Alan A'Court: Footballer who played a crucial role in Liverpool's rise to join the elite in the early Shankly years
Saturday 19 December 2009
It was difficult to miss Alan A'Court on a football field. The dashing, blond left-winger, who featured for England in the 1958 World Cup finals and shone for Liverpool as they returned to the top flight of the domestic game in 1962, was an effervescent individual, bubbling with verve and exuding an engagingly obvious enjoyment of his work.
Indeed, he performed with such unstinting commitment and concentration that it was not unknown for him to sprint to the Anfield byline at maximum velocity, dispatch a cross at full stretch and then, oblivious to the close proximity of the low boundary wall to the touchline, plunge headlong into the Kop. The fans, well accustomed to the flying flankman's neck-or-nothing style, would hold out their arms, palms upwards, to break his fall.
The only disappointing aspect of the popular A'Court's 12-year Liverpool tenure, during which he made nearly 400 senior appearances and scored more than 60 goals, was that his pomp coincided with the lowest point in the Reds' modern history, during which they slid ignominiously from the elite division and then spent eight seasons battling to get back.
A'Court was a jovial, mischievous character, a practical joker who worked wonders for dressing-room morale, but there was steel in his make-up, too, as evidenced when he made waves in his rugby-loving family by choosing football in his early teens. However, as the extent of the young Merseysider's talent began to emerge with local sides Prescot Celtic and Prescot Cables, it became apparent that he had chosen wisely, especially when Bolton Wanderers and Everton began to show a lively interest.
It was Liverpool, though, who convinced him to forsake his job as a trainee supervisor with the Littlewoods mail order company in the summer of 1952, and the following February, aged 18, he made his senior debut, wearing a No 9 shirt in a First Division encounter at Middlesbrough.
For the remainder of that season, and through the next, A'Court made periodic appearances on the Liverpool left wing, playing alongside survivors of the 1946-47 championship side, such men as Bob Paisley, Laurie Hughes and the great Billy Liddell. By then, however, the team was distressingly threadbare and was relegated in 1954, a circumstance rendered all the more unbearable to Kopites as local rivals Everton replaced them in the top tier.
Undaunted, A'Court earned a regular berth during 1954-55 and, under the tutelage of Liddell – who instilled into the promising rookie his own Corinthian values concerning team spirit and the work ethic – he began to mature into an impressively dynamic performer, bringing explosive pace, a modicum of fire and a consistency not always evident in young wingmen. In addition, he packed a savage shot, though he was never a prolific scorer.
But although A'Court was clearly on the rise, his brio persuading successive managers to accommodate Liddell on the right flank or at centre-forward rather than on his preferred left-touchline beat, it proved a long time before the same could be said of Liverpool. From 1955-56, their finishing positions in the Second Division read like a litany of excruciating frustration: third, third, fourth, fourth, third, third, when the minimum requirement for promotion was second.
This tortuous sequence claimed the jobs of manager Don Welsh and former club captain Phil Taylor, but through it all A'Court's personal development continued apace, as reflected by an inquiry about him by Arsenal. He did not investigate the approach because he believed that soon Liverpool would rise again, but later he regretted not pressing his case as such a move would have placed him in the limelight and might have enabled him to reach loftier heights.
Still, as the decade wore on he was selected for the Football Association, the Football League and England under-23s, for whom he was capped seven times. Full international recognition arrived in November 1957, when A'Court was called up to replace the injured Tom Finney against Northern Ireland at Wembley. The visitors won 3-2 but the Liverpool man scored what was to be his only goal at the top level, helping to secure his berth in Walter Winterbottom's squad for the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden.
Once again the "Preston Plumber" was sidelined and A'Court deputised in the goalless clash with eventual winners Brazil, taking the eye as he ran boldly at Nilton Santos, one of the most feted of all full-backs. With Finney still indisposed, he kept his place for the next two games, a draw with Austria and a 1-0 defeat in a play-off with the USSR which saw England eliminated. Thereafter A'Court was granted only one more opportunity, possibly because he didn't gel with the influential midfield schemer Johnny Haynes, whose place was considered inviolate.
At club level, though, A'Court continued to prosper, especially after the most momentous event in Liverpool's history, the appointment as manager in December 1959 of Bill Shankly. The inspirational, demanding Scot took over a club that reposed in a moribund comfort zone, with a shabby stadium, under-equipped training ground, mediocre team and a complacent board. He lost little time in launching his revolution, dumping players he deemed to be dead wood, but he identified A'Court – who scored the Reds' first competitive goal of the Shankly era – as a key man in the struggle to rise from the Second Division.
Duly the winger starred as Liverpool narrowly missed achieving that initial ambition in 1959-60 and 1960-61, but it was in the following campaign that the renaissance gathered irresistible impetus following the summer acquisition of the pugnacious and skilful Scottish centre-forward Ian St John, and his colossal countryman, the stopper centre-half Ron Yeats.
Now, at last, Liverpool romped away with the Second Division title with A'Court ever-present that term, often meshing dazzlingly with "The Saint" and his front-running partner Roger Hunt, another relative newcomer. Hunt and A'Court became close pals off the field and demonstrated equal empathy on it, with the marksman who would go on to earn imperishable glory as one of England's World Cup winners in 1966 proving a ruthless converter of the flankman's pinpoint dispatches.
Back in the First Division in 1962-63, A'Court held his own as Shankly's Reds consolidated their status, but a series of niggling injuries in the second half of the season jolted his momentum and saw him competing for the No 11 shirt with Kevin Lewis. Liverpool finished in a commendable eighth place, but the insatiable Shankly had his eyes on more glittering prizes, and to that end that summer he recruited young winger Peter Thompson from Preston North End for a club record fee of £40,000.
Though A'Court was still only 28, the arrival of such a precociously gifted rival sounded his Anfield death knell. In 1963-64, as the newly buoyant Liverpool lifted their first League crown for 17 years, the man who had toiled so faithfully in the Reds' cause through the wilderness years was not picked for a single match, a supremely frustrating experience for a performer who believed he still had plenty to offer. Thus, after making one last appearance – on Anfield's first night of European football, as Liverpool completed the formality of a second leg against Reykjavik of Iceland – he accepted a £9,000 transfer to neighbouring Tranmere Rovers of the Fourth Division.
At Prenton Park it was a case of déjà vu, as in consecutive seasons his team missed promotion by a whisker. By then he was in his 30s and, with his fitness and form beginning to suffer – though he did score the only hat-trick of his career, against Bradford City in the spring of 1966 – he retired as a player at the end of his second campaign as a Rover.
Determined to remain in the game, he coached at Norwich from 1966 to 1969, then fleetingly at Crewe before embarking on a seven-year stint with Stoke City, during which he contributed to the Potters' first (and still only) major honour when they won the League Cup in 1972. Towards the end of his Victoria Ground sojourn, A'Court served as assistant manager to George Eastham, then took charge as caretaker manager for two matches early in 1978 before the appointment of Alan Durban.
After that he worked briefly in New Zealand before settling happily into a coaching and administrative post with Keele University, his characteristic enthusiasm burning as brightly as ever.
Alan A'Court, footballer: born Rainhill, Lancashire 30 September 1934; played for Liverpool 1952-64, Tranmere Rovers 1964-66; capped five times by England, 1957-58; married (one son, one daughter); died Nantwich, Cheshire 14 December 2009.
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