They say you should never meet your heroes. I’ve been lucky enough to have met some of mine and I have never found that to be the case. They have been gracious, humble and even a little surprised to find that they are still revered long after they have hung up their boots.
To a man they have been approachable and happy to talk about the good old days. There has been one exception: Alex Young. This is nothing to do with the man himself; I know from talking to people who met him that he was a perfect gentleman, always prepared to talk with real humility. I never saw him play and my memories of him are all monochrome, of the unforgettable ’66 Cup Final and being allowed to stay up late to watch “The Golden Vision”, Ken Loach’s extraordinary tribute to Alex from 1968. But I have talked to those who did see him play, and each one has added to his legend. Not being able to talk to him was about me, and my inability to separate the legend from the man.
The occasion was a ceremony in Edinburgh to place a headstone on the grave of his namesake, Alexander ‘Sandy’ Young, the troubled genius who scored the winner in Everton’s first FA Cup triumph in 1906. Sandy Young was also adored by Everton fans, and there were near riots when he was sold to Spurs in 1911. In an uncanny parallel Harry Catterick was allegedly “assaulted” by Everton fans at Blackpool for dropping Alex Young in favour of the teenage Joe Royle. At the end of the ceremony on that balmy early September day I looked over to Alex and I thought I would just say hello. But I found myself rooted to the spot and I am convinced that had I been able to open my mouth I would have spoken fluent Cherokee. The chance passed and I would not get another.
Fast forward to a grey, damp Friday in early March 2017 as I returned to Edinburgh for the funeral of the man I had been unable to talk to two years before. I travelled up in the company of John Hurst, Alex Young’s friend and team mate, Tony Onslow, the EFC Heritage Society’s Victorian football sage and Henry Mooney, chair of the Everton Former Players Foundation. The conversation made the journey pass quickly, and John, Henry and Tony’s recall of the 50s and 60s was remarkable. The contrast between then and now was much discussed. Footballers in those days lived in the real world and it was pointed out Alex Young spent two years in the Army on National Service after starting an apprenticeship at the local coal mine.
We also spoke long about how Alex’s achievements were against hard and ruthless defenders like Norman ‘Bites-yer-Legs’ Hunter, Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris and Tommy Smith, the Anfield Iron. These were literal nicknames which had nothing to do with dentistry, forestry or metalwork. The lads also remembered the pitches; during the winter Alex often played on surfaces which resembled our image of WW1 battlefields, a world away from the high tech, billiard table smooth surfaces of today. In a debate about which was the worst pitch, which lasted a couple of M6 junctions, Derby County’s old Baseball Ground was chosen, but were several other contenders. We also talked about the way Alex appeared to glide across the ground as if floating, yet he was affected throughout his career by problems with his feet. For Alex ‘blistering acceleration’ was the literal truth.
We did a large chunk of the A74 discussing Alex’s heading ability, with much emphasis on his ability to hang in the air. This of course defies the laws of physics, but if anyone could Alex could. In the end we put it down to his amazing spring and perfect timing which created the optical illusion of the defiance of gravity.
When the discussion turned to Alex’s relationship with the enigmatic and perplexing character of Harry Catterick, there were many opinions but few conclusions. What was clear was that Catterick never fully trusted Alex, which makes his achievements even greater. One thing was cleared up however; Catterick had slipped getting onto the bus that day at Blackpool, he was berated but not assaulted by the fans. We even briefly considered what Alex would be worth if he were playing today. I tried to imagine him on the modern Goodison pitch, in boots specially designed for him taking on defenders who are no longer allowed to try to kick lumps off him. We are talking telephone numbers.
The following morning, we gathered at the crematorium where the funeral service for Alex was to take place. It was a grey damp day but there was real warmth among those who gathered there. The funeral service was beautifully done as Alan Pattullo of the Scotsman eloquently describes. The tributes came from the Young family and on behalf of those of us who felt he was part of our family. These were almost for two different people, the kind family man who his granddaughters called ‘Chalky’ in their eulogies, and the footballer they called the Golden Vision, about whom John Robertson for Hearts and Graeme Sharp for Everton spoke.
The Golden Vision – the phrase was on everybody’s lips. It was coined by Danny Blanchflower, a man who knew a bit about football as captain of both Northern Ireland and Bill Nicholson’s great Spurs side of the early sixties. In Alex he saw something beyond football:
“The view every Saturday that we have of a more perfect world, a world that has got pattern and is finite,” said Blanchflower. “And that’s Alex, the Golden Vision.”
Alex was a man whose skill attracted such reverential, even poetic words. Those who saw him use words like grace, elegance, poise, glide, balance and effortless. Not for him the humdrum and often ludicrous lexicon of football; it is the vocabulary of dance that seems more fitting for descriptions of his genius. In his eulogy, Graeme Sharp quoted Bill Kenwright’s comparison of Alex Young to Nijinsky, the great ballet dancer of 100 years ago. It did cross my mind that he might also have been referring to the legendary thoroughbred of the same name; its seemingly effortless acceleration being just as apt. John Hurst came up with an automotive analogy: “there were players at that time who were Mercedes and Jaguars, but Alex was a Rolls Royce.”
Alex’s genius had a way of turning many of the people lucky enough to see him into poets, literally in the case of one gentleman I spoke to after the service. He had travelled up to Edinburgh from Merseyside and showed me a faded and fragile piece of paper bearing a handwritten poem inspired by the great man. For some I spoke to the mere mention of Alex’s name created a faraway look as they were transported back to the more perfect world Blanchflower talked of.
However, along with the family man and the footballer, there was a third Alex Young that we were remembering. This is Alex Young as a symbol of how football should be played; the embodiment of the School of Footballing Science. For Evertonians, the aspiration that the team should play beautiful football is something that is felt not thought, and is something that is passed down from generation to generation. Again Danny Blanchflower put this feeling into words: “The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.” Alex Young had style and flourish in abundance, and that was his and Everton’s glory.
But my favourite description of Alex came from my friend Tony, who as a five-year-old was told by his uncle that “at ten to three Everton called for Alex and he descended from the clouds on rays of sunshine”. Alex Young, the Golden Vision, with us always.