Brian Labone – The Last of the Corinthians

A year ago today, Everton lost one of our heroes, and today we publish the last in-depth interview with Brian, carried out just a few months before by Martin O’Boyle, who was working with Everton at the time, and had become a close friend to Brian.

The interview was taken just after Evertonians found out that a trip to Millwall in the FA Cup was in store, and went on to discuss his career and his Evertonian passion in great details…

So Brian, we’ve had the FA Cup draw, and it’s Millwall that we face, 40 years since that famous cup tie that you were involved in. It’d be nice to think that we can recreate that kind of run, that kind of form from 40 years ago.

Well let’s hope so, yeah. It’ll be a tough one, but I never thought Everton were going to come out of that hat, but it could have been a good one if it’s come out of the next to last one couldn’t it! I think we’ll take care of Millwall, it’s not easy, any game away from home is difficult, but I think that we should be able to take care of them, now that James McFadden’s knocking the ball into the back of the net. God bless him!

We needed that.

He’ll have needed that as well, it’ll do him the world of good and I’m glad to see him get that one.

It must seem as though we’re cursed with cup draws though, especially this year.

No we’re not, that goes back a long way. In the European Cup 40 years ago we drew AC Milan, who were the top team in the competition. Nobody can call us lucky Everton!

Obviously it goes back a long way, thinking back to 1966, we had to come back from that as well.

Well miracles do happen now and again. When you’re two down in the final you think, this is it, it’ll have to be next year you know. But thank God for Mike Trebilcock, or Treble-Cock as we lovingly called him, who was over from Australia a few weeks back.

Is it nice to catch up again? I mean, the years have passed but you all seem to slip back into the old banter.

Yeah, it’s good to see old mates like that. You never know when you’ll see some of them again. Some of us might be here for the fiftieth anniversary, I’m not being maudlin, but erm, I’m thinking about Mike actually! All those crocodiles in Australia!

Is that what makes Everton such a special club? That we never forget our heroes of the past?

Everton are great towards their ex players, I’ve never heard one ex player slag the club in any way. They are a very caring club. It’s the People’s Club you know, and the player’s club!

I believe that football was something very apparent from an early age in your life, and in your father’s plumbing business a certain Tom Finney was a regular customer?

Well I wouldn’t say he was regular, but when my dad started with JB Labone, he went to Preston to see Tom as Tom was in the plumbing business. That was in the early 60’s, I’d been playing here for about seven years then, as I singed in 1957, but Tom was very helpful, and they did quite a lot of good business together.

And of course, you marked Tom on a number of occasions yourself.

I was what?

You marked Tom on a couple of occasions.

I marked him once yes, sorry I’m going a bit deaf (points to his left ear) – that’ll be the Goodison roar – but I marked him once when I was 18 I think. Tom was a very versatile player you see and he could play centre forward as well as left or right-winger. I think he was about 38 then and I was 17 or 18 and very keen to make an impression. I had a good game against him actually, and that helped consolidate my position in the first team.

He was thorough gentleman though, Tom. He’s 80-odd now!

You represented Lancashire Grammar Schools, and there was a possibility of you going to university, was it a tough choice to make between uni and Everton?

(Big smile appears on his face) No not really no. I used to go to a school just along the road here, and then I passed the scholarship and went to the Collegiate and, (looks a bit uncomfortable at giving himself praise) I was quite bright, but I certainly wasn’t university class but it’s nice to hear that now. People these days think that footballers are as thick as that bloody wall, but it’s not true. There’s the same cross-section in football as there is in the general public. It gets up my nose though that people think that footballers are thick as two short planks. A lot of them go to great lengths to prove that they are, but most of them are quite intelligent.

Always a blue, followed Everton all of your life – who were your heroes when you were watching Everton from the terraces?

Well I’ve just been looking at some of the pictures outside and thinking back to some of the old players, and Dave Hickson – The Cannonball Kid – who works here now, “my Grandad” who’s 75 – I think it was mainly him, as in those days, nobody wanted to be a defender. When I played for the Collegiate or my old school team, I was a goalscoring inside forward, I wasn’t as quick as Radzinski, but I could head the ball and kick the ball. I think centre forward was everyone’s ideal position then, now they all want to play midfield.

And of course, in your first trial game, you marked Dave Hickson – what do you remember about that?

Well, I don’t think Dave was trying to hard! I was trying my best obviously, and that helped me a lot, it got me straight into the reserves, and Everton like most teams had an “A” a “B” a “C” and a “D” team – so it got me right into the reserves rather than having to work my way right up. So that was a great start for me, yeah.

When you were marking “The Cannonball Kid” himself, did you ever stop and think to yourself ‘What the hell am I doing here?’

I’ve often thought that! Usually when I’ve been playing against the likes of Pele though, I’d rather be in Greenhall Whitley Land or something. But no, you worry before any big game, but once you’re there you’ve got to react, but he was my hero Dave. He wasn’t trying properly though, it was only a public trial game, but I was trying like hell!

You came into the first team, very young, very raw, and I believe in your second game against Tottenham a certain Bobby Smith taught you a few lessons.

(groans when he hears the name!) Well he did. When you step up a level, if you let the ball bounce a foot away and it’s in the back of the net. Everybody goes through it I think, but it did teach me a lesson and from there I went back into the reserves, where you get some real experience. I remember that one, I remember all my bad games! I try to forget them but someone will come up to you 30 years later and say ‘Do you remember that game when such and such happened?’

There was one game against Burnley, Everton had gone about 30 home games without defeat, and a couple went over my head and they ended up in the net and every now and again people will remind you about that – 30 years later! It keeps you on the ground anyway.

Obviously you had more good games than bad…

Hopefully!

Everton’s first player to be capped by England after the war in 1962 – what do you remember about your first cap for your country?

I remember Roy Vernon was playing for Wales, I’m not sure whether or not he was their captain, but that was when we had the Home Internationals which are now defunct, and we won quite easily. I supposed having someone like Roy in the opposition made you feel a little bit at home, you’ve got to face these, well they’re not obstacles. I think it was Jimmy Husband said to me some years ago, he said ‘I tell you what Skip, the only problem with when you start to play well, is they start to pick you for England and all that’ – as Jimmy just liked to play on a Saturday and then get into town, you know. He was very down to earth, Jim, he just enjoyed playing football for Everton then getting out and enjoying himself and reporting for training on a Monday. That’s always stuck with me that.

You mentioned then, Roy Vernon, a key part of the 1963 Championship success.

Oh certainly yeah. It was a bit of a doddle then though, playing with Roy and people like that. He used to score two or three in the first half and the defence can relax a bit then and play a bit of football. These days though, how our defence manage when we don’t score a goal for say 50 minutes – with it being 0-0 right to the wire and then scoring late on, there’s a lot of pressure on them. But Taffy used to score two or three in the first half and I could then become a ball-playing centre half.

Winning that Championship in 63, as a player must have been fantastic for yourself, bringing that achievement back to Goodison…..

Well it certainly was because we hadn’t won much for a long time, and when I first came here it was the era in which John Carey had taken over and he started building a team which Harry Catterick consolidated on. John Moores had just taken over, and I think that was Everton’s first trophy since the war.

The League Championship, you see, it proves that you are the best side in the league over, as it was, 42 games in those days. Whereas in the cup, you can be lucky for five or so games. Some of the greatest names in English football haven’t got a cup winner’s medal, you know, as you just need one bad day, but the consistency needed to win the league is over 42 games.

We thought it was going to be a bad day at halftime in 1966 {Brian has a pained look on his face} did you think that our name just wasn’t going to be on the cup?

Well, a lot of people think we were two down at half time, but we were one down, and they scored soon after, so it does go through your mind that, ‘It’s going to have to be next year’ but that was a hell of a comeback. Mike Trebilcock, god bless him, he only played about 30 games for Everton, and he only got in because Fred Pickering was injured coming up to the game. He didn’t really know until the day of the game either, I don’t think, but Mike “Treble Cock” as we called him in Liverpool did well for us that day.

I’ve had some disappointments with 3-2’s though, there was one at Anfield when we were two up and then lost 3-2, and in the World Cup in 1970 – so 2 is never enough! And this season with some of the results three hasn’t been enough!

It was your first achievement as captain. What was it like going up the steps, the Wembley way, and picking up the most famous knock-out competition trophy in the world?

The funny thing about going along Wembley way is that as you’re going along, there’s all the Evertonians outside drinking pints of beer, and they want to be where you are, and you’re on the coach wanting to be where they are! It’s like going to the dentist, but once you’re out there it’s fine.

Meeting Princess Margaret was tremendous as well, she was a big Evertonian you know, lovely blue blood in her veins! She was definitely an Evertonian, and that was a great day that.

It was disappointment two years later against West Brom, we’d hammered them twice in the league, was that just a case of it not being our day?

The cup is a one-off, you’ve only got to lose one game and you’re out or you’re picking up a runners’ up medal. Jeff Astle god bless him, a lovely man, but he didn’t have a left foot apart from that day, I think he missed a sitter with it against Brazil in Mexico, but he was a lovely man was Jeff.

It was disappointing obviously, and we were the better side, all the headers were going to Bally who couldn’t head for toffee, but that’s life I suppose.

Everton have had, up until the last ten years, we’ve had a great record in the FA Cup, I think we’re the team that’s got to the most semi-finals, and it’s bad to lose in a semi-final. I’ve been in a few where we’ve lost, and that’s a terrible feeling that one. Even if you lose when you get to Wembley, at least you’ve got there, you’ve had the experience of having a great day. When we lost to Liverpool at Old Trafford once, that was a killer that one, and then to Man City in the last minute at Villa Park in 67 or whatever – but let’s talk about the happy days.

{both laughing now} Maybe not such a happy day in 1967 was when you announced your retirement, what was going through your head in that period?

Well I wasn’t playing well, and my father had this central heating business, so I had something to go into. I didn’t want to leave Harry Catterick high and dry, so I announced my retirement but I told him that he had another 12 months or so to find another centre half, and Roger Kenyon came in and started playing very well, but then I started to play better after that. Once the pressure was off I started playing better and got picked for England again, so I changed my mind. So never say never.

What did Harry Catterick say when you announced your decision?

Oh he was very understanding, but I think he was pleased in the end that I didn’t give up.

As you say, you started playing well again, and won the Championship in 1970 with a very different side to that which won it seven years previously…

Yeah, that’s what Westy says. We were the only two that were in both championship winning sides, so we always say that he was the best goalkeeper and I was the best centre half. That was a great side, that, and I always have a joke with Howard Kendall, I say “Howard, that was the only three man team that has ever won the Championship” – Harvey, Kendall and Ball – we had Ray Wilson, Westy, myself and about four more internationals in the side though!

The thing about that championship is that we did it with style didn’t we?

Oh yeah, we played football all the way through. They were great players those lads.

Would you say that was the best Everton side that you played in?

Erm….I suppose so. We’ll never know though, as we can’t play the 63 side against the 1970 side can we? We had some great players in that side as well though, Roy Vernon, Bobby Collins, Alec Parker, Jimmy Gabriel. It’s like comparing the Spitfire with the F-11 jet fighter – I just don’t know how you could ever compare different eras, but I think the 1970 side might just shade it. Certainly we played with a bit more panache.

You mentioned there, a good friend of yours, Gordon West {Brian interrupts with “Twiggy”} and you’re still great mates to this day – what do you think it is with your personalities which made you hit it off so well?

Well I think I was the more staid of the two {laughing} – Gordon quite often on a Saturday, once the whistle went at 3 o’clock he got up to a few antics, as he was very highly strung Gordon. And I think you’ve got to be slightly mad to be a goalkeeper, and I think Gordon overstepped the mark on a few times. But he was a very under-rated goalkeeper, and his favourite tale is that he played for Everton over 400 times, was capped by England, won the FA Cup, league titles, and all they remember me for is me handbag! There was an incident at Anfield about that wasn’t there, but it was his own fault though, as when they gave him a bit of stick, he just turned around and showed them a bit of his bottom and blew them kisses, and they don’t take very much to be upset that lot, I’ll tell you!

Maybe Gordon should have travelled with you to the 1970 World Cup, which must have been a fantastic experience for you. What was it like to play alongside the likes of Bobby Moore?

He was brilliant, Bobby. To play with all those players was great, all you’ve got to do is give the ball to them. I think we had a pretty good side actually, and a lot of people have actually said it was probably better than the team in ’66, considering the conditions we were playing under, and the crowds were against us, but we’re the side that lost the cup. Against Germany it was very disappointing, one of the worst days of my life, and I’ve never seen that game in it’s entirety. I had a pretty decent game, but the lad I was marking scored the winning goal and that’s all you think about as a centre half. A centre forward has been successful if he’s scored a goal, you’ve been a failure to a certain extent. But I’ve got over all these setback!

I think we’ve won a few 3-2’s though, obviously the one at Wembley and a few in the league, but 3-2’s have been the bane of my life!

What was it like coming up against Pele?

Well I didn’t really see much of him! It was the whole Brazilian forward line, and they didn’t just stick in the same position, they interchanged all the time. I was supposed to be marking Tostao, but as I say, should have got a result against them. I’m not blaming Jeff Astle, but I’ll have a word with him when I get up there alongside him. It was just one of them things. If you look at that tournament, Germany were pretty exhausted after they’d beaten us 3-2, as they played Italy in the next game and lost 4-3, and when Italy got to Brazil it was a 4-1 hiding. I think we’d have got closer to Brazil if we’d have got passed Germany.

Of course in the 1970’s an Achilles injury forced you to call it a day, it must have been a heart-breaking day for you.

Yeah, against Chelsea, I’d just gone up to head a ball in the Stanley Park End, when Colin Harvey scored two, and it just went. It’s very hard to do an Achilles, especially when you don’t go very fast but I managed it. I was standing and I went to head the ball, and of course your foot stays on the ground and it comes out of the socket it goes into. I was 31, which is still a bit young by today’s standards, but I got the offer to go to South Africa in 1972, but I had to be honest and say that I couldn’t make it. But Harry cheered me up, he said ‘Brian, look on the bright side, if you’d been a racehorse we would have had to shoot you.’ He was always very sympathetic like that!

He called you the last of the great Corinthians, and he wasn’t a man to give out praise to easily, so he obviously thought highly of you.

I think so, yeah. I think it was because I always tried to play the game fairly, whereas as a centre half you’re supposed to be a big hairy, erm, chested I should say so and so, and kicking everyone in sight. But I always tried to play football, and to be fair. I did hurt a few though, and if somebody had hit me, then I’d try and get them back. But now, any centre half would be sent off or booked, you can’t play the game anymore, you can’t tackle.

But that stuck with me a bit, ‘The last of the Corinthians’ – a great tribute, but a bit embarrassing sometimes. Westy takes the mickey, and a few others, mind you Westy doesn’t know what a Corinthian is so I don’t know why he’s taking the mickey!

What was Harry Catterick like to deal with?

I always found him OK, mainly because he picked me every week though! He was always dead straight with me, other people will tell their own stories, but I was always happy with Harry, and I didn’t moan when he dropped me, and obviously I didn’t moan when he picked me! Everyone’s always got an angle on someone, but I always found him fine, and up until Howard Kendall he was our best manager.

He was a disciplinarian as well, and any curfews that were broken, Harry wouldn’t wait up. He used to take all your hotel keys off you and keep them in his room, so you’d have to knock on his door you see. He’d say “Labone and West, what time is it?” “Erm, half past one”

“Right, down in the book.” And a pyjama sleeve would come round the door and give you your keys, so there was no way you could ever get away with coming in at 3 o’clock! I remember Howard Kendall, on I think it was his debut, we were staying at Harrogate and he obvious wanted to make a good impression. I think it was over Easter, and we had a bit of a night out, and Howard wanted to go back within the curfew time, but we were playing roulette somewhere and there was no way we would let him go. It was solidarity!

The following morning, the boss is about to give Howard a bit of a rollocking, ‘You’ve only just singed on for five minutes and you’re already out with this lot.’ So we had to sort of stand up and say ‘Look boss, Howard wanted to come back at the right time, but as a show of solidarity he was prepared to stay out with us and get a bollocking with the rest of us.’ And you know the rest, Howard was very successful for us.

Was it strange to see Howard, Colin and Joe return to the club as managers?

I don’t say this lightly, once you’ve played for this club, it is the club. You get all this “Once an Evertonian, Always an Evertonian” – that’s true. I was born about two miles away from Goodison and I used to walk through Walton Village up there. I could have signed for Liverpool or Man Utd, but Everton, at the time, well, always will be the number one.

I always get a bit emotional when I talk about them like that, but it’s a fact.

I’ve heard Joe Royle, and indeed many other players, come up to you and still refer to you as ‘skip’….

That’s right, Big Joe still calls me skip. Most of them do actually, and it’s a great tribute that. You’ll have me crying in a minute!

One of the most endearing images of yourself, for me, was not when you were playing, it was the game against Coventry City in 1998 when it didn’t look good for us and you were outside the Main Entrance pacing up and down.

I saw that picture, and it was an Everton book that’s just come out, and someone showed me that and I’m smoking away – as you’re not allowed to smoke in here [Goodison?] and I couldn’t watch the last five minutes without a cigar, so I was walking along Goodison Road. It looks stage-managed that photo, but I didn’t know it was being taken.

There was a fellow there with a dog, I don’t know whether he had a cap on the deck and I was supposed to throw fifty pence in, but that picture summed it up. I thought that was it for us that year, but we stayed up by goal difference. If that so and so, Dion Dublin had come on though, he always scored against Everton – mind you anyone who hasn’t scored against Everton for ten years always seems to come back and seems to score – but that was close, and I think we’ve changed, but if you go to the edge too often, then over you go.

But lets not think about that, lets think about getting up the league!

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