Alex Young – The People’s Player.

alex-young

The monochrome format betrays the age of the film. A five year old girl is featured, centre screen. She looks at the camera.

A voice asks, “What does your daddy do?”

“Plays football,” she whispers, almost apologetically in reply.

“Who for?” she’s asked.

“Everton,” is the quiet reply

“Is he good?” The questioner goes on.

Yes,” she replies.

“What’s his name?” The gentle voice enquires.

The young girl smiles shyly. “Alex Young,” she says.

The sequence is the opening part of Ken Loach’s film entitled ‘The Golden Vision’. Released in 1968, it a tells of a group of Everton fans, their lifestyle and devotion to the club, spliced with film of Everton players, and a particular insight into Alex Young, the man whose nickname gave the film its title.

For many football fans, there’s a player who epitomises their club. There’ll be a consensus, unspoken but no less fervent for that, about him. He’s the player that you refer to in respectful tones. Not because he was the best player. It’s often the case that he may not have been; nor necessarily the top scorer or the inspirational skipper, but the player that did things as they should be done. He played the way you want all your players to play, and his attitude was the same. If you were a footballer, it’s how you’d be. For many Everton fans of a particular vintage, that player would be Alex Young.

Readers who find themselves a good few years short of the vintage in question may be asking themselves ‘Who?’ It’s one of those situations where you had to be around at the time to understand fully. You need to have experienced, been able to touch and taste the times to have appreciated what the player given the soubriquet ‘The Golden Vision’ meant – and still means – to many Evertonians, but here’s an illustration. When votes were being cast some years ago for who should be regarded as the club’s Millennium Giant of the 1960s, flame-haired Alan Ball, he of the famed triumvirate alongside Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey and of course ‘1966 and all that’ came second. The winner was Alex Young.

The adoration of Young however is not purely some blue-tinted nostalgia, for an era when – ahead of the full effects of Bill Shankly’s arrival being felt across Stanley Park – Everton were the top Merseyside club, winning the title for the first time since the war in 1963, and doing the same with the FA Cup three years later. There’s much more to it than that though. Yes, there’s a touch of ‘the good old days’ about it, but that doesn’t explain it all, not by a long way.

Consider some more illustrations from a couple of tales of the time. Manager Harry Catterick was considered to have had a less than entirely cordial relationship with Young, and when he dropped the Scot In favour of the emerging talents of a young Joe Royle, fans were said to have been so upset that they jostled Catterick in the car park at Bloomfield Road where Everton were playing Blackpool. It’s also said that the Gwladys Street End fans once booed legendary centre-half and club stalwart Brian Labone, after the defender had accidentally injured Young during training.

So, what was it about Alex Young that inspired – and still inspires – such fan adoration? For sure there was an elegance about his play. A style described in the Liverpool Echo back in 2008 as being, “…as close as any single player to embodying the essence of the Soccer School of Science.” Adding that, “He stroked the ball, rather than kicked it.” At the time, Everton were lauded as the School of Science, and there’s little doubt that Young added to the lustre of that description. That only tells part of the story though and a useful way to illustrate this is by reference to Loach’s film.

When reviewing the film for this article, I realised that I had seen it many years ago. The docu-drama, splices real-life filming around Everton Football Club with fictional accounts of a group of Toffees’ fans. It’s a typical piece of social comment output by Loach, offering what he perceives as an insight into the working-class world of the day, focusing on the prevailing social mores that some would consider distasteful by modern standards. Particularly poignant for me, is the character of Johnny Coyne. Johnny is a twelve year-old boy, befriended by an elderly – soon to pass on – Everton-supporting neighbour who gifted to the youngster a gentle but knowledgeable affection for Everton, contrasting somewhat with the more robust support of his father and friends, but no less passionate for that. I say this as back in 1968 I was the same age as Johnny, and coming of age as a football fan.

I do therefore have an appreciation of the times, and although any kind of social analysis is a hazardous occupation, especially when using sporting matters as a metaphor, it’s tempting to try. To tread the tightrope of perceived logic with emotional exuberance to one side and imagined clarity of thought on the other, there’s an inherent danger of falling. Worse still, is the peril that you may end up straddling the rope with a foot firmly planted in each of those approaches. Nevertheless, there’s something in Loach’s film that suggests to me at least a possible rationale for the position of Alex Young, deep in the hearts of the Goodison Park faithful.

Shifting between the images of Everton training under the driving guidance of Wilf Dixon, and accounts of the fans’ working environments in the factories of Merseyside, there’s an unspoken symmetry between the conditions experienced. Particularly prominent in this is the ‘face to camera’ interviews with Alex Young. Erudite, but quietly spoken and understated, Young relates how his upbringing north of the border was very much of the same sort of apparently ‘endless grind in grime’ that the fans in the film are portrayed as enduring.

The son of a mine worker, a similar future was on the cards at the Burghee Colliery for Young before he signed as a professional with Hearts. Even then, for a while he fitted both occupations into a full day and night existence. In the 1957-58 season Young turned out in every single Hearts game, but if you look at then squad picture for that year, he is absent. When the photographers turned up, he was underground at Burghlee being what he described, with typical modesty, as a “hopeless engineer.”

The experience seems to have influenced his outlook on life. In one of his pieces in the film, Young states that the life of a professional footballer is “a hard grind.” It’s a description that the fans in the film would apply to their own working environments. The striker goes on to add that, “After a few years, when you weigh it up, you think, well, maybe there’s something better you can do.” Again, few of the fans in the film would disagree.

As mentioned, Young’s relationship with his manager Harry Catterick was often cool at best. Despite the reverence of the fans, a lack of appreciation by others was something that would follow Young in his career. A developing potential with the Jam Tarts of Edinburgh was given a massive boost when he netted four goals in a game against cross-city rivals Hibernian. Interviewed many years later by The Scotsman, Young related a report of the game that originally only credited him with a hat-trick. “They said I scored three, but it was four,” he told the newspaper. “Jackie Plenderleith, their centre half, was sort of sliding in, but I got there first. I toe-poked it in. I had an exceptional game that day. Everything went right. The pitch was hard, and I seemed to stand up better than the rest. The Hibs guys were falling down a lot, and I was sort of… floating through.” The description is one that would very much chime with Everton fans.

Young would go on to score 23 goals that season as Hearts secured the Scottish title, and the player would earn a £42,000 move down south to Goodison, as part of a £55,000 combined deal that also took George Thompson to Merseyside. At the time, some pundits doubted that his languid style would cut the mustard in England. A number of Scottish commentators suggested he was too inconsistent, with a tendency to drift into the periphery. For a time at Goodison, Catterick seemed to be one of those doubters. The fans in the film are portrayed as having a not dissimilar relationship with their bosses. Perhaps aware of the similarity, a number of Loach’s scripted encounters neatly illustrate this.

Whether it was the lack of support of the manager, his upbringing, the particular and peculiar life of being a professional footballer or some other factor influencing the demeanour of Young in the film, there’s an undeniable dissatisfaction with his lot; not a frustration, more perhaps an unfulfilled need that provokes an angst suggesting something akin to a tortured soul, ill at ease with himself. Young would suffer a career-long condition with blisters on his feet, as if wearing ill-fitting boots. His demeanour is suggestive of a similar condition with his perceived situation.

Away from the world of work, there’s a certain distance between the attitudes of Young and the fans portrayed in the film. Whilst the player laments afternoons with nothing to do, but sit at home “…drinking endless cups of tea” there’s a vivid contrast with the fans who see home more as a staging point between visits to work, the pub and of course watching Everton. Is Loach’s perceptive direction however displaying this not as a difference, but more of a progression as to what a potential social progress could offer, Young with his footballing career and car, albeit a Mini, representing the aspiration, but still a similar scenario? It’s a theme echoed at the end of the film.

It would however be folly purely to consider Young in a social science sense. After all his football ability is what put him in his position and his record at Everton is certainly well above the mediocre. Perhaps with his achievements at the club, and the honours secured at the time, there may be sufficient evidence there alone to understand the esteem in which Young is held.

After signing in November 1960, his best period probably came around the 1962-63 season when a striking partnership with skipper Roy Vernon took Everton to the First Division title. Young contributed 22 league goals. He also secured an FA Cup Winner’s medal when the club became the first ever to turn around a two goal deficit in the final, defeating Sheffield Wednesday in 1966. When he left Everton two years later, he’d played 273 times for the club, notching 87 goals. It’s a decent record for sure, but hardly the sort of statistics to justify the the devotion of fans such as that offered by Evertonians to Young. There has to be more to it than that.

Danny Blanchflower, who played at the time, once said of Alex Young that, “The view every Saturday that we have of a more perfect world, a world that has got a pattern and is finite. And that’s Alex – the Golden Vision,” And perhaps that eloquent turn of phrase almost captures the essence of what Young means to Everton fans. Is it something that Loach noticed and displayed for our entertainment – and education – in his film?

A player who struggled with a career-long problem with blisters, meaning every half-time break was spent on the treatment table, and was described by Jimmy Greaves of being like “Nureyev on grass” is someone who suffered for his art. A player who the ‘Toffee Web’ website describes as being, “like a bank clerk made out of Dresden, a Greek God with wispy waves of short blond hair” has achieved almost the status of a deity, but one that people can identify with, and perhaps that’s it.

Today’s footballers exist in a world that any number of fans cannot understand, let alone aspire to. Alex Young however, with humble upbringing, struggling with the nagging discomfort of blisters every time he put his boots on, with a seemingly troubled soul and yet displaying an elevated grace on the field offers a vision – a Golden Vision – that is attainable.

Ken Loach’s film ends with a dreamlike sequence where actor Ken Jones, portraying one of the fans, is casually approached by Everton to “help them out” as they’ve had a few injuries. Could he possibly turn out at centre forward for them on Saturday? Calmly almost reluctantly – at least on the outside – Jones agrees. The film then shows him playing, significantly with Young’s number nine on his shirt, against Sheffield United and of course scoring. There it is.

Tottenham fans rejoice in acclaiming Harry Kane as ‘one of our own.’ Born in Scotland, Young has very little Scouse in his veins, but perhaps a large amount of it in his soul. In a significant way, he’s an image of one of the fans who ‘made it’. In the film, the fans are portrayed as being unquestioningly content with their lot. Holes in the social fabric are patched with ennui, and stitched together by a love of their football club. Sated with football, beer and an ability to lock out their disadvantaged positions, Young is not only the man who painted entrancing pictures for their dreams, he did so with a grace and elegance.

Above I refer to how Everton were once lauded as the ‘School of Science’, latterly they label themselves as ‘The People’s Club’. If that appellation is apposite, then was Alex Young the People’s Player? Almost fifty years after leaving Goodison Park, perhaps that, in some small measure, is why The Golden Vision remains crystal clear in the minds of Everton fans.

(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘The Football Pink’ magazine. Alex Young passed away earlier this week and, as a tribute, the article is being featured in the Everton FC fanzine ‘When Skies are Grey’).

 

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