An Everton giant...
It was an absolute honour for me to speak to Everton legend Joe Royle this week, who spoke openly and honestly to me about his time as a player, manager, and most importantly, being an Evertonian...
“I’m actually quite embarrassed when people call me a legend” Joe tells me. I believe him.
But I couldn’t disagree with his modesty more. Joe Royle is a bona fide Everton Football Club Legend, in every sense of the word.
“It’s very nice when people call me a legend, and I’m very proud of it, but I always say the same thing – you better invent a new word for the likes of Roy Vernon, Alex Young, and Alan Ball because they were all far better players than me!”
Whether he likes it or not, he is officially listed by the club as an Everton Giant, a title given for his exceptional contribution to the club. Once the club's youngest ever player, he would go on to score over 100 goals for Everton, becoming a league winner in the process, and as is well-documented, still the last manager to bring silverware to Goodison Park.
When Joe Royle speaks - Evertonians listen. I could have listened to Joe Royle talk all night.
It is often said that your heroes will ultimately disappoint you and that they may not live up to your expectations when you encounter them in real life. I would be amazed if any Evertonian has ever said that after coming into contact with Joe Royle. Joe is warm, friendly, and approachable, exactly how I imagined he would be. He was aware that I was just an amateur writer, yet still gave up a large chunk of his evening to answer all of my questions, with patience, honesty, and fascinating detail.
“Listen, we’re Evertonians aren’t we?” he said.
It’s clear from the off how much Everton still means to Joe, the club he has supported all of his life, and still holds as close to his heart now as he has ever done, as a player or manager.
“They used to say I was a Manchester Utd supporter you know, all because I had once proclaimed that Bobby Charlton was my favourite player, which I would still stand by, to be honest. Although, later on playing with Alan Ball made me realise that Bally was in fact the best, the best that we have all seen.”
“When I was 13/14 years old and various clubs were knocking on the door, there was only one place I ever wanted to go and that was Everton. When I first went down to the John Moores centre with my mum and dad, John Moores and Harry Catterick walked into the room and said that they wanted to sign me and had a contract ready for me to sign there and then, that was it, that was the start of a wonderful, beautiful relationship.
Everton is ingrained in my family, my mother’s brother was chairman of the Everton shareholders’ association, my grandfather too was Everton mad and would be in a foul mood if ever we lost. Everton has been a way of life for me, quite simply. I never had much choice, but I never wanted a choice! Everton is a family thing, it was meant to be and I wouldn’t change a day of it.
There were highs and lows, don’t get me wrong, I have actually left Everton three times. Twice against my will, but nevertheless, like a homing pigeon I still find myself sat in the stands at Goodison Park.”
As we exchange some brief family stories, Joe laughs when I tell him of the day of my grandmother's wedding; her father never walked her down the aisle on her big day, because Everton were playing at home!
“Both mine and Bill Kenwright’s families are from Norris Green and they worked in the Co-op laundry together, Bill’s mother and my father were very good friends. I’m still in touch with people at the club, there’s not a week that goes by that I don’t speak to Bill Kenwright and David Unsworth. Everton has always been a part of my life and that has never changed.”
Not only was Joe Royle introduced to the Everton fold as the clubs youngest ever player at the time, but he had the unenviable task of directly replacing a certain Alex Young, when he made his debut in 1966 against Blackpool. Did replacing such an Everton idol on his debut, at such a young age, add even more pressure to such a huge occasion, I wondered?
“Replacing Alex Young was hard, but to be fair there were a few left out that day. I remember the day I found out, I was cleaning boots in the boot room with Roger Kenyon, we had our overalls on and then was told that Harry Catterick wanted to see me. I didn’t know what to expect, usually if the boss wanted to see you it was because you were in trouble! When I went in to see him he had my dad on the phone and told us both that he wanted me to play in the first team the following day to replace Alex Young. I was absolutely gobsmacked. I cannot remember much after that, most nights I walked home from training through the cemetery with a Mars bar, but I certainly don’t remember that journey!”
Joe would go on to score over 100 goals for Everton, and he laughs as the excitable Evertonian inside me couldn’t help but ask; what is it like to score in a Merseyside Derby against Liverpool?
“I scored against Liverpool for Everton, Bristol City and Manchester City and I loved it! I loved scoring goals against anybody, I remember most of the goals; the goal that kick-started things for me was when Ron Yeats had been in the paper the night before saying how he had never had a problem playing against me and I’d always been in his pocket, then I jumped all over him and Ray Clemence and headed one in. Then I went down to Tommy Smith’s club that night to celebrate!”
We spoke about a game against Stoke City in 1971, a 2-0 win with goals from Royle and Alan Whittle. Joe hit the crossbar twice with 2 headers and then bundled one over the line later on, past Gordon Banks.
“Six yard goals count just as much as a 40 yard screamer you know!”
“I was never what I would call a ‘natural goalscorer’. It sounds immodest but I was a natural footballer, I had played wing-half, centre-half, outside-left and outside-right for Liverpool Boys. They only ever played me up front when they were chasing games, until the later games because when I did go up front I invariably scored. Tom Saunders who was the Liverpool Boys Manager at the time and later went on to be the head of the Liverpool FC academy, told me I would never make it as a centre forward.”
“Bob Latchford was a natural goal scorer, he would score goals in a five-a-side match on the moon, all he worried about was scoring goals and he was a six-yard thief. He was so quick and powerful, people thought he was too big to be quick but he was a great goalscorer Bob, and a good friend too.”
Joe seemed destined to have a great career representing his country too, after scoring for England against Yugoslavia at Wembley in 1972 and being awarded the man of the match award, Alf Ramsey commented that Joe was one of the best young strikers in world football.
“Then as football does so often, it kicks you in the arse!” quips Joe, talking of his injury problems that followed including two back operations, one of which was that bad they were just hopeful that he may walk again. He went from being in the form of his life to having his career thrown into doubt. His injury problems were not helped by the fact that he didn’t see eye to eye with the new Everton manager at the time, Billy Bingham.
“But that’s football, I got myself going again and that was really why I had to make the move to Man City, to find first team football again. Billy Bingham had written me off, which I could perhaps understand, but what I couldn’t work out was why he was so keen to sell me to Birmingham City, along with three other players, but you can draw your own conclusions…”
It has often been said that you stop being a fan the minute you get your first pay cheque. As somebody who has supported the club, played for the club and managed the club, I was intrigued to know if the pressure upon his shoulders felt even greater because of his love for the club, or whether as a professional you have to remove your feelings from the job at hand?
“As a manager, there is more pressure, there is no doubt at all. Although saying that, when I got the call in 1994 to go back, I didn’t even have to think about it, I just said ‘I’m coming!’, I didn’t even have a contract for six weeks!
I told the vice-chairman at the time, Cliff Finch, ‘I’d crawl over broken glass for Everton. I’m on my way.’
Leaving Oldham wasn’t easy, my family were settled and we’d had some wonderful times, but I was coming to Everton, simple as that. I knew we were bottom of the table but I hadn’t realised that my first three games would be Liverpool, Leeds and Chelsea. I joked about it later on that had I realised I might not have come so quickly, but I was always coming back.”
Everton were indeed rock bottom of the league when Joe Royle arrived, with just 8 points from 14 games. Despite the daunting first 3 games that loomed, Joe led the blues to 3 wins on the bounce, all without conceding a goal.
“When you look at it, 8 points from a third of the season, we were on schedule for 24 points, and there is no doubt that 24 points would get you relegated. We ended up with 50! Our form from then onwards would have seen us comfortably in the top 8, if that season had continued. Quite honestly we became bloody hard to play against, but we were winning games also.”
It was a remarkable transformation from a team that had been so low on confidence and spirit, and had looked doomed before his arrival.
“It was about putting square pegs in square holes and round pegs in round holes, quite simply.
I’d seen Andy Hinchcliffe and Joe Parkinson playing in the reserves against Liverpool, I went with my father, and I could see that they were exactly what we needed in the first team. Myself and Willie Donachie had both been studying VHS tapes of Everton games prior to our arrival and we both met up with the same opinion – soft touch. People had been saying to me when I arrived that Dave Watson and Neville Southall were finished, they weren’t finished at all, they just needed better protection in front of them. Joe Parkinson was almost like another centre half; he was electric over ten yards and would tackle his grandmother. Andy Hinchcliffe - wonderful left foot, could pass the ball so accurately from one side of the pitch to the other with ease, so I knew those two needed bringing into the first team picture. John Ebbrell too, another big Evertonian you would take to war with you all day.
I said to Barry Horne on the first day ‘we need to get back to being hard to beat and start pressing sides’, we had done it with my Oldham side, we were pressing before people even called it pressing, with Nicky Henry and Mike Milligan. Barry Horne said it was music to his ears, he knew it was what we needed to do. I have to say all of the senior pros were terrific, they were all fully on board, the likes of Dave Watson, Neville Southall, Barry Horne and Gary Ablett, god bless him, their response was outstanding. They all turned in wonderful seasons for us.”
We all know what followed; a drastic change in mentality and Everton began to show a tenacity on the pitch that had been missing for far too long. What followed was an off-the-cuff comment made by Joe in an interview that would go on to spark the enthusiasm of Evertonians to a new level, and would inadvertently play a huge part in creating a siege mentality within the group…
“I was asked one day if Vinny Samways was going to play, Vinny had been suspended when I arrived so it wasn’t the case that I had left him out. Then obviously we went on to win those three games in ten days, so I wasn’t about to change what was working so well, with Ebbrell, Horne, and Parkinson. A reporter kept pressing me on when was I going to play Samways, I just said ‘Listen we are doing great at the moment, with a sort of Dogs of War mentality…’ Well that was it then, next thing there were t-shirts getting printed and sold around the ground and everybody, including the players themselves, loved it!”
We all know how these things catch on, as David Moyes will tell you with his ‘Peoples Club’ tag line, one that he could never have envisaged catching on the way it did back in 2002. Even this season, Everton fans have been caught up in the infectious ‘Spirit of the Blues’ euphoria that has taken social media, and even the music charts, by storm at the beginning this season. It was something that worked well for Joe Royle, but he does have a tinge of regret about the statement…
“I wouldn’t say it was a mistake, but when I look back at it I do think it went against us later on in terms of people’s perception of us, it was used as a stick to beat us with at times. It was a big fan's favourite, but certain media did use it against me and I was very disappointed in that.”
The local press was something Joe struggled against so often in his time as Everton manager, in his fantastic autobiography he dedicates a whole chapter to what he calls ‘Poisoned pens’.
Not only did he go on to keep Everton up in that first season, but he would also go on to top off the season with that fairy tale FA Cup win at Wembley, beating heavy favourites Manchester Utd 1-0, courtesy of a Paul Rideout header. It was a remarkable run to the final, one that seen Everton concede just a solitary goal, which came in the memorable 4-1 win over Spurs in the Semi-Final.
“That was the only goal we conceded in the tournament that day and I thought it was a very harsh penalty against Dave Watson. You could say all the omens were there that day of the Semi-Final, the day before I think a horse called Royal Athlete had won the Grand National, and when we arrived at Elland Road on the coach that day I couldn’t see a Spurs shirt anywhere, then when we got into the stadium it was like we had three sides of the pitch!”
We all know the infamous tale of Daniel Amokachi that day, how he jumped the gun to bring himself on as a substitute before Royle had any idea what was happening, then going on to score twice to send Everton into the FA Cup final, cementing his status as a cult hero in the process.
“When Daniel Amokachi came on, well you know how I often say it was the best substitution I never made! That was brilliant though looking back because Daniel was such a great guy and I loved him. Amokachi was stuck really because we had a wealth of front players, with Duncan being unplayable on his day, Graeme Stuart who was very underrated - what a great footballer he was, he would give you a game anywhere you wanted him. Then Paul Rideout who was seriously underrated too. He was a nearly man at a few clubs, but I tell you what, he didn’t half blossom at Everton! He was such a great footballer, the ball was his friend.”
As we speak about that cup final and ultimately winning the trophy, I mention to Joe that despite being heavy underdogs, looking back at old interviews, especially one in particular between himself and Alex Ferguson, hosted by Barry Davies as part of the BBC’s official build up – there appeared to be no inferiority complex there whatsoever. Joe had complete faith in that group of players to give a good account of themselves in that final.
“The last thing I said to the players that day before they went on the pitch was “Listen, we have come this far now, we might as well win the bloody thing!
The FA Cup Final led me to the hardest footballing decision I have ever had to make, in leaving out John Ebbrell. He had played in all of the games up until the semi-final when he was suspended. I still to this day say, I have seen most of Everton's best performances since 1960 onwards, and I genuinely think that our performance that day against Spurs, when we weren’t really expected to get a result, was as good as anything I’ve ever seen from an Everton side. A Spurs side with the likes of Klinsmann, Sheringham, Barmby and co were expected to walk this semi-final, but in the end they were very lucky to only concede four that day!
The fact that we won the cup probably overshadowed the achievement of staying up that season, in my eyes, and we weren’t just beating the lower sides, we were beating top sides, big sides that were way ahead of us at the time. In actual fact, our season was won against Ipswich, when Paul Rideout’s scrappy goal confirmed our safety. If I’d have turned around and said to the chairman when I took over and we were bottom of the league with 8 points that we would end the season with 50, what do you think he would say? I also ended up with the record of being unbeaten against Liverpool, which was brilliant.”
The story of Joe Royle’s departure from the club has been well publicised over the years; Joe travelled to meet Peter Johnson to discuss the potential signing of Norwegian Striker Tore Andre Flo, only for a whirlwind disagreement to result in the club and Royle dramatically and somewhat tragically, parting ways. It was declared a mutual decision, but still remains the biggest regret of Royle’s career…
“It was genuinely one of the saddest days of my life when I left Everton as manager, I never ever wanted it to happen, certainly not like that and not so soon. It really did come completely out of the blue, I went to discuss signings and came away as the ex-Everton manager, it was an awful, awful day.”
As the news eventually broke, Joe was asked by David Prentice of the Liverpool Echo, if he had a message for the fans. Joe’s response was simply “Tell them I will always be an Evertonian.”
Joe’s relationship with the local press may have become somewhat untenable, but he retains a huge amount of respect for Prentice, whom he tells me has always been supportive, professional and genuine throughout the years.
“Prenno was brilliant and I still speak to him now, he’s a great guy and a true Evertonian. He was always totally supportive and always did things the right way. Dave is, was and will always be a supporter and a friend.”
As we spoke about different members of Joe’s Everton squad at the time, it led us nicely on to a certain Duncan Ferguson. On the 21st November 1994, in Joe Royle’s first match as Everton manager, Duncan earned his place in the hearts of Evertonians for evermore, with a thumping header to send Everton on their way to victory against Liverpool. It was the match that sparked a revival and the match that created a legend. Knowing Duncan, as Joe Royle does, I wondered was he surprised to see him step up to take charge as caretaker manager after the sacking of Marco Silva last season?
“Yes. Because he told me he never wanted to do it! But I think it suited him, because Duncan is talismanic. When he played he was a talisman, I know of times against Liverpool when I’ve been told that the whole team talk in the Liverpool dressing room was based on how to handle Duncan. If it wasn’t for Dunc’s injuries, then who knows, but he’s a legend anyway at Everton, and deservedly so. He was exceptionally quick for his size, often when strikers are that size, they are not necessarily good jumpers, but Dunc was, he was an incredible jumper. The whole package was there, but he would be the first to admit himself that he could have been a better pro.”
Joe would certainly know all about what makes a good jumper. As well as his obvious prowess as an iconic Everton number 9, Joe was once the Liverpool city high-jump champion, in his school days!
Joe makes me chuckle as he tells me that he can’t envisage Duncan ever taking the managerial job on full-time, before quipping “Then again, he told me he would never do it in the first place!”
Our conversation naturally turns to the current Everton squad, as a former Everton number 9, with over 100 goals for the club, I was fascinated to know his thoughts on our current Everton number 9 – Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
“He has improved so much, I know him from my time at the club working with David Unsworth with the academy, he came in as a kid. He is a really nice boy, he’s a great athlete with a great natural leap. He was spending too much time out in wide positions, but it’s great now to see him scoring what I call ‘scruffy goals’. Francis Lee always said to me ‘just get inside the box, if you are in the box the ball can hit you and go in’ If you are outside the box all of the time waiting to score big goals then you won’t score many. Dominic is realising that now, whether that is down to his own realisation or through working with Ancelotti and Duncan on the training ground, he scored one against Newcastle last weekend that he wouldn’t have scored 12 months ago. I spent my managerial career shouting at strikers to get across the keeper. He’s doing really well and it’s great to see because he is such a nice kid.”
I still have the opinion that he could be even better with somebody up front alongside him, but I would never doubt Carlo Ancelotti’s judgement, that’s just my own personal opinion and football is all about opinions.
Like I say, it’s great to see him scoring so many goals from inside the box; Alan Shearer hardly ever scored a goal from outside the box, one of course was a vicious volley against Everton, but he’s learning all the time and I’m delighted for him.”
Speaking of Carlo Ancelotti, what does Joe make of the appointment of the Italian manager and the start that we have made to the season so far?
“I thought it was a marvellous appointment, I used to do a lot of TV work with Ray Wilkins, and I always remember how highly Ray spoke of Carlo Ancelotti. I was at Wigan when the appointment happened, and I’ll never forget how pleased Peter Reid was when he heard. I’ve never met Carlo personally, but everyone that has met him, speaks glowingly of him, and his CV is absolutely awesome and speaks for itself.
The last two defeats have been disappointing, I don’t think that we have got near the opposition, for whatever reason, but that happens. I think the summer spending was right, my long standing call of ‘recruitment, recruitment, recruitment’ being the most important thing, and the recruitment under him so far has been good. We have missed one or two players in the last couple of games, which hasn’t helped, and I’d have expected more from a certain one or two players who are fighting for their place.
There are a couple of kids there, young Anthony Gordon for example, who certainly has talent, hopefully he can progress in the right way. Also Tom Davies; he has to jump-start his career now, because Tom is a great kid, he is a lovely boy, believe me. He came on to the scene with such an explosion against Manchester City, I was there that day and I was so pleased with him, and he has to find that spark again and jump-start his career, and if I see him I’ll tell him that because I think the world of the kid, I really do. That talent is still there, it’s not gone.
Joe returned to Everton for the third time back in 2014, when he was appointed Professional Development Co-ordinator, working alongside David Unsworth at youth level. Despite the nature of his departure from the club as manager still haunting him, it is still so clear even today how passionate he is about Everton. When the call came to return in 2014 in a new role, he didn’t need much persuading.
“I was at Norwich at the time, working with Neil Adams, who was another of my players at Oldham, as well as an Everton player. Neil is a lovely kid and a great coach, I’d gone back to help him along with the loans and the youth side of things. I got the call from Bill Kenwright one day, Bill always calls me Joseph, he knows my family well, the Kenwrights and the Royles were always very close and he calls me his brother. Joseph, he said, come home. So I said ok then!
It was a lovely gesture from Bill placing me in joint charge of the team against Norwich, along with David Unsworth, on the final day of the season, following the departure of Roberto Martinez. I still don’t think things went as well for Unsy at the club, because I still firmly believe he will end up as a number one somewhere. He is a terrific coach, by the way, he is not only a coach, he is a coach of coaches. I have great admiration for him, and he was certainly a hugely important player for me, and part of the backbone of the club.”
Joe laughs as I suggest that if Everton came calling tomorrow I reckon he would do it all over again in a heartbeat, he doesn’t disagree.
And so, to the future. Recently involved as a director at Wigan Athletic until earlier this year, I asked Joe of his plans for the future?
“Wait and see I suppose, I have retired three times now and I’m not really very good at it! At the moment it’s not so bad with lockdown and working in the garden and having some more family time with the wife. I’m a young 71, or at least I think I am, we shall see. There are older managers than me out there, but I think it’s highly unlikely that I’ll manage again, but watch this space. I’m a footballaholic.”
Whatever Joe decides to do with his time going forward, one thing is absolutely certain – Joe Royle will always be an Evertonian.
I cannot thank Joe enough for giving me his time and for being so approachable.
I would also like to thank Tony Bugby, who went above and beyond to help me out. Thank you Tony!