Gordon West: Flamboyant goalkeeper who won two League titles with Everton
Tuesday 12 June 2012
The terms flamboyant, eccentric and even theatrical were often used to characterise Gordon West. Yet in an era when English football had an abundance of high-class, home-grown goalkeepers, the self-styled "Scouser from Barnsley" was considered good enough by Sir Alf Ramsey to understudy the great Gordon Banks as world champions England took third place in the 1968 European Championship finals.
The total of three international caps won by West, who succumbed tocancer, is an inaccurate reflection of the agility, technique, courage bordering on recklessness and sheer presence he exuded in two Football Leaguechampionship successes with Everton. One came in his first full season atGoodison Park, 1962-63, when he was 19, while the second, in 1969-70, would almost certainly have been followed by a trip to the Mexico World Cup as back-up to Banks had West not informed Ramsey that he suffered from homesickness and would rather stay home with his family.
The son of a miner, West was born in the village of Darfield, near Barnsley, and was a schoolboy centre-half before being persuaded that his physique and athleticism would be better employed as the last line of defence. Blackpool, where his colleagues included the young Alan Ball and the veteran Stanley Matthews, spotted his potential and thrust him into their First Division side at the age of 17. After 33 appearances, during the course of which he kept out another future England custodian, Tony Waiters, he was transferred to Everton in March 1962.
West was the first signing by Harry Catterick, the manager who, fora decade, went toe to toe with Bill Shankly at neighbouring Liverpool. The fee of £27,500 was a world record for a goalkeeper, and in his final years West, eyes twinkling, enjoyed reminding after-dinner audiences that the Blackpool Gazette reported that "it will never, ever be broken". He would also set out the unglamorous route he took to sign for the so-called "Mersey Millionaires": train from Blackpool to Preston; another train to Liverpool; and finally, the No 60 bus.
Everton, knowing he was on £20 a week at Blackpool, paid him £30. West, having swiftly displaced Alex Dunlop while still in his teens, fought off consistent competition from Andy Rankin and Geoff Barnett to play 402 first-team matches in an 11-year sojourn on the blue side of Stanley Park. He was one of only three players, with defender Brian Labone and winger Johnny Morrissey, to figure in both title triumphs, also collecting an FA Cup winner's medal in 1966 after Everton's stunning recovery from 2-0 down to defeat Sheffield Wednesday 3-2 at Wembley.
As well as being an outstanding keeper – ahead of his time in the way he threw the ball long distances with pinpoint accuracy, Peter Schmeichel-style, rather than hoofing and hoping – West was a charismatic performer. His popularity survived his being dropped for flashing a "v" sign at Everton supporters who were berating him for fumbling a shot into his own net, and it even extended, after a fashion, to the Kop at Anfield.
The first time West ran towards them, for a derby in early '63, he was confronted by 22,000 two-fingered gestures which he later admitted "really upset" him. A year later, showing his penchant for comedy, he blew them a kiss and pretended to drop his shorts. Thefollowing season, a man dashed out of the Kop and gave him a woman's handbag with "Honey West" painted onit. For years Liverpool fans "gave me stick about my handbag". West "accepted and enjoyed it", although he made sure he milked the occasion whenEverton won at Anfield en route to the title in 1970.
In his autobiography, published that year and titled The Championship in My Keeping, West revealed a lessflippant side. One chapter, headed"Nervous Torture", revealed that he was sometimes sick before going out to play. To ease the pressure and fill in thetime on arduous away trips, he and Labone shared the hobby of stamp-collecting. The pair were great friends,one Evertonian likening their double act at nostalgic team reunions to Hinge and Bracket.
The signing of David Lawson from Huddersfield Town, for a British-record fee of £80,000 in 1972, marginalised West and prompted his retirement after the '72-73 campaign. The decisionappeared premature – he had just turned 30 – but he was disappointed that Catterick had spurned his request for a testimonial match by saying "You cost us £27,500". In 1976 he was tempted back by Tranmere Rovers, playing 17 games before leaving football and working in security at RAF Woodvale, near Southport.
West fell on hard times. For many years he stayed away from Everton because he was embarrassed by his weight, which reached 26 stone, and he was in hock to money-lenders, who took his medals away in a plastic bag as collateral. The Everton Former Players' Foundation, a charitable organisation, paid for urgently needed knee surgery, returned the medals and eased his reassimilation into the Goodison fold.
"For 30 years I was nobody. I was finished, forgotten," he said. "They gave me back my life."
Gordon West, footballer: born Darfield, South Yorkshire 26 April 1943; played for Blackpool 1960-62, Everton 1962-73 (League Championship winner 1962-63, 1969-70), Tranmere Rovers 1976-79; three caps for England 1968-69; married (two sons); died 10 June 2012.
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