As a child in the 1970s I was yet to become a regular at Goodison Park. From listening to Radio 2 the first players’ names which I became familiar with were Bob Latchford, Dave Thomas and Andy King. Of the three it was the centre-forward who etched himself in the wider public consciousness through the rare feat of scoring 30 league goals in a season. He would go on to score 138 competitive goals for the Toffees – a total eclipsed eventually by Graeme Sharp, his centre-forward successor.
Everton folklore would have it that Bob traverses the royal blue Mersey on foot. However, he elected to use Runcorn Bridge en-route to a lunch meeting with me at Preston Brook. Arriving with him in the red hire car (someone at the rental company had a sense of humour) was James Corbett, Bob’s collaborator on his autobiography which is titled “A Different Road”. I was lucky enough to interview the striker’s provider-in-chief, Dave Thomas, for one of my first ToffeeWeb articles (Thomas...Latchford...Goal!). Dave had been a genuine gentleman with me and gave the impression that “Big Bob” was cut from the same cloth. I was not to be disappointed when we met as my interviewee proved to be candid, unassuming and modest in spite of the hero-worship lavished on him during trips over from his rural German idyll.
Firstly, I was interested to learn why the 1970s’ most prolific goal-getter had waited nigh on 30 years after his retirement from playing to tell his life story:
“James, and others, had been onto me for about three or four years, trying to persuade me to do this. A number of people have kept pecking away but I wasn’t that keen – I never felt the need to do it but I got to the stage where I thought if I don’t do it now I’ll not remember what I did. Even up to the first time James came over to talk with me I had a niggling doubt as to whether I was doing to right thing. However once I got into it, it was quite therapeutic release – when it stopped I almost felt withdrawal symptoms. It’s like reading a good story where you don’t want to reach the last few pages.”
We discussed Bob’s Midlands childhood and how he ended up, almost accidentally, playing for his boyhood team:
“I played football growing up in the 1950s with friends who lived nearby – we played all sports but football was the main thing. My brothers David and Peter (who became goalkeepers) also had no conception that they would play professional football. It wasn’t until Birmingham City signed me at fourteen years of age that I thought ‘Hang on! I could become a footballer.’ My eldest brother John who is ten years older than me was very good player and could have made it. He had an opportunity to go to Aston Villa but my parents wouldn’t let him go – they wanted him to get a trade. But he was instrumental in my parents letting me go to Birmingham – it was his influence that paved the way for the rest of us. I had a chance to go to Villa later in my career but couldn’t entertain it as a Birmingham City boy.”
Hard though it is to imagine, looking back, but Bob was not always a number nine:
“At junior school I started out at the back and ended up playing at outside-left in my last two years at school plus as goalkeeper at county level. Within six months at Birmingham City they pushed me inside to centre-forward as I was bigger than average for my age and also strong.”
Latchord in 1974
When Bob signed forms for Blues the manager was Stan Cullis. Cullis had formed a third of the formidable England wartime half-back line alongside Everton’s Joe Mercer and Cliff Britton. All three went on to become high-profile post-war managers with Cullis gaining legendary status in the Black County. His Wolves side won three league titles and two FA Cup competitions in the 1940s and 1950s. Having been sacked he crossed the Midlands football divide to become Birmingham’s manager in 1965. There was a perception, however, that he harked back to his Molineux days as Bob recalled:
“Stan was always on the periphery of things. I always have this image of him at training walking around the outside of the ground with his head down and not really looking at what we were doing – he was there but not there. But he did take an interest in me from the age of fourteen when I came in for training sessions. With his vast experience he spotted something in me which he thought he could develop. Stan gave me my debut but Fred Goodwin, who took over from Stan, made me a more consistent player. He took a close interest and, as he didn’t have any money to spend, he used to work most afternoons on my positional sense and heading. I would credit Freddie with turning me into then player I became. He was a decent manager and in today’s game he’d have been a star. He had a great personality – he and the media would have liked each other.”
By the early 1970’s Bob was becoming established in an attacking Birmingham line-up:
“Bobby Hatton was there with me and Trevor Francis just floated with Graham Taylor out on the wing. It was probably the best forward line that I played in. Trevor was unbelievably gifted. Compared to Rooney at sixteen years-old Trevor would come out on top as he was the most naturally gifted player I’ve ever played with.”
Half-way though his first season at the helm of Everton Billy Bingham was seeking to cure the chronic goal drought which the club had been suffering from for several years. With 68 league goals to his name at Birmingham, Bob was an obvious transfer target but his services would not come cheap. It took cash plus the offer of Howard Kendall and Archie Styles to get Birmingham to do business. The deal would be valued at a record £350,000. Naturally the transfer fee and the expectations of the Toffees’ followers brought pressure:
“Combined with the knowledge that I was at a club used to success – which demanded success – it was made plain what was wanted. I didn’t score in the first couple of games and pressure was there but then I scored against Leicester – past Peter Shilton – and it lifted. Then I got on with doing what I do best – scoring goals.”
Latchford with Mike Bernard
The goals did flow – in spades – in a seven year spell at Goodison. Bob had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time and could finish with aplomb with his head or either foot. The peak of his Everton career was the 1977/78 season as Everton came up short when up against Nottingham Forest and Liverpool for the title. Despite the ultimate disappointment of a third place finish, Gordon Lee had produced an exciting Everton team which was unusually left-sided:
“We were stronger down the left with Dobbo, Pejic and “Ticer” (Thomas). We were very much left-sided but it worked with three terrific players. Dave Thomas is a lovely man and a great footballer – I first saw him as a fifteen year-old at Wembley as a schoolboy. I was in the England under-19 team with him in 1969 in East Germany so we played together and then years later we end up together at Goodison. I don’t think I ever played with Trevor Francis or Dave in the senior England team – go figure it out! It was bizarre.”
Despite Bob being joined by big-name signings of the calibre of Martin Dobson, Duncan McKenzie and Colin Todd, he is of the opinion, looking back, that further defensive and attacking re-enforcements were lacking:
“At Everton, the lack of a settled strike partner did not hold me back but may have not benefitted the team overall - they should have bought Bobby Hatton at the same time as me. Bobby gave you all he had - every week without fail. He’d say today that he did all my running which is probably true! The real difference for the team would have been getting Peter Shilton. A couple of weeks after I signed for Everton Billy Bingham told me that he was going to sign Shilton. I thought: ‘Great! A terrific signing.’ But it never happened – I don’t know why. I am convinced that we should have won the league in the 1974/75 without Peter Shilton – but with him we would have. A world-class keeper wins you points – just look at Shilton later at Forest or Neville Southall in the 1980s.
“You have to learn to win but we never leant that lesson – we kept going close again but never learned. If we had won in 1974/75 things would have been different in the rest of the 1970s. That has been a constant thought over the years – not something that just occurred to me during the process of writing the book.”
Towards the end of the season after Bob’s 30-league goal haul, things started to go awry. Players left and there were changes in the back-room set-up:
“I suppose Steve Burtenshaw leaving was a disappointment as he gave great balance with Gordon. Gordon made Eric Harrison the first-team coach. I like Eric and he is a good coach (as he proved later at Manchester United) but for me he was not ready to be first-team coach. Steve had a different temperament to Gordon which created a balance whereas Eric had the same temperament. I know what Steve was trying to do but it had consequences and things started to fracture. There was a huge fall-out during pre-season in Berlin and Dave Thomas and Colin Todd were sold within weeks. So players left and others came in but it didn’t gel.
“In my last couple of years at Everton I started to pick up more injuries. In my last season I picked up a hamstring injury which kept me out for practically the rest of the season. Plus Sharpy was on the scene so I had decided to move on. Howard, when he came in, tried to persuade me to stay but, in football, once I made a decision I stuck to it.”
In an era before agents took hold of transfer matters Bob found his options limited and moved to South Wales to continue his career under former Liverpool striker John Toshack:
“Swansea was the only club that came in for me so it was an easy choice. They had just come up – it was very lively and bubbly down there. Tosh had a strong squad of good Welsh international players and players moving from Merseyside like Gary Stanley, Ray Kennedy and Neil Robinson. That first season we should have won the league but it was a similar scenario to Everton in 1974/75 when we even had chances right at the death but we couldn’t knock it over the line. It had such a detrimental effect on the next season although I had never felt better in terms of fitness and scoring goals. Tosh had never known failure and when things started to go wrong he didn’t know how to put them right. Then, with the financial issues, it just felt apart. It would have been nice to finish my career at Swansea but I ended up on nomadic travels.”
Spells in The Netherlands, Coventry and at several football outposts preceded retirement from the game in the 1987/88 season:
“I didn’t see myself staying in football as a coach or manager. I had been or one or two course but in terms of really thinking about it I pushed it away. I was always good at giving advice to other players but was not so good at listening to it myself.
“My wife, Pat, and I did start a business (a menswear shop). I went through a few little jobs but ended up at Birmingham City and it was good. I got pushed into coaching as Brian Eastick, the academy director, asked if I wanted to stay on the youth development side or move into coaching. I did my B license and part of my A license and was a bit surprised that I coped with it and quite enjoyed it. The death of Pat and meeting Andrea sixteen months later meant that things changed again and I went down a different road.”
Despite the lasting devotion to him on the blue half of Merseyside, Bob distanced himself as he brought up a family in southern Germany:
“I had moved on. I still followed my former clubs but in terms of any connection, that was the past – gone. I didn’t really keep in touch with anybody from football – I only started to see them when I started coming back. People like Lyonsy and Dai Davies, I class as good friends but most of my main friends were outside of football. Then Steve Milne of the Everton Former Players Foundation tracked me down. The chain of events leading to this book occurred thanks to Steve – otherwise I’d still be out there in Germany happily getting on with my life.”
So, now, firmly back in the fold how does Bob feel about the club and its followers?
“Everton fans are totally different to any I have met. You could say that they are obsessed by their players and former players. It doesn’t matter how often I come over, they all want a piece of you. I can never see myself as fans see me – I just feel like one of them – I just had the talent to score goals but I don’t feel any different. The fans make this club and the players want to come back and be part of it. Bally was spot on when he said that Everton gets into your blood. I have played for different clubs but Everton does get into your blood and stays with you. Now it is like coming home to a family where you are loved and it is reciprocated. I don’t find it easy to get up at functions – I was quiet and introverted as a child, and I still am to a certain extent – but I feel the love.”
Bob has not ruled out his life taking yet another road once his teenage children fly the nest – perhaps another country beckons. Regardless of where life takes him next, I asked him how he’d like to be remembered:
“Dixie scored sixty goals in a season – I scored thirty. If Evertonians remember me as being only half as good as that great man I’d be very happy.”
Bob’s dream team to play alongside him:
Phil Neal Mick Lyons Colin Todd Mike Pejic
Trevor Francis Trevor Brooking Martin Dobson
Kevin Keegan Bob Latchford Dave Thomas
Bob Latchford – A Different Road is out now –published by deCoubertin Books.