the Magpies were rebuffed.
Despite earning his side’s only away clean sheet of the season, Scott was relegated to the reserves once more as Campbell returned. It would be another 10 months before he completed his home debut, and a further year before he dislodged Campbell altogether. Just when Scott was cementing his place, Europe plunged into war. With league football suspended, he returned home to Belfast, signing terms with Linfield. It wasn’t long, however, before he made the switch that would begin a lifelong affiliation.
Belfast Celtic were formed in 1891, concocted by members of the Sentinel Cricket Club during a meeting at the city’s Beehive Bar. The team was an overnight success, winning the County Antrim Shield in 1895 before their admission to the Irish league two years later.
When Scott joined in 1916, they were the premier force in Irish football, having twice won the title. He was immovable between the sticks for the next two seasons, winning consecutive Irish Cups before Liverpool beckoned him back to Merseyside as the war ended.
Finally, Scott’s luck changed. He returned to a side packed with talent, a fearsome backline of Tommy Lucas, Ephraim Longworth and Donald Mackinlay augmented by Walter Wadsworth and Tom Bromilow in midfield. With the defence taking care of itself, the mesmeric winger Bill Lacey was free to torment opposition defences, creating chances for the lethal Harry Chambers to finish. Scott, however, became the team’s reference point, conceding the fewest number of goals of any goalkeeper in the division in 1921 as Liverpool finished fourth.
Over the next two years, he missed just three games as Liverpool won consecutive titles. His acrobatic saves and stern marshalling of the defence made him a fan favourite, with the Anfield crowd even dedicating its first ever individual chant in his honour. Cries of “Lish! Lish! Lish!” rang out incessantly, increasing with every spectacular save.
In a game against Blackburn Rovers in 1924, a supporter even ran onto the ground and kissed his face, so overjoyed was he with the bemused Irishman’s acrobatics. “Scott never exhibits tricks in goal,” marvelled the Daily Mail in a 1931 piece. “He catches balls that others would fist; he puts the ball over the bar for a corner when others would be spectacular in clearing. Scott never takes a chance.”
The Football Echo was similarly effusive, According to an article published in the Irish News in 2013, they “carried a cartoon in the late 20s depicting Elisha as a saint in a stained-glass window with the following inscription on it: ‘It matters not how hot the shot, How charged with sting the ball may be, Fast as they come he stops the lot And never lets them go Scott free’.”