Neil Robinson – in conversation with Rob Sawyer
Neil's story is one of highs and lows: A boyhood Blue, born within sight of Goodison Park who wrote to Everton for a trial and rose to become a first team player by the age of 18.
It takes in, bad luck, unfulfilled potential, a pioneering vegan lifestyle, success in South Wales, the despair of unemployment and the unforeseen career of a snack bar entrepreneur.
Fellow Evertonians, here is Neil Robinson's story:
Walton to Widnes
I was born in 1957 into a family of Evertonians on Spellow Lane, a stone’s throw from Goodison Park. My Dad had held numerous jobs, including landlord at the Winslow on Goodison Road but when I was two he broke his neck in an accident at work for Kodak and was paralysed from the neck down for the rest of his life.
The compensation money from Dad’s accident, a pittance by today’s standards, allowed us to move to Widnes when I was 5 years old, where we stayed until 1971 when we moved to Childwall. My mum had a ‘full-time job’ looking after us seven kids and Dad – she had a tough life.
Dad had my brother Ken down to be the famous footballer of the family – but when Ken was 4 years old, he went to bed feeling very unwell and he literally woke up next day unable to walk – he’d contracted Polio and was paralysed in both legs. Dad was heartbroken – his dreams of a son playing for Everton were shattered. As Ken grew up, Dad knew from his own experience what “remedial” therapy and work prospects for the disabled was like and made Ken concentrate on his education. He is now “Sir Ken”, a world-renowned educationalist in creativity, based in California and still grateful to his parents for making him study hard.
The Road to Goodison
We tried to get to Goodison as often as we could – I’d hop on the bus to Goodison with my brothers John, Ken and Ian. It was always a great experience, in the late 60’s: I remember seeing Alex Young a couple of times but my hero was Alan Ball, I met him at a book signing with my brother John when I was about 11 years old and, later in my football career, we crossed paths again on an end of season holiday in Marbella, I was with Everton and Alan was with Southampton, and I had a great chat with him for an hour!
I was doing okay at school and was hoping to go to Wade Deacon Grammar in Widnes, like Ken and John, but I was ill on the day of the “11 Plus” exam so I had to go to Bankfield Secondary School instead which was purely a rugby playing school. The PE teacher saw I had football potential but told me I should concentrate on rugby union as I had some pace; but football was always in my heart.
Because of Dad’s quadriplegia, he couldn’t take John and me to play football. Our elder brother Ian was like a ‘father figure’ and tried to push us into the football. John and I had dreams of being footballers so we composed letters asking for trials at Everton and Liverpool. We never thought that we’d get anywhere near but not long afterwards we got a reply from both clubs. The Everton trial was with the ‘C’ team, playing in the Sunday League. Tommy (T.E.) Jones was in charge - a lovely guy - and Dave Jones was in the team too. After about 6 weeks it came to the crunch and they said John was a bit too old but they kept me on.
I had just left school and Ian asked Tommy if I could train at Bellefield with the youth team and he said yes. Eric Harrison and Ray Minshull oversaw the youth players, so at 15 I was going down there and having practice matches and training with the reserves. For a while I was also training at Melwood with the likes of Sammy Lee, David Fairclough, and Jimmy Case but it came to the point where I had to make a choice so, not surprisingly, it was Everton for me!
It was not long after Alan Ball left that I signed as an apprentice, and my training kit number (21) was the same as his so I was quite proud of that. Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey were still there– I was just so in awe of them! I remember going home to Mum and Dad after training and shouting: “I just saw Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey!”. It was an absolute pleasure to play with them in training and practice games even now I still look on them as my heroes!
Bootroom to Debut
I think I was the last player to sign for Everton under Harry Catterick's reign. I signed as an apprentice on my 16th birthday and then a few days later he left his managerial post to take up the position of a non-executive director at the club.
We were on £8 per week plus digs money; we literally did clean the boots and the kit and went to college once a week. We would pick up the kit from the 1st team changing room - Gordon West was a right mickey taker – really funny! One day after training in the first team dressing room, Gordon had just had a shower and he called me over and, in front of all the first team players, handed me his towel and snarled at me saying “Hey, son, dry my back!” . Embarrassed, and with my face blood-red, I dried his back whilst all the first-team had a good old laugh at my expense! What a great character, and goalkeeper, Gordon was.
All training boots would be at Bellefield and on Friday we’d go to Goodison to clean the1st team match boots and make sure the kit was ready (or pack kit for away games). Just above me were the likes of Steve Seargeant and Ronnie Goodlass and I looked up to them too. I looked at the talent there and thought we’d have a great team for the future – there were some great players in training like George Telfer, Billy Kenny (Senior) Alan Wilson, and John “Tigsy” Smith. So many players come and go that’d you’d think were fantastic players but they just didn’t make it – some get side-tracked in life or have mental attitude issues.
When I first joined Everton I was very shy but I was confident on the pitch – I wanted to show them how good I was and started to get rave notices; in fact my apprenticeship was shortened and I signed pro at 17. Billy Bingham seemed to like me and I felt I was good enough to get in the 1st team then. Strangely as I reached 18 my confidence started to wane and that dogged me for the rest of my career - I was a good training pitch player but just an average match player and I never fulfilled my potential at Everton
I played in 1st team testimonial games by 16 and I made my first team debut in January 1976 against Burnley. It was great to make my debut – it was a frosty pitch and I couldn’t find my own boots so I had to borrow a pair and didn’t feel comfortable. I played okay and nearly scored early on - but we lost 2-3. Maybe that would have changed things for me…
First Team Life
Despite my early debut there were lots of right backs at the time like Terry Darracott and Mike Bernard so I only got my chances through injury.
Once, Billy Bingham told me on a Monday that I’d be playing the following Saturday in the first team but, by the Tuesday morning my right shin was swelling and full of puss - I ended up in hospital for 3 days with this freak injury. Billy Bingham ended up playing Dave Jones, a centre-half, at right back that week, and that’s how he got his break in the first team – great for Dave but bad for me because Dave ended up playing right back for the rest of the season. Who knows what might have happened for me without that stroke of bad luck?
I was a bit lightweight and known as an attacking right back; my game was overlapping – I enjoyed getting up and down and I liked the tackling side of it too. I never ever went to hurt anyone but I don’t think I could play now with today’s refereeing.
After Billy Bingham left I’m not really sure if Gordon Lee fancied me as a player. I wasn’t in the squad for the 1977 League Cup Final or first replay but I was drafted in for the 2nd replay at Old Trafford in front of 50,000+. Sadly it didn’t turn out right for us. I was proud to be involved in the final but I got caught in possession a bit for the first goal so I don’t look back fondly on the occasion.
Mick Lyons was a great player and leader to have in the team…I really admired all of them. Colin Todd was brilliant to play with and watch – a ‘Rolls-Royce’ of centre-halves. “Ticer” Thomas and Mike Pejic were, good family men, and I tagged along with them on away trips as I was a bit shy.
Dai Davies was very helpful to me at Everton. He lived about a mile away and used to give me a lift into training to Bellefield before I passed my driving test at 17. We used to pick up Steve Seargeant along the way too (a really great bloke). Dai was a great help to me and always offered advice.
Bob Latchford came to Everton when I was about 16. I weighed about 9 stone wet-through whilst he seemed like a gargantuan of a man - I literally did feel like a little boy stood next to him! He was a lovely bloke, very friendly, and a great centre forward - deadly in the box and a great target man. The 6-0 win over Chelsea in 1978 when he scored his 30th league goal of the season was a bit mixed for me. I scored my one and only Everton goal that day but there was an incident in the box just before I scored and the lads were demanding a penalty so that Bob could take it to get his 29th goal. I thought something was odd because no one came to congratulate me - they were all berating the ref! I nearly ran out of the ground with joy, having scored my first goal for my beloved Everton and I almost had to pay to get back into Goodison!
After I scored in that game I thought – ‘right next season is the one for me’ . In pre-season I was starting all the games but then tore my ankle ligaments and lost my place once again through injury.
When Swansea approached Everton, I’d been suffering with a bad knee and the physio, Jim McGregor, told me that it was a cartilage problem and that it would “go” on me eventually. I ended up going down to Swansea having trained at Bellefield in the morning. I met Tosh who I was impressed with and then it was a quick medical at the ground – I don’t know how I passed it but I got through somehow! I played in the reserves against Bristol City the following Tuesday and the knee went - Tommy Smith wasn’t too pleased! That kept me out for three months as there was no micro-surgery in those days.
When I was still at Everton, Bill Shankly used to come down to Bellefield and have a massage from Jim McGregor so if you were in for treatment you’d be in awe as he regaled you with great stories. When I signed for Swansea John Toshack said it was on Bill Shankly’s recommendation as he saw me a lot in training. When Shanks died Tosh told me that Shanks had told him I should have played for England – I don’t know how true that is but he probably saw me as a great training ground player but I didn’t reproduce it on the pitch.
You see players at the training ground doing things and you think “wow – what a player” but come the Saturday they’re pretty anonymous – it’s really down to mental attitude. Even when I was at Darlington I was thinking of seeing a psychologist to help me – but now it’s the norm. It might not have helped but it would have been interesting to see if it worked or not.
We loved living in the Swansea area, the five years there were some of the happiest years of my life, our two daughters were born there so we keep an affinity with Wales.
We had a Merseyside connection there with Dai, Bob Latchford, Garry Stanley, Colin Irwin, Max Thompson and Phil Boersma. Bob is just as much a hero down in Swansea because he scored some great, and vital goals there too, including a hat-trick on his debut and also Swansea City's debut in the First Division. I got on great with all the lads there, it was fantastic with 3 promotions in 4 years. Once I settled into the side Tommy Craig and John Mahoney were injured so Tosh put me in midfield and I stayed there for most of my time in South Wales.
By 1984 I thought it was time to move on after Tosh wanted a clear-out in the Summer. He actually left the club first and Dave Booth, the manager at Grimsby Town, came in for me in September. On the eve of my debut the Grimsby evening paper’s headline proclaimed “Town Sign Robinson to Plug Gap In Defence” – the next day I duly scored an own-goal with my first touch right in front of the home end! The next year I got the “Supporters Player of the Year” award so I won the fans over eventually.
Mike Lyons and Terry Darracott came to manage the club later and they were great – Mick was probably the fittest there. I was injured when Grimsby beat Everton in the League Cup at Goodison in ’84 but I played quite a few times with the scorer, Paul Wilkinson, before he signed for Everton.
Even though I was dropping down the divisions, I was still enjoying playing but it was harder mentally playing in front of smaller crowds – I was inspired playing in front of the bigger crowds. Dave Booth then signed me again – this time for Darlington.
In 1989 I still had plans to carry on playing but Brian Little, the new Darlington manager, told me he was letting me go. I couldn’t get another club as my age was against me and I had an ankle injury lurking in the background. I tried to train as a physio but ended up on the dole for 14 months.
A year after leaving Darlington I gave playing another go at Runcorn but mentally I wasn’t right there. I played one game for the reserves then packed my boots and never went back.
It was a struggle then, whilst you’re playing, even in front of smaller crowds, you are still “somebody” then the next thing you know you’re in the dole queue.
I did some database work in my brother’s firm and then ended up owning a fitness centre in Widnes with a good friend for four years. I also became a personal trainer, but struggled to get any work – maybe as people looked at my age. Eventually I ended up back at my brother’s firm for 10 years working in the office.
Being “Frank” – the Vegan Way
I was 13 when I became vegetarian; I had never really enjoyed eating meat but I watched a documentary on TV where an animal was sacrificed by a tribe in the Amazon and I just thought “this just isn’t right” so I turned to my Mum and Dad and said “I don’t want to eat meat any more”.
Animal foods don’t provide any nutrients for energy - plant based foods (vegetables & fruits) provide carbohydrates for energy so I was always in the top 3 fittest at my football clubs.
Everton used to tell me I’d be stronger if I ate “a nice bit of steak”. Billy Bingham used to take me weight training a couple of times a week to try and build me up whilst the physio Norman Borrowdale gave me a protein shake every day.
Apart from that I never had any pressure from any of my clubs. I used to talk about it to other players if they asked about it but I don’t know of any other player becoming a vegetarian or vegan during my career.
I nearly killed Dzemal Hadziabdic at Swansea City on an away trip when, during dinner, he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at something and while I turned away he stuck a steak on my plate - I went bezerk as he’d ruined my tea!.
In 1980, whilst at Swansea I became vegan, as I looked into it more and found that the dairy industry was just as cruel as the meat industry. Jim Pearson, my former Everton teammate, became a Nike rep., so he used to supply me with their synthetic boots.
A couple of years ago, I started to make my own vegan snack bars in my kitchen for the family to take out on walks. I jokingly named the bars ‘Ali-Kat’ after my daughters’ names (Alison & Kathryn). My brothers suggested that, because they tasted so nice, we produce some as a ‘cottage industry’ business for the family.
After researching on the internet, I emailed a guy with experience in the industry about buying some ‘home’ production equipment and he put me in touch with a manufacturer and it just all developed from there.
After raising the required capital, we now have our own factory in Peterborough and have now began production of the “FRANK” bars (www.thefrankfoodcompany.com) . The sample batch is on sale at several Liverpool outlets including Mattas (Bold Street), Tait’s (Dale Street) and The Interesting Eating Company (Allerton Road).
They really do taste great – even if I say so myself! They’re low fat, dairy free, gluten-free, vegan, and made from oats and dried fruit with a coconut cream chocolate topping.”
Following The Blues
After leaving Everton as a player I still followed them but football was my job so; my loyalties were always to the club I was playing for.
After I had finished playing I became a mad Everton fan again and went to loads of games. I loved it under Joe Royle’s managership, I remember the FA Cup semi-final in 1995 against Tottenham – I’ve never been at a game where I was so sure we’d win just from seeing and hearing the crowd before kick-off. I loved watching Anders Limpar play – some of his touches and passes were fantastic.
When my son Neil started playing (he played for Prescot Cables, Macclesfield Town, Southport, Burscough and Skelmersdale) my wife Pauline and I used to love going to watch him play so we didn’t get to Goodison often. The last time I went was over 11 years ago just before Wayne Rooney broke into the team. It’s expensive to go and watch them live but I still watch Everton on the TV.
I’ve not really kept in touch with my old Everton team-mates – I feel as though my playing career was another lifetime as another person.
I was a ‘drinker’ as a player - it was the culture in those days - but I’m very much into a healthy lifestyle now and don’t drink alcohol so that can make it difficult to socialize . I don’t attend the former player functions with ex-players such as Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey as they are my heroes and I don’t feel that I warrant any adulation alongside them. I did go to a Swansea “do” to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their 1st division promotion and I feel proud of my part in that.
I think the current Everton squad is the best that David Moyes has assembled. Although it's taken 10 years, it's certainly paid off keeping faith with him.
With regards to full-backs, Tony Hibbert has been a great servant for the club - a great tackler who would run through a brick wall for the team. Leighton Baines has always been a good player - great skill, distribution, and positional sense, but the last couple of seasons he's become a great player - world class even. Seamus Coleman has great potential and can play in many positions - very versatile and a great addition to the squad.
I look back on my career with pride at playing for Everton but I didn’t achieve too much success other than the promotion with Swansea City. I’m a great player in my head now - I still have dreams playing football and I’m always brilliant in those games!
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570 Posted 12/03/2013 at 20:18:37
654 Posted 12/03/2013 at 22:33:48
668 Posted 12/03/2013 at 22:57:35
I remember his goal when Latch got his 30.
It is the only time EVER, in ANY game, ANYWHERE I have seen players saying to the ref "We don't want the goal, we want he pen!"
Maybe there has been a similar occasion somewhere but..I've never heard of it.
I remember NR being a player who looked 'quiet' but he seemed capable enough.
Not a star player as he suggests but...I'd have him over Neville.
As for his Brother 'Sir Ken', someone on TW posted a few years ago that they had met him at their university when he came to give a talk and that when Ken discovered this lad was a blue, casually said 'My brother used to play for Everton'
(anyone remember the post?)
Anyway, here is Sir Ken giving a Ted talk that has been seen by millions (funny feller too).
674 Posted 12/03/2013 at 23:47:18
"If your not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original"
Sir Ken Robinson should have been giving that talk to a certain Mr Moyes.
699 Posted 13/03/2013 at 01:30:49
Actually I just watched it again - his delivery of a gag isn't bad,
712 Posted 13/03/2013 at 04:27:38
717 Posted 13/03/2013 at 05:21:30
730 Posted 13/03/2013 at 07:37:31
749 Posted 13/03/2013 at 09:40:35
828 Posted 13/03/2013 at 14:21:28
853 Posted 13/03/2013 at 16:15:30
I remember him playing, sharp tackler, and haring up the wing - and being disappointed that he left.
An internet search tells me he played 17 games for us. Thought he had played well more than that.
Seems to have had a decent career though, playing football for a living throughout the 80s.
I'll seek out one of those Frank bars
870 Posted 13/03/2013 at 17:10:58
Neil sounds down about his football career. He should be proud of what he has achieved. How many of us Evertonians would have swapped places with him?
I got my 1st season ticket the season after Bib Bob's 30 goals and would have seen Neil in action a couple of times.
Imagine a 17-year-old playing in the 1st team now, he would be a millionaire by the time he was 20.
Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all! I wish him all the best with the Vegan snack bars. I will be paying a visit to Allerton road for one.
402 Posted 15/03/2013 at 11:37:24
407 Posted 15/03/2013 at 12:03:18
If I'd played just one game, I would be in the alehouse every day giving it "So I -hic- TOLD Catterick..." etc (and cadging all the free bevvy I could).
Also 17 is more games than some who are Everton legends (or if not legends, very well remembered).
Bernie Wright only played 11 times as did Mike Trebilcock (who as the joke went, 'Loves The Beverly Sisters').
Cliff Marshall who (in my head) played for a couple of seasons, only ACTUALLY played 7 times (not a legend Cliff but has a page in our history).
411 Posted 15/03/2013 at 12:22:54
419 Posted 15/03/2013 at 12:29:08
426 Posted 15/03/2013 at 12:23:08
434 Posted 15/03/2013 at 12:52:10
The mental side of the game is very much overlooked by a lot of fans.
Lets take another full back, Seamus Coleman. He turned up rough and ready and is learning at the sharp end. He is, with talent, hard work and sheer bloody mindedness making a career for himself in the Prem AND international football.
He was getting exposed early in the season, had a break and has come back strong. He is progressing all the time and will be a very, very good full back for us, he just needs to add bits to his game at both ends of the pitch. Quality in the final third and brush up defensively. His defending is improving for me.
He seems very strong mentally and that is one of the man reasons he is here.
Ive very rarely seen him "wilt", aside fr earlier this season when he as responsible for a few goals, which I found understandable.
445 Posted 15/03/2013 at 13:29:00
' and I told Neville, you couldn't pass water, son! And Round, just what do you do sat there listening to your I pod on the bench? Moyes, you're a dour presbyterian who needs to lighten up and as for you Bill, you do know that angry Gavin Ramejkis calls you Kim Jong Bill don't you, you carpet bagging bungler whilst your boys pen stories have more than a touch of Josef Stalin about them. I can't understand why they sold me to Aldershot! '
Or something like that....
611 Posted 15/03/2013 at 22:25:24
749 Posted 16/03/2013 at 10:37:41
During holidays I worked in a supermarket on the fruit and veg counter and was gobsmacked when Neil walked in and I served him. Talk about being star struck! As Eugene says, he played for Everton = Divinity. When he came in afterwards always knocked off a few bob on the price.
Excellent to see he is making a success of something he is passionate about and I will always remember his football career with Everton and Swansea with great fondness. Good luck Neil.
856 Posted 16/03/2013 at 16:27:42
927 Posted 16/03/2013 at 19:25:45
You are about 20 years out with that recollection - he made his debut in 1976, not 1956! And Burnley most certainly were not 'the team to beat' in January 1976 as they hurtled towards relegation.
Just to jog your memory a bit, it was 1975/76 season. The year before we should have won the League, but twice lost games at home 3-2 ( to Carlisle in December 74 and Sheffield United ( Apr 75 ) after being 2-0 up. Those defeats cost us the title and we came 4th, 3 points off the top.
The year after we started slowly and that and the bad economic situation at the time ( 30% inflation, UK going cap in hand to the IMF, unemployment rocketing ) and Liverpool's rapid de-population in the 70's meant our crowds were piss poor and on a par with Ipswich, West Ham and Birmingham.
In January 1976, already out of the FA Cup, on a cold, wet afternoon, the attraction that was not Burnley rolled into town and the crowd was something like 20,100. Burnley had just sold their best player, left winger Leighton James, to Derby and were already in the bottom 3 and doomed. Billy Bingham probably saw it as an ideal chance to blood an inexperience right back. Everton quickly took a 2-0 lead ( and as Neil said, he nearly scored himself early on ) but as the game wore on, the flaws in concentration of that mediocre ( we finished11th out of 22 in the end ) Everton team showed up again and incredibly Burnley scored 3 times and left Goodison with a 3-2 victory. Everton left the pitch to a shower of cushions from the few fans left in the Main Stand.
So, sadly Ken, not the halcyon days of Dave Hickson in front of 70,000 adoring fans, more the salad days of Dave Clements in front of 20,000 pissed off Blues.
201 Posted 17/03/2013 at 13:59:31
Unfortunately, our dad never got to see Neil play live due to his accident and he died the week before the televised League Cup Second Replay against Villa which I think was the first time Neil had played in a televised game. Mind you given the result it perhaps just as well. However, I know he was would have continued to be proud like all of us of Neil's career even though as Neil says he probably never reached the heights his ability really merited. But to be fair this was and is true of so many players.
Our brother Ken writes and talks about some of the barriers to 'finding your element'. Having raw ability is rarely, if ever, enough to guarantee success in any walk of life. Having the right temperament, good mentoring, being in the company of people you like and just being in the right place at the right time amongst other factors as well as sheer hard work all have an affect.
Thanks to Chris for invoking great memories of Hot Wax. It was always our favourite record shop and we were really upset when it closed down or did you relocate? I can't remember now. I do remember being with Neil when he bought some of his favourite records such as Sundays Child by John Martyn, Inside II by Paul Horn and In Dublin by Alan Stivell which I definitely remember you recommending to us. Neil has a better memory for these things than me so I'm sure he will come up with a much bigger list.
219 Posted 17/03/2013 at 15:08:29
Even more interestingly though, and despite his 'unusual' diet, at the time Neil was playing he was independently acknowledged to be one of the fittest players at each of the clubs he played for and was especially known for his speed of recovery.
In any case, most if not all of Neil's injuries, like most other players, were impact or trauma based such as being 'topped' by opposing players so I am not sure to what extent diet would have influenced this.
The other point I would like to make is that Neil was not the only player to suffer from injuries and we could fairly assume that most if not all of the other players who suffered from injuries at the time Neil was playing would have been on a high protein meat based diet.
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