Kenny Birch, who played forty-five times for the Blues in the 1950s, passed away on 24 April 2015 after a long and brave battle with illness.
Born in Birkenhead, he joined Everton as a junior and made his debut in April 1956 in a 1-1 draw at Sheffield United, alongside the likes of TE Jones, Peter Farrell, Tommy Eglington and Jimmy Harris. The following season he played thirty times in League and FA Cup, scoring his one and only goal for the Club in a 4-2 victory at Maine Road against Manchester City, finding a way past the legendary Bert Trautmann.
The 1957/58 campaign saw him add another eleven appearances to his tally before he was allowed to move to Southampton. Later in his career, Birch played for Bangor City, helping them to a Welsh Cup success in 1962, that gave him the chance to play in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Bangor were drawn against Italian giants Napoli and on the most famous night in their history, Birch was one of the goalscorers as they stunned their opponents with a 2-0 win.
Napoli won the return leg in Naples 3-1 but the away goals rule wasn’t in operation in those days so Birch and his brave men played a third game at Highbury which the Italians won 2-1. In later life, Kenny Birch was a regular and popular attendee of many Everton Former Players’ Foundation events.
Birch was born in Birkenhead and played as a junior for Bebington Hawks and Birkenhead Boys. As a schoolboy he played at centre-forward before joining Everton as a trainee in August 1951.
His football career was interrupted during his National Service, when he joined the Royal Tank Corps and represented the Army at football. He made his Everton first-team debut in a 1–1 draw at Sheffield United on 2 April 1956. He made a further three appearances that season and was a regular at right-back in 1956–57 but fell out of favour the following year.
In March 1958, he was signed by Ted Bates of Southampton for a fee of £6,000 and went straight into the first team, making his “Saints” debut in a 3–1 victory at Northampton Town on 15 March 1958 as a replacement for Bryn Elliott. With Birch retaining his place for the last ten matches of the season, of which seven were victories, Southampton finished in sixth place in the Third Division South, thus enabling the team to qualify for the newly formed Third Division proper.
In the next season, Birch played the first 20 league matches, but struggled to maintain his form and lost his place, first to Terry Simpson and then to Brian Clifton. Birch was released in the summer of 1959 and joined Chelmsford City of the Southern League for a season before joining Bangor City in August 1960.
At this time, Bangor were playing in the Cheshire League and regularly finished mid-table, but in Birch’s first season with the Welsh club, they reached the final of the Welsh Cup, going down 3–1 to Swansea Town. The following season, Bangor again reached the final, this time against Wrexham; after each team had won one match of the two-legged final, they met again in a play-off on 7 May 1962 at Belle Vue, Rhyl. Birch was one of the scorers as Bangor ran out 3–1 victors.
Victory in the Welsh Cup entitled Bangor to enter the European Cup Winners’ Cup where they were drawn against the Italian cup-winners, Napoli in the preliminary round. The first leg was played at Bangor’s Farrar Road Stadium on 5 September 1961 in front of a capacity crowd of 8,000. Part-timers Bangor City, who were lying sixth in the Cheshire League, outplayed their famous rivals. Whilst Napoli played typical Italian pass and move football, Bangor’s no-nonsense more direct style of football paid off. After 43 minutes, a cross from Hunter was met by Matthews who shot home through a crowd of defenders to beat the unsighted keeper. Throughout the second half, Bangor missed numerous chances to increase their lead, hitting the bar twice, while successive Napoli attacks were repelled by the Bangor defenders. Then, after 82 minutes, Brown was fouled in the Napoli penalty area. Birch, the team captain, converted the penalty and, with no further scoring, Bangor had beaten Napoli by two goals to nil to become the first Welsh club to win in European competition.
The Second Leg was played in Naples on 26 September in front of a crowd of 80,000. Napoli were 2–0 up after 54 minutes, before Bangor scored with twenty minutes remaining, when an awkward throw-in from Birch caused havoc in the Napoli penalty-area, allowing McAllister to sneak the ball past the goalkeeper to put Bangor back ahead on goal difference. Napoli then took the match to a play-off when they scored with five minutes remaining to bring the score to 3–1, 3–3 on aggregate.
At that time, the “away goals rule” didn’t apply, so a play-off was arranged at Arsenal’s Highbury stadium on Wednesday 10 October. Napoli took the lead on 37 minutes when Rosa fired a 20-yard shot in off the crossbar. A tremendous display by Len Davies in goal kept City in the game, and after 25 minutes of the second half, Ellis headed the ball down into the path of McAllister who slotted the ball past Pontel in the Napoli goal. Unfortunately for Bangor, with five minutes to go, Rosa capitalised on a rebound to score his second of the night and put Napoli through.
Bangor City Welsh Cup winners: 1962, Welsh Cup finalists: 1961
Birch left Bangor in January 1963, to take up the post of player-manager to Benoni in Johannesburg, South Africa.
In May 2007, Birch was a guest of honour at Farrar Road for the Bangor City Legends Reunion & Challenge Match.
If there was ever a legendary Bangor side this was it, managed by Tommy G Jones and Welsh Cup winners in 1962 after beating Wrexham 3-1 in the final.
This was a David and Goliath encounter, a clash of cultures with Italian Seria A giants Napoli visiting Farrar Road, home of Cheshire League part timers Bangor City. It was a hopeless mis match and City stood no real chance…
A noisy Bangor following and a typical heavy Farrar Road pitch unsettled the Italians and it came as no great surprise on the night when City took the lead. It happened two minutes before half time as Reg Hunter crossed and 19 year old Roy Matthews fired home with goalkeeper Walter Pontel unsighted. This was too much for hundreds of City supporters who rushed onto the pitch. Police had to repel the high spirited invader and the referee warned against any repeats.
With a one goal lead at half time Bangor scorned chances to double their advantage whilst Napoli threatened on the break. Both Matthews and Ellis went close but not close enough. Then with just eight minutes left Eddie Brown was fouled in the box by Gianni Corelli and Ken Birch stepped up to convert the penalty awarded by experienced Dutch official Johan Martens.
Two nil and that is how it finished with the word giant killers scarcely better applied.
What an introduction to European football!
Bangor City: Len Davies, Bill Souter, Iorys Griffiths, Ken Birch, Eddie Murphy, Brian Wilkinson, Roy Matthews, Brian Ellis, Eddie Brown, Jimmy McCallister, Reg Hunter
AC Napoli: Walter Pontel, Giovani Molino, Dolo Mistone, Pierluigi Ronzon, Rosario Rivellino, Achille Fraschini, Amos Mariani, Giorgio Rosa, Tomeazzi, Gianni Corelli, Juan Tachi