Brian Harris: Fun-loving Everton footballer
Thursday 21 February 2008
Both as a versatile, high-quality footballer and an irrepressible character bubbling with vitality and wicked humour, Brian Harris became woven into the fabric of Everton as that great sporting institution rose from its mid-1950s doldrums to scale the English game's loftiest pinnacles during the next decade.
So comprehensive were his professional abilities that in the course of a 12-year first-team tenure at Goodison Park in which he majored as an endlessly industrious wing-half and played more than 350 games, Harris filled most outfield positions. Yet for many Toffees fans, the defining image of the loyal, locally born all-rounder involved a policeman's helmet perched jauntily above a grin as wide as the Mersey.
It happened during the 1966 FA Cup final after an over-exuberant supporter celebrated Everton's equaliser against Sheffield Wednesday by dashing uninvited across the sacred Wembley turf. The forces of law and order set off in hot pursuit, and the sprinting interloper was felled by a flying rugby tackle, in the execution of which the detaining officer lost his headgear. Unable to resist such an opportunity for a laugh, even with the fate of the famous old trophy still in the balance, Harris tried the helmet on for size.
None of which is to suggest that the former England youth international was anything but deadly serious about his business. Recruited from amateur side Port Sunlight as a wiry 18-year-old winger for a mere £10 signing-on fee in January 1954, halfway through a season that would end in Everton gaining promotion to the top flight, he worked diligently and made his entrance on the right flank at Burnley in August 1955.
For three years he progressed tolerably successfully, contributing a smattering of goals while drifting in and out of a mid-table team, but it was not until Johnny Carey replaced Ian Buchan as manager in 1958 that Harris was switched to wing-half, the role in which he was to realise his full potential.
Operating on the left of midfield with a primarily defensive responsibility, his briskness in the tackle, admirable aerial combativeness for a fellow of 5ft 8in and a willingness to run until he dropped were ideal for the job, but his constructive input was valuable, too. Although his attacking skills tended to be underrated, he was a crisp and accurate passer, adept at delivering early dispatches to his forwards that frequently caught opponents unawares.
Despite the idealistic Carey having laid the foundations of Everton's long-term renaissance, he was sacked in 1961 and replaced by the more pragmatic, fearsomely ruthless Harry Catterick, who was to guide the Toffees to serial glory and under whom Harris continued initially to thrive.
But just as a team containing thoroughbreds such as the fiery right-half Jimmy Gabriel, cultured young stopper Brian Labone and multi-talented attackers Alex Young and Roy Vernon began to emerge as genuine contenders for the top honours, Harris was replaced by the admittedly classier Tony Kay, signed in December 1962 from Sheffield Wednesday for £55,000, then a record fee for a British half-back.
Thus as Everton roared on to become League champions in the spring, the discarded 27-year-old, who had made enough appearances to qualify for a title medal, was left to rue his reversal of fortune, and some close observers of the Goodison scene believed he would demand a transfer.
He remained faithful, however, continuing to play his part as a utility man, deputising for injured comrades at both wing-half and full-back, until in 1964 he was restored as a regular in sensational and shocking circumstances. Kay, a thoroughbred performer in his prime, was banned and jailed for his part in a bribery scandal that rocked the sporting world; he would never make another professional appearance.
Catterick might have responded by seeking another star recruit, but for two terms he persisted with the tried-and-tested Harris, who responded nobly, helping Everton finish fourth in the 1964/65 championship race. They slumped to a mid-table finish the next term, but there was exhilarating compensation in their FA Cup campaign, in which Harris was ever-present. It culminated in a Wembley encounter with Sheffield Wednesday which produced not only the pantomime sequence in which he revelled, but also one of the most memorable comebacks in the competition's history.
When the Owls seized a two-goal advantage just after half-time, the Merseysiders seemed doomed to disappointment, but a brace of strikes in five minutes from the inexperienced marksman Mike Trebilcock – the first following a clever chip into the penalty box by Harris – transformed the situation. Cue the gleeful invasion, and not long afterwards the Everton revival was completed, when England winger Derek Temple coolly dispatched the winning goal, 10 minutes from time.
Thereafter Harris, by now in his thirties, lost his place in a reshuffle following the summer arrival of the England World Cup winner Alan Ball, and after a handful of autumn outings as a deputy, he joined Second Division strugglers Cardiff City in a £10,000 deal.
He left behind him at Goodison memories not only of a stalwart, consistent performer – a players' player never lauded lavishly by press and public but valued enormously within the game – but also of a natural comedian whose predilection for banter and practical jokes had been of immeasurable worth in maintaining dressing-room morale.
Brian Harris stories proliferated for years after his departure, few more lovingly recounted than the one about his unscheduled impersonation of an archetypal upper-class English drunk, live on Australian television, during a summer tour. The show's eminent host was less than impressed and had the irreverent Merseyside mimic – who, it should be stressed, was scrupulously sober – ejected from the studio, much to the hilarity of his team-mates.
Unlike some players who step down a division to see out their days in a comfortable billet, Harris gave full value for money at Ninian Park, his experience and authority contributing hugely to the Bluebirds' improvement over the five seasons he spent with them. The glorious highlight of that service was the inspiration he provided during all nine games of City's rousing progress to the semi-finals of the European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1967/68.
In July 1971, Harris switched to Fourth Division Newport County as player-coach, not laying aside his boots until he was approaching his 40th year, his longevity testament to a lifelong dedication to physical fitness. There was also a stint as manager at Somerton Park between January 1974 and March 1975, before he resigned following a disagreement with the board.
He returned to Cardiff as assistant manager under Richie Morgan from December 1978 to 1980, then coached briefly with Ipswich Town. Settling in Chepstow, he managed the town's non-League club, with spells working for the Post Office and as a publican.
Entirely appropriately, Brian Harris's funeral will take place at St Luke's Church, located at the corner of his beloved Goodison Park.
Brian Harris, footballer: born Bebington, Cheshire 16 May 1935; played for Everton 1954-66, Cardiff City 1966-71, Newport County 1971-74; managed Newport County 1974-75; married (two sons); died Chepstow, Monmouthshire 17 February 2008.
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