Derek Kevan: Footballer whose prolific goalscoring exploits took him to the 1958 World Cup
Monday 07 January 2013
It was no wonder that Derek Kevan was nicknamed "The Tank".
His style as one of English football's most prominent spearheads of the 1950s and early 1960s had plenty in common with a runaway Panzer; he even described himself, albeit wryly, as "a big, awkward devil." Yet while the rumbustious, raw-boned Yorkshireman rejoiced in the unconditional adoration of his most enthusiastic admirers at West Bromwich Albion, at times he was panned mercilessly in the national press as a lumbering, inelegant, old-school bruiser, especially when his position in the England team was up for debate.
However, there was no denying the central truth of Kevan's professional life. Whatever anyone thought of his methods – and he was not utterly devoid of delicacy with the ball at his feet – he delivered goals by the bucketload. As a Baggie he banged in 173 in 291 appearances; later came 55 in 77 games for Manchester City, and there were eight in 14 outings for his country.
Though he lacked the poise and all-round excellence of, say, Tommy Taylor, the Manchester United marksman who died in the Munich air disaster of 1958 and who might otherwise have denied Kevan most of his international opportunities, he was an asset whom few top-flight managers of his era would have spurned. Infectiously enthusiastic, ever eager to shoulder the most formidable of workloads, and unfailingly courageous, Kevan packed a savage shot in his right foot, only a slightly less powerful one in his left, and he was lethal in the air. All bristling determination and flailing limbs, he was hell to mark and the perfect Hawthorns foil for the immeasurably more subtle Ronnie Allen, the prolific pair feeding off each other's service for more than half a decade.
Having made his first impact as a teenager in his home town with Ripon YMCA, Kevan was recruited by Bradford Park Avenue of the Third Division (North) in October 1952. Nine months later, having scored eight times in 15 games, the burly son of a pipe-layer was picked up by West Brom as back-up to the Baggies' frontline pair of Allen and Johnny Nicholls.
This was far from a blind punt on youthful promise as the manager, Vic Buckingham, had only recently arrived at the Hawthorns from Park Avenue, where he had been impressed by the rookie centre-forward with the rippling muscles. When he moved to the Midlands Buckingham had no intention of leaving this uncut gem behind, but he brought him on steadily, delaying his debut until August 1955, when Everton were the visitors.
The cheerful, gregarious Kevan responded with both goals in a 2-0 victory and his potential was confirmed. After spending most of that season honing his technique in the reserves, he became a first-team regular in 1956-57 and was Albion's top scorer in all but one of the next seven seasons.
The Baggies were then a power in the land – they finished fourth, fifth and fourth again in the decade's closing campaigns – and Kevan's part was rewarded by representative honours. There were four England under-23 caps, then a full debut in a 2-1 win over Scotland at Wembley in April 1957, to which he contributed a goal with a diving header.
Despite his springtime hat-trick for the Football League against the Scottish League, some pundits were outraged by his selection for the 1958 World Cup finals ahead of Tottenham Hotspur's Bobby Smith and Brian Clough, who had struck 42 times for Middlesbrough in the previous season and was not reticent about making public his bile over the decision.
However, although Kevan didn't sparkle in Sweden, he did supply two of England's four goals in as many matches as they bowed out of the tournament with a whimper, and it's possible that he suffered from a system initially designed for the more stylish Taylor. Certainly he never gelled with the influential schemer Johnny Haynes and by 1961 his international day was done.
At club level, though, Kevan was in his prime. Well served by schemers Bobby Robson and David Burnside, he shared with Ipswich Town's Ray Crawford the mantle of the top tier's leading scorer in 1961-62 with 33. But then came a bitter fall-out with the Albion manager Archie Macaulay and he dismayed supporters by joining Second Division Chelsea in a £50,000 deal in March 1963, signing off with a hat-trick against the reigning champions, Ipswich.
Though at Stamford Bridge he fell foul of another manager, the volatile Tommy Docherty, Kevan supplied the first strike in a 7-0 trouncing of Portsmouth which secured the Pensioners' promotion before being sold to Manchester City on the eve of the new season. Linking brilliantly at Maine Road with the underrated Jimmy Murray, the 28-year-old hit dazzling form as City finished sixth in the Second Division, plundering 30 goals to break the club's post-war scoring record, which stood until beaten by Francis Lee in 1971-72.
City were on an upswing which would soon take them, inspired by Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison, to the pinnacle of the English game, but before then Kevan had gone, dispatched to second-flight Crystal Palace in 1965, perhaps seen as not sufficiently refined for the planned revolution. He did not linger long at Selhurst Park, offering brief service to Third Division Peterborough United and basement club Luton Town before arriving at Stockport in 1967, just in time to help renascent County lift the Fourth Division crown. Astonishingly for such an accomplished performer, it was the only senior medal of his career.
Kevan left Edgeley Park in 1968, entering non-League circles with Macclesfield Town, Boston United and Stourbridge. Later he returned to West Bromwich Albion in the lottery department before working for a sign company in Birmingham, but at the scene of his finest achievements he will never be forgotten. To long-time denizens of the Hawthorns, the old debate was pointless. Could Derek Kevan play? A glance at his glowing record supplied the emphatic answer.
Derek Tennyson Kevan, footballer: born Ripon, Yorkshire 6 March 1935; played for Bradford Park Avenue 1952-53, West Bromwich Albion 1953-63, Chelsea 1963, Manchester City 1963-65, Crystal Palace 1965-66, Peterborough United 1966, Luton Town 1966-67, Stockport County 1967-68; capped 14 times by England 1957-61; died Birmingham 4 January 2013.
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