England and Everton centre-half
Wednesday 26 April 2006
Brian Leslie Labone, footballer: born Liverpool 23 January 1940; played for Everton 1957-72; capped 26 times by England 1962-70; married 1966 Pat Lynam (one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Liverpool 24 April 2006.
To characterise a professional footballer as noble, and to reflect on his sensitive side, might seem incongruous when set against the greed, cynicism and rampant self-aggrandisement which go hand in hand with the modern game. But in the case of Brian Labone, whose name has been synonymous with that of Everton for nearly half a century, such treatment seems singularly apt.
An archetypal one-club man, dubbed "the last of the great Corinthians" by the former Goodison Park manager Harry Catterick - a fearsome fellow not noted for dispensing fulsome praise - Labone was a colossally influential figure as the Toffees won the League Championship in 1963 and 1970 and the FA Cup in 1966, the last-mentioned pair of successes under his captaincy.
Tall and naturally commanding, he operated at centre-half, a position traditionally associated with flint-hearted bruisers prone to crunching physical excess, but Labone was cut from an altogether more stately cloth. He played the game as he lived his life, with dignity, composure and integrity, and during his 15-year career he picked up a mere two bookings in more than 530 games for the Merseysiders, a total of appearances exceeded by only two other Evertonians, the goalkeepers Neville Southall and Ted Sagar.
Yet there was a myth about Labone, perpetuated by his calm, almost tranquil character and his polished, unflappable style of play. The contention among some critics was that he was devoid of "devil", - simply too easy-going for a role which demanded a more ruthless approach; that both he and Everton would have achieved more if he had been tougher. The theory was seriously flawed on two counts. First, "Labby" had to be true to his own nature, which precluded random violence or unnecessary harshness. Secondly, although he played the game with impeccable fairness, he was a hard footballer, imbued with every ounce of steel needed to survive and prosper at the top club level for almost a decade and a half, and to earn 26 caps for his country.
Had he been anything approaching a soft touch then he would never have progressed beyond the junior football in which he excelled during his education at Liverpool Collegiate School in the early 1950s.
In fact, although he was always enthusiastic about sport, the thoughtful, intelligent youngster might never have signed on at Everton anyway, even after joining the club as an amateur in 1955. He was sorely tempted to go to university and deliberated coolly before accepting the offer of professional terms at Goodison as a 17-year-old in 1957, spurning local rivals Liverpool in the process.
Having taken that momentous decision, Labone made meteoric progress, first riveting the attention of hard-boiled Everton insiders with his masterful shackling of the rumbustious centre- forward Dave Hickson in a public trial game. So impressive was the newcomer that he leapfrogged the Toffees' three junior teams to claim a place in the reserves.
Seven months later he made his first-team entrance following an injury to Tommy E. Jones, but it was not until his next senior outing, at home to Tottenham Hotspur in April 1957, that he discovered the cruel reality of top-flight football when he was subjected to an embarrassing runaround by Bobby Smith. Now the rookie proved he was made of the right stuff, returning to the "stiffs" to hone his craft, then earning a regular place in the First Division line-up in 1959/60 and winning England under-23 recognition in 1961.
Slim and rather more elegant than most stoppers, but formidably powerful in the air, Labone was fearless in his tackles and an astute anticipator of the unfolding action, enabling him to specialise in timely interceptions. On the ball he was accomplished and often constructive when using his right foot, invariably employing his left only for emergency clearances.
His game had developed serenely under the management of John Carey, but it was when that benevolent Irishman was replaced in the summer of 1961 by the abrasive Catterick that Labone, and Everton, truly began to prosper.
In 1962/63, with a team in which the star forwards Alex "The Golden Vision" Young and Roy Vernon tended to monopolise the headlines, the Toffees lifted the League title, and Labone's part as the rearguard's principal bulwark was recognised with a first full England call-up in October, to face Northern Ireland in Belfast. Astonishingly, in view of his club's historical eminence, he was the first Everton player to be capped by England at senior level since the Second World War.
At that point, though, he was unable to inch ahead of Sheffield Wednesday's Peter Swan and Maurice Norman of Tottenham Hotspur to claim a regular international berth. Still he continued to advance his case, being made Everton skipper in 1964/65, succeeding Tony Kay who, along with Swan, was banned from football and imprisoned for his part in a bribes scandal.
Come 1965/66 Labone remained in imperious form but now was headed by Jack Charlton in the pecking order of England centre-halves. However, during the run-up to the 1966 World Cup Finals, the Everton captain stunned the football establishment by asking not to be considered for the tournament, so that he was free to go ahead with his planned summer wedding to a former Miss Liverpool, Pat Lynam. He later explained that he hadn't expected to be in contention for a World Cup place: "I had fixed the date, made all the arrangements, issued all the invitations. What could I do?"
Happily for Labone, soon his controversial announcement was overshadowed by Everton's breathtaking victory in that season's FA Cup final, fighting back from two goals down to defeat Sheffield Wednesday and, as he brandished the coveted bauble aloft in the Wembley sunshine, all seemed well with his world.
But another shock declaration was in the offing. In September 1967, notionally in his prime at 27 and leading one of the best teams in the land, he revealed that he was no longer enjoying his football, having lost both form and confidence, and planned imminent retirement. It seemed that the modest Merseysider, a strong-willed but sensitive individual, preferred a future in the family central-heating business.
However, having bared his soul, he felt his mind clear and his anxiety lift. Now he produced arguably the finest football of his life; he replaced the ageing Charlton as England's first-choice No 5 and he was happy to reverse his decision to depart prematurely.
In 1969/70 Labone was majestic as an exhilaratingly entertaining Everton side, featuring the beautifully balanced midfield trio of Alan Ball, Colin Harvey and Howard Kendall, romped away with the League crown, and that summer he recovered from injury in time to perform smoothly for his country in the World Cup Finals in Mexico.
A successful defence of the Jules Rimet Trophy appeared possible when England seized a two-goal advantage over West Germany in the quarter-final in Leon, only for Franz Beckenbauer and company to complete a devastating comeback to prevail 3-2. That proved to be Labone's final international appearance and, now in his thirties and increasingly prone to injuries, there was little left of his club career, either, and he laid aside his boots in 1972.
Subsequently he enjoyed a successful sojourn in insurance and served for many years on the Littlewoods "spot the ball" panel. Meanwhile his love affair with Everton never abated. In recent years he worked for the club as a match-day host, a convivial role to which this courteous, patient, gently amusing man was ideally suited.
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