Everton have had two Alex Youngs: one’s the subject of a Ken Loach film, the other killed his brother
May 1967 and the denouement of a disappointing season. Player by player Everton’s manager Harry Catterick was dismantling his so-called ‘Mersey Millionnaires’, who had brought the 1963 League Championship and 1966 FA Cup to Goodison. The likes of Roy Vernon, Alex Scott and Billy Bingham were being replaced by a new generation of homegrown players, such as Colin Harvey and Joe Royle, supplemented by young big-name signings like Alan Ball and Howard Kendall.
Going into the final game of the season, a Tuesday night home match against Sunderland, sixth place was already secured. There had been disappointing exits in the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the FA Cup quarter-final, but terrace disgruntlement was muted by a general acknowledgement that this Everton team was a work in progress. And for the last match, there was joy that the Gwladys Street’s idol, Alex Young, was back.
It had been six weeks since he had last been seen playing for Everton, and four months since he had played in his favoured number nine shirt, but it was like he had never been away. Young – Everton’s Golden Vision – demolished Sunderland with a display of virtuosity, grace and skill. “Young spread destruction through their ranks with his wonderful ball distribution, artistry and sheer cheek,” wrote Michael Charters in the Liverpool Echo. Young didn’t score but had a hand in each of Everton’s four goals and only over-elaboration and a fine display by Jim Montgomery kept the score down to 4-1.
According to his captain Brian Labone, it was the best individual performance he had ever seen from Young and Alan Ball wanted him – and not Johnny Morrissey, who had scored a hat-trick – to keep the match ball at the end. “Young beat Sunderland almost on his own that night,” claimed Labone. “He played on the wing and I never felt so sorry for a man as I did for the Sunderland left-back [John Parke]. For him, it was a nightmare. For Young, it was a great personal triumph.”
Cast your eye through any club history and legends tend to fall into distinct categories: goalscorers, playmakers, artists, mavericks, leaders, genius managers. In the pantheon of Everton greats, however, Alex Young is a special case because he transcends such ready categorisation. A sublimely gifted centre-forward, he assumed many of these characteristics. Lacking the physicality of the blood and thunder player who typified his position, Young was a slim, delicate, fragile player possessing more the physique of a winger or inside-forward. He was a great goalscorer, one of Goodison’s finest, but also a creator of goals. For Evertonians, he typified a footballing era where the club’s status as ‘The School of Science’ was beyond question.
If Dave Hickson is Everton’s most loved player and Dixie Dean their most iconic, it’s no exaggeration to say that Young is their most adored. He is to Everton what Kenny Dalglish is to Liverpool or Éric Cantona to Manchester United. Like Cantona, he inspired an eponymous Ken Loach film, but not even Cantona’s adulation prompted an attack by fans on his manager after being dropped, as happened when Harry Catterick left out Young in January 1966. One of the most enduring images of the era is an Evertonian being led off the Goodison pitch by a bobby, still defiantly holding up a placard with the legend, “Sack Catterick, Keep Young.”
This adulation bred suspicion in his manager, who dropped him, played him out of position and tried on several occasions to sell him. “It turned out that the more the fans loved me, the more the manager disliked me,” Young recorded in his memoirs. “I was engaged in a constant battle with Harry and learned not to trust him.” Where Bob Paisley and Alex Ferguson talked up Dalglish and Cantona, Catterick downplayed the role of his talisman. Perhaps this is why Alex Young lacks the effect on the wider football consciousness today.
Because footage of this era is limited by its graininess, the single-camera angle, the cliché-ridden Pathé newsreel, it remains difficult to get a full idea of Young’s repertoire. The nuance is lost and YouTube, frozen frame by frame, leaves us with mere glimpses. Here’s Alex, gliding over a mudbath. There’s a swivel of the hips, but the floating leap, the dart of the eyes sending a defender the wrong way, the feint and dummy are left mostly in an ageing generation’s memories.
Young was born in Loanhead, a coal mining village in Midlothian, in 1937. It was a time when an astonishing array of talent was bred in Scotland’s central belt: in Young’s junior school team alone were Ian King, later of Leicester City, and Malcolm Howieson, who would play for Grimsby Town; John White, who played with Young at Hearts and for Tottenham, went to a neighbouring school.
As with many from his background, Young seemed destined for life down the coal mine and was taken on as a colliery apprentice aged 15. His escape from such drudgery came via football. Spotted by Hearts playing junior football, he initially combined playing with work at the coalface. Aged 18, at the start of the 1955-56 season he made his Hearts debut in a League Cup tie; by the season’s end he was an established Tynecastle favourite and had played a part in Hearts’ first Scottish FA Cup win in half a century.
This would emerge as the greatest team in Hearts’ history. As well as Young and White it boasted players such as Dave Mackay, Ian Crawford and Willie Bauld. Twice they lifted the Scottish League title, in 1958 – when they scored an astonishing 132 league goals and finished 13 points clear of Rangers – and 1960, and would also claim the League Cup in 1959 and 1960. Young cultivated a reputation as a forward of grace and élan. In 1960 he won his first Scotland cap, against Austria; just seven more would follow – the majority of them while still playing for Hearts.
The move to Everton came later in 1960 as Hearts’ greatest team began to break up and the wealth of pools magnate John Moores started to make an impression at Goodison. As an 11 year old, Joe Royle – who would later replace him as Everton number 9 – watched Young’s debut against Tottenham in December 1960 and recalled, “We all had our mouths open that night. We were all goldfish watching a wonderful talent.”
Injuries meant he had a slow start to his Everton career, but his pedigree was never in question. “Young is a thoroughbred, a great mover with the ball, fast, active, razor sharp in his reactions,” reported the Liverpool Echo of an early performance. “For his size, he is a good header of the ball. He is clever, artistic and can score goals.” Everton finished the 1960-61 campaign fifth – their best since the war – but it was not enough to save their manager, Johnny Carey, who was sacked.
Although his relationship with Carey’s successor, Catterick, was never easy, his form was astonishing. He and the Wales captain Roy Vernon would score 116 league goals between them over the following three years. Vernon, clinical and whippet-like – the ultimate penalty area predator – was the perfect foil for the Scot and they built up a subliminal understanding. Everton lifted the league title in 1963 – Young’s brilliant header in a late-season clash with their nearest rivals Tottenham effectively sealing that crown. His club were unlucky not to retain it a year later, after ailing late in the campaign when they were undermined by a match-fixing scandal involving their captain, Tony Kay.
Catterick by then had signed Fred Pickering for a British domestic transfer record and consigned Young to the reserves. Fan anger was initially quietened by Pickering’s prolific form. Young asked for a transfer but later withdrew the request. Roy Vernon was sold to Stoke City and Young reverted to an inside forward or wing role, while ‘Boomer’ Pickering banged in the goals. Looking back in Young’s 2008 biography there was a wearied tone in describing Catterick’s management. “I thought of him as a canny businessman who bought and sold livestock, usually at a profit, and enjoyed the thrill of deal-making more than football,” he recalled. “I don’t think it was a case of him disliking me – more a case of him hating me.”
Still he hung in there. The 1966 FA Cup win saw a revival in fortunes. Pickering, through injuries and loss of form, became a marginalised figure and Young was restored to the number 9 shirt. Yet football was evolving. Don Revie’s Leeds had introduced a new style of play to the First Division characterised by cynicism and other clubs, to a greater or lesser extent, began to adopt what would euphemistically be termed ‘professionalism’. As Brian Labone wrote in his 1968 autobiography, “An examination of Young today, is at the same time, both a joy and a sadness. A joy because he is just about the most perfect ball playing footballer around… But sad because for all that skill and sheer natural talent, Alex is becoming a misfit in modern soccer. He belongs to a breed that is almost extinct… that can no longer survive and flourish in the hard-driving, hustling and ruthless business we are in now.”
The facts demonstrated that Labone’s lament wasn’t simply ghostwritten sentimentality. In 1960-61, Young’s first season, Everton scored 87, conceded 69, finishing with 50 points; in 1967-68, Young’s last campaign at the club, they gained 52 points, having scored 67 and conceded just 40 goals. Young’s last game in an Everton shirt came on 11 May 1968, a month after the screening of The Golden Vision, Loach’s film about Young.
His career wound down very quickly. A potentially lucrative move to the short-lived New York Generals franchise fell through after Catterick obstructed it. Instead he was briefly player-manager at Glentoran. The move was ill-fated, however, and Young was uneasy at Northern Ireland’s rising sectarian violence. He returned to England with Stockport County, but the Third Division was no fitting stage. After making just a single appearance in the 1969-70 season he called time on his illustrious career.
Young returned to Scotland, where he lived a quiet post-football existence, first running a pub, then working for his family’s soft furnishings business, making occasional pilgrimages south to Goodison. His son, Jason, was a forward for Scotland’s youth teams alongside Duncan Ferguson, but after breaking his leg was consigned to a career in the Scottish lower leagues with Livingston and Stranraer.
The Golden Vision is – and was – at once accepting, ambivalent and surprised about his fame. His friend and biographer, the historian and philanthropist David France, describes walking with him through Liverpool city centre one night in 2007 when it was “late, dark and raining”: Young had the effect of the Pied Piper on fans who kept appearing by the dozen “from every nook and cranny” to have autographs signed. “In spite of these experiences he remains genuinely surprised that the younger fans know who he is, never mind that they know so much about him,” France said.
Young was always aware of his greatness, no matter how disarmingly modest he remained. In his 1968 autobiography Goals at Goodison he claimed – or at least his ghostwriter did – to keep in his wallet a photograph sent to him by a fan, of a wall bearing the legend “Alex Young The Great”. Nearly 40 years later I casually mentioned this to him as we were about to go in to a dinner and he blushed with a look of incredulity.
“Och, no,” he replied. “That’s a load of mumbo-jumbo. Where on earth did you hear that?”
The Golden Vision was not the only significant Alex Young in Everton’s history. Separated by 57 years, a player of the same name, same position, same mining heritage, from the same part of Scotland preceded him: Alex ‘Sandy’ Young, a fellow Scot whose achievements arguably outstripped even the Golden Vision’s.
Yet off the field the parallel lives of Alex Young diverge. While the 1960s player was the subject of Loach’s social realism, so dramatic were the life and times of Sandy – free scoring centre-forward, FA Cup Final hero, murderer, felon – that, if they were made into a film, they would be better suited to a Ron Howard-directed Hollywood epic.
His was an extraordinary life which traversed the peaks and troughs of human existence. Although no relation to the 1960s idol, he was born just 30 miles away, in 1880 in the Stirlingshire coal mining village of Slamannan. Like the Golden Vision he started working life down a pit, the 1901 census recording his occupation as a miner.
That was the year that he signed for Everton. Having made a name for himself with Slamannan Juniors, Young had spent the 1899-1900 season in Scottish League Division One with St Mirren, where he scored six times in 19 appearances. St Mirren had struggled in the league, however, winning just three of their 18 league matches, and avoided demotion only after beating St Bernard’s in a play-off. Young left at the season’s end to join Falkirk, then still competing in amateur leagues. Combining football at Brockville Park, just 6 miles from Slamannan, with work down the mines was presumably easier for Sandy, who scored 16 goals in 36 games. In May 1901 Everton paid Falkirk £100 to sign Young and St Mirren £20 for his league registration.
At Goodison he was paid £2.10s per week – comfortably more than the 30s he would have earned at the coalface, but hardly a life-changing salary. He was never prolific in his first few campaigns for Everton, but it is clear that his selfless play allowed others – notably Jimmy Settle and Jack Sharp – to thrive. Everton were perennial nearly-men in this time and they ended Young’s debut season – in which he played in 30 of the club’s 34 league matches – runners up to Sunderland. Twice more, in 1904-05, and 1908-09, they would finish second as well as third in 1903-04 and 1906-07, the year they also finished FA Cup runners-up.
Young led the Everton forward line through these years. He was a regular goalscorer, but only in 1906-07 – when he topped the First Division scoring charts with 28 goals – could he be described as outstandingly prolific. A Liverpool Echo pen portrait of the period was revealing of how he divided some opinions: “Sandy Young, the centre-forward, is a variable sort of man who plays one good game in three on average. He takes the bumps a centre-forward must inevitably expect smilingly and determination makes up for lack of skill at times.” Others were more enthusiastic: “I have been a regular attender at the Everton matches since the days of [Alec] Dick and [George] Dobson [in the 1880s], and I unhesitatingly affirm that Sandy Young is the greatest forward that has ever played under the club’s colours. Young has been and still is the club’s greatest asset,” wrote one fan to the same newspaper.
“He was idolised by the public of Liverpool, and his career is something of a romance,” recalled Ernest ‘Bee’ Edwards, who was the Liverpool Echo’s sports editor through much of the first half of the last century. Young, he wrote, “at once made his name by brilliant foot-work and curious little artistries of dribbling that make a footballer a hero in the eyes of the public.” Sandy’s “twisting and turning and feinting were a delight to the football enthusiast’s eye.”
And yet for all the adulation, he remained an aloof individual, a man whose personality was at odds with his growing fame. An unnamed former teammate of Young’s declared that he “was very highly strung, had peculiar habits and was a very sombre man.” Young, according to this account, “would live alone, as far as possible and many a time when out training he slinked off to some long walk and no one could get a word out of him. If one was not satisfied with his game one never offered any remarks on the point as Sandy would straightway have curled up, and played any sort of tosh.”
The defining moment of Sandy’s career came in 1906 when Everton met Newcastle United in the FA Cup Final at Crystal Palace. It was the club’s third final and following two finals defeats in the 1890s as well as losing out on the league title by a point to their opponents the previous year, Everton were desperate to overcome their also-ran status.
With the exception of a second round strike against Chesterfield, goals had proved elusive to Young throughout Everton’s Cup run, but on this April day he was on fine form. On 53 minutes he found the net, but the goal was ruled out for offside. (“He was standing almost under the bar,” reported the Mirror.) 25 minutes later Jack Sharp was sent free down the wing, evading the pursuit of the Newcastle left-back Carr. Sharp beat Carr and another defender, and sent in a beautifully weighted cross which Young slotted home for the game’s only goal.
“I doubt,” the Football League’s founding father, William McGregor, said “if we have ever had a final in which there has been more loose play… [It was] one of the poorest finals.” The Daily Mirror’s reporter accused Young of marring his “dashing display” with “a good many petty tricks, which Mr Kirkham [the referee] generally noticed and always promptly penalised.” But as the invariably partisan Liverpool Daily Post put it, “Thrice has the battle been waged, and twice the victory denied, but the third time pays for all: Bravo the Blues!”
Although Young’s scoring spree a year later almost elevated Everton to a league and cup double and he still managed a goal every other game through the 1907-08 season, by then Everton had dropped to eleventh and there was a need for change. In an effort to revive fortunes, Bertie Freeman was signed late in the campaign from Woolwich Arsenal and took Young’s berth. Thereafter the Scot would find himself overshadowed by Freeman’s prolific exploits and left to play as an inside-forward. He managed just two league goals during the 1909-10 season and although he showed signs that he may wrest back the centre-forward berth the following season, Everton’s selectors deemed Young – by then aged 30 – to be past his best.
In the summer of 1911 Young was sold to Tottenham Hotspur for £500. At the time he was Everton’s highest ever goalscorer with a total of 125, a tally surpassed just three times in the following century. His spell in London was brief, the highlight being his return to Goodison where he was still idolised. When he scored the equaliser in a 2-2 draw, Edwards reported, “of all the receptions I have ever heard that day’s volume led the lot.”
He returned north within a year, signing for Manchester City. There followed spells with South Liverpool and Burslem Port Vale, but the earlier heights were never hit. By the outbreak of the First World War Young had dropped out of professional football and emigrated to Australia.
Football, until the 1990s, remained a sport short on literature, save for match reports and the ubiquitous match day programme. Books, beyond usually anodyne autobiographies and club-produced annuals, remained few and far between. Everton, in the club’s first century, possessed just two club histories, published on the occasions of its half centenary and, in 1978, centenary. By contrast, the last decade alone has seen nearly twenty such publications.
Instead, oral tradition kept the legends of the game alive and because it was a relatively young sport, those stories retained a first- or second-hand aspect for many fans. A child of the 1980s, I first went to the match with men who had witnessed every player since Dixie Dean, and for anything before that era those supporters could offer their fathers’ or grandfathers’ memories. However, with a history kept alive by alehouse yarns it was unsurprising that some myths perpetuated, and so it was with Sandy Young.
What happened after Young retired from playing and moved to Australia was until a couple of years ago occluded by a combination of mystery and urban legend. One newspaper report claimed that Young was hanged for sheep rustling, a story which always seemed scarcely credible. Nevertheless, it was mentioned in several publications and thus gained some credence, becoming one of those self-perpetuating fables; a yarn that was complicated and further misconstrued by the fact that a rival and equally dramatic account emerged that Young was jailed for the murder of his brother John. Further uncorroborated details suggested that Young spent years in a lunatic asylum after this apparent crime. The story sometimes became confused or exaggerated – the footballer who ended up in the loony bin after stealing sheep – and Everton’s early hero was tarred by unsubstantiated infamy.
Indeed when I wrote a history of Everton in 2003 still no evidence had surfaced to contradict or confirm these versions of Sandy’s latter years. It was only later, thanks to the detective work of an Everton fanatic, that the truth emerged.
If you step into the darkened corner of Liverpool Central Library where the microfiche machines are located, on any given day there is a good chance you will encounter Billy Smith, a 48-year-old security guard and amateur historian who has made it his life’s work to record every detail of Everton’s 136-year long history. The self-styled ‘Blue Correspondent’, Smith is a modern equivalent of what Hugh McIllvanney once described as “the sort of magnificent obsessionists who suspect that when Jesus performed the miracle of walking on the waters he was bouncing a ball on his instep at the time.” According to the Blue Correspondent’s account, Jesus would probably have been wearing a royal blue shirt at the time.
Smith’s research started in 2000 and was initially focussed on Everton’s 1980s halcyon era. He became the first person to document accurately all the club’s penalty takers and buoyed by the success of this early project then “decided to go the Full Monty on Everton.” The ‘Full Monty’ according to Billy is every single report on the Blues, most painstakingly transcribed from old microfiche and then published on the internet. By Smith’s own admission he is not a writer, his aim, instead, “is to get information out to historians and researchers so that they can get accurate information.” His research now encompasses millions of words and currently documents everything from the club’s formation in 1878 to February 1954. He reckons he has another “six or seven years left” before he has every game recorded, adding “and then I’ll start on the statistics.”
“I devote far too much time, if the truth is told,” he admits. When asked how much, he replies: “Around six hours a day on average; however, sometimes, before I know it 12 hours can go flying past.” He jokes about needing to “get a life,” but his work has been invaluable to anyone with a serious interest in Everton history. And it was Smith, in 2012, whose research separated the truth from the myths about what happened to Sandy and John Young in Australia.
“My true passion is Everton from 1879 to 1888,” says Smith. “However, the truth about Alex gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
In Australia, Sandy Young joined his brother, John, who was a dairy farmer in Victoria. While still playing, Sandy had advanced him more than £300 to emigrate there in 1912 and establish a farm. He set up near Tongala, 150 miles north of Melbourne, and Sandy joined him when he left Port Vale. However their partnership was swiftly undermined by squabbles over money. Court accounts later revealed how Sandy did not get on with his brother, who threatened him on several occasions. John had hit him on the head with a bucket on two occasions and on the body with a stick. On another occasion he chased him with a fork and threatened to shoot him.
On 1 December 1915, their relationship spiralled tragically out of control. The previous night the brothers had fought again. John had hit him without provocation and warned, “You or me will have to enter heaven tonight.” That warning proved prophetic.
The following morning, with tensions high, Sandy heard a noise in the house, and thought it was his brother. He got up and loaded a double-barrelled shotgun gun. He found John milking a cow in their barn, Sandy approached him and warned that he was going to shoot.
According to a police statement, John replied, “‘Put the gun away. You are only trying to frighten me.’ Alexander, however, took no notice, and fired at me.” Sandy then returned to their house, turned the gun on himself and shot himself in the head. That was his last memory.
A week later he regained consciousness, physically scarred but very much alive, in Echuca Hospital, some 20 miles deeper into the outback. John was dead, having bled to death after suffering an internal haemorrhage. He left behind a widow, Agnes, and five children. Sandy was placed under arrest, facing a murder charge.
According to a police statement he made before he passed out (and which he couldn’t subsequently recall making), Sandy confessed, “I was driven to this; I am sorry. I shot him on the spur of the moment. Can the doctors not do anything for him?” Told that John had just hours to live Sandy buried his face in his hands and cried out, “Poor Agnes and the bairns. What will become of them?”
When news of the killing reached Britain some two months later, it was met with shock even at a time when newspapers were filled with the catastrophic losses being suffered daily on the Western Front. As much as the tragedy itself, focus was on Young’s character and personality. Edwards wrote of Young’s “curious temperament” adding that “there were periods when he stroked the single lock of hair that adorned his forehead which suggested that he suffered severe pains in the head.”
In Stirlingshire, the Youngs’ elderly mother read of John’s death in the press. Two of his sisters were sent to Liverpool to meet the Everton secretary, Will Cuff, to see if the club could assist in Sandy’s defence. To a local reporter they spoke of Young’s “melancholy temperament”, a theme developed over subsequent months.
Cuff, who combined his duties at Goodison with a prominent local law practice, immediately telegraphed Tongola’s mayor and may also have instructed a solicitor on Young’s behalf. In England he contacted counterparts at Young’s former clubs and secured affidavits from Manchester City’s secretary-manager Ernest Mangnall and representatives from South Liverpool on the subject of Young’s mental condition. He got testimony from an unnamed Everton captain of the era stating that Young was “a morose fellow, quiet, sombre, and touchy”. He added that “it was never possible to chide him in the dressing-room after he had played a ’45’, or he would curl up and sulk palpably if one did happen to suggest that be should put more life into his game.” All this was apparently evidence of Young’s mental unsoundness and was submitted to the Australian judge ahead of the trial.
When the case went to court in June 1916, the question was not Young’s guilt, but his sanity. At one stage the judge asked, “Why did you try to blow your brains out when you considered you had only shot your brother in self defence?”
“I cannot say,” replied Young.
The jury, after an hour’s deliberation, returned a verdict of manslaughter. It seems likely that Cuff’s intervention saved Young’s life. Instead of the hangman’s noose, he was sentenced to three years in prison, divided between Pentridge Penitentiary – a notorious island jail – and Ararat Lunatic Asylum.
In Liverpool, Cuff invited donations to help pay Young’s £200 legal bills. On his release Young was sent £20 by the Everton board, but beyond that the trail went cold. In October 1945, the Everton board received a letter regarding his “circumstances”, but after considering it, decided to refer the matter to the public assistance officer in Stirlingshire, where Young was seemingly based.
The next years remained a blank, until news of Young’s death in September 1959 in an Edinburgh nursing home. His passing went entirely unnoticed at the time and for the best part of the next 50 years. It seemed as though no one mourned him and no one ever asked: whatever happened to Sandy Young?
When Smith uncovered details of Young’s fate in Australia, the Liverpool Echo picked up on his research. Things then started to move apace. Paul Wharton, chairman of the EFC Heritage Society – another of McIllvanney’s school of “magnificent obsessionists” – tracked down Young’s burial site in Edinburgh. What he found shocked him. Young was buried in an unmarked grave with two Italian immigrants. “Where these people fit in with Alex I don’t know yet,” Wharton wrote to me at the time. He also visited Young’s last known address in Portobello. The owner invited him to see what was now a family home and Wharton learned it had previously been a mental health care home. “This sadly ties in with Alex’s state of mind,” he added.
Wharton resolved that something should be done as it was “not befitting that someone who had made such a contribution to Everton history be buried in a poor house grave.” He petitioned Everton to help fund the cost of a headstone and when the club agreed to go halves with the EFC Heritage Society, the remainder was raised prior to an Everton match in December 2013.
At this stage, members of Young’s extended family began making contact with Wharton and, for the first time in many cases, with each other.
“I think because of the mental health issues he had and what happened in Australia he became the black sheep of the family, if you like. We knew very little about what happened when he came back to Scotland,” says Bryan Cleeton, the footballer’s great-great-nephew.
“The tragic events in Australia put a dampener on Sandy and buried his football career,” he adds. “It was only when a picture of Sandy appeared in a Panini sticker album in 1987 that we really realised that he was held in such high regard at Everton and his actual accomplishments, such as scoring the winning goal when they won the FA Cup.”
The new focus on Sandy Young, assisted by social media, suddenly united parts of his family that had never known each other. It also ultimately unravelled the remaining mysteries of his later, lonely wilderness years.
September 2014 and the last of the summer sun shines gently through the oak trees at Edinburgh’s Seafield Cemetery. It is a lovely spot, with birdsong chattering over the distant hum of traffic. In the tranquillity of the graveyard the wave of political debate washing over the country ahead of its independence referendum the following week seems very distant.
With Paul Wharton and Billy Smith, the two unsung heroes who had lifted the shroud of mystery from Sandy’s demise, I walked along a tree-shaded path and there, watched over by a solitary piper, it is: a permanent memorial to the footballer; a black headstone, as dark and shiny as onyx, bearing Young’s details, a small portrait at its top and the impression of his 1906 FA Cup winner’s medal underneath it.
Around 100 of us – descendants of Young, a handful of football officials, enthusiasts and members of the press – await the start of the dedication ceremony and admire the work of the stonemason. It is almost 55 years to the day since Young died and at last his final resting place is properly marked.
As we wait, I fall into conversation with an old man. I ask him what had brought him to Seafield Cemetrery.
“I remember him only too well,” he told me. “Sandy was my uncle.”
The old man was Cyril Cleeton, whose mother was Sandy’s sister. Then in his mid-80s, he recalled his uncle’s hermit-like existence on his return from Scotland in 1920. “Sandy had reached the depths. If he had reached the pinnacle of his profession, he had reached the depths of his own depravation,” said Cyril. “He lived alone in abject poverty. No one to care for him. He was a recluse, there’s no question about that.
“He used to do odd jobs about the place. We had a bungalow with quite a big garden that took a bit of tending, so Sandy would do that. But his career as a footballer was not brought up.”
Cleeton said that he had an “inkling” of his uncle’s fame, but admits that he “didn’t know he was the esteemed footballer we talk about now.”
“It was only later when my niece came down to Everton and researched his past that I had any idea. It came as a surprise.”
I asked him about the shooting in Australia. Cyril said that as a boy he would help shave his uncle with a single edge razor and was aware of the gouge on the right side of his face where Sandy had shot himself. If he asked about it, “The reply I got, more often than not, was, ‘Oh, we don’t talk about that.’”
The sound of ‘Flower of Scotland’ from the bagpipes indicated the dedication ceremony was underway. Tributes were made to Sandy and wreathes laid, including one by John’s great-granddaughter, Catherine Yarham, who had travelled from Australia to attend the ceremony.
Everton’s chaplain, Henry Corbett, dealt sensitively with the complexities of Sandy’s “tough story” – the brother who died at his hand, the years of suffering from mental illness – but spoke of the need for forgiveness and moving on.
“The Christian faith says that forgiveness is possible and that we believe in a God who understands and in a God who offers hope,” he said. “Alex ‘Sandy’ Young’s family and friends and the football family of Everton Football Club rededicate his grave.”
On the edge of the gathering was a familiar figure. The tight blond curls – grey when I’d last set eyes upon him a few years earlier – had now turned to white, but there he was, unmistakable, elegant, iconic – the Golden Vision.
He was 77 by then and rumours about his declining health had periodically filtered down to Merseyside, where he was seldom seen. But on this day at least, Alex Young – a little deafer, a little older – was on fine form. We passed a couple of minutes chatting about Everton, his family, a mutual friend in America; inanities really, but then Alex the Great was never one to hold court grandiloquently. The Golden Vision’s status as a footballing deity, while accepted in his modest way, was one that never sat easily with him. If I’d learned anything from him over the years it was that his greatness as a footballer did not define him, rather his humility as a man.
It seemed so extraordinary, that the lives of these two footballers had shared so many parallels and yet their fates had so little in common. Both had become mythical creatures for very different reasons and here they were, united at last.
The piper gave a second burst of ‘Flower of Scotland’ and the Golden Vision made to leave. He shook everybody by the hand and bade farewell to his congregation of adorers. Then he was gone, shuffling through the graveyard, his wife Nancy at his side, into the sun-bathed afternoon and on his way.