The least celebrated of the nine Football League titles won by Everton was that in 1914/15. The season was played under the cloud of the First World War, with many criticising the football authorities for letting it run to its conclusion. An ostentatious celebration of the achievement by Everton would not have been welcomed by the press or the nation at large. This muted response is something of a disservice to the likes of Bobby Parker, Sam Chedgzoy, Jimmy Galt and Tom Fern. The latter was a custodian who amassed over two hundred outings for the Toffees – it would have been many more were it not for the five-year interruption caused by the war.
Born on 1 April 1886, Thomas Edward Fern hailed from Measham, a Leicester village located close to Ashby-de-la-Zouch. The family subsequently moved 50 miles to Worksop, in the north of Nottinghamshire, where Tom’s father worked at a colliery. Tom’s grandfather had been a gardener by trade and passed on his knowledge of flora to Tom. Many years later, he’d educate his granddaughter, Val, on the various types of trees and plants they came across when strolling through public parks in Liverpool.
Having played in local youth football, Tom joined Worksop Town of the Midland League before joining Lincoln City in 1909. He remained resident in Worksop (by now, his father had become Chair of the Urban District Council) and commuted to matches as he had a job as a colliery shunter at the pit head. He married Annie Chamberlain in Worksop in 1910; the following year they had twin sons - Thomas (Tommy) - and Joseph, but sadly the latter passed away in infancy.
Although he had not been the automatic first choice at Worksop Town, he was thrown into ‘The Imps’ first team as they battled in the lower reaches of the (then bottom tier) Second Division. After two seasons, the club failed in a bid for re-election and dropped into the Midland League. Tom helped the Sincil Bank side bounce back up a year later (1912) and started to make a big impression (in fact Everton’s directors had made note of him as far back as 1910). A Sheffield Star Green ‘Un match report from November 1913 hailed his heroics in a narrow defeat at Leeds City:
As I was leaving the Elland Road ground last Saturday after Leeds City's sensational last minute victory over Lincoln City my feelings were of sympathy towards Tom Fern, who has represented the "Imps" in over 150 consecutive matches. I have seen many great displays of goalkeeping, but the exhibition of this Worksop product exceeded in brilliance anything I had hitherto witnessed, The Leeds City followers will well remember a memorable match with Clapton Orient, when Hugall was brought in at the last moment as reserve goalkeeper, and also his remarkable clearances, but Fern's display went one better. The sportsmanship of the Leeds crowd was shown by the ovation accorded to Lincoln City's custodian when he made for the dressing room at the interval. A ringing cheer from the popular enclosures, and an erstwhile clapping of hands from occupants of the stands greeted Lincoln City's stalwart when making his way for the "refresher'"-which he evidently needed, judging by his dazed appearance, for he had previously been laid out in saving an apparent certainty - and these were renewed at the close of a memorable game. Another little incident which deserves to be chronicled is Sam Hogg's appreciation of Fern's display, and it was a dramatic moment when the "Peacocks' goalkeeper at the close warmly shook the hands of his vis-a-vis.
An Everton director had been in the stands at Elland Road to run the rule over David McFarlane, the Lincoln forward. McFarlane struggled through the match with an injury, but the goalkeeper caught the eye with a performance reported in the club’s minute books as ‘a brilliant exhibition of the game’. The Toffees had Tom watched at Sincil Bank the following week and swiftly tied up a £1,500 deal to bring him to Merseyside.
Tom was drafted into the Everton team immediately - against Sheffield Wednesday on 6 December 1913, replacing William Hodge and Fred Mitchell. His debut coincided with that of a fellow Toffees great of that era, Bobby Parker. Announcing the signing, a Liverpool Courier journalist wrote:
On his only appearance in the city – against Everton Reserves in a Central League game – Fern, in addition to making several grand clearances, had the distinction of stopping a couple of penalty kicks. He has made over 160 consecutive appearances for the Citizens, whose supporters make no secret of the fact that Lincoln's loss is Everton's gain. Fern stands 5ft 10 and half in, and weighs over 13st, but despite his bulk is extremely active.
The vital statistics quoted above show that Tommy, noted for his large hands, was on the stocky side, but he was a good short stopper - not intimidated by physical forwards. Athletic News had little doubt as to his abilities:
The ease with which he can grasp a ball under the bar shows his reach, but he is equally at home with low shots. Putting all his weight into blow he can fist a ball nearly to the half-way line. With agility and anticipation he fields beautifully, and is probably the best keeper Everton have had since William Scott was at his zenith. Not since the season 1909/10 has Fern been absent from the Lincoln City goal. Including this season he has appeared in 165 Lincoln City games since 1909. Men of his calibre are not common objects of the roadside, as Everton thought when they paid £1,500 for this player.
Tom Fern in action for Everton against Chelsea
Tom was quickly established as the Toffees’ first choice keeper, and a worthy successor to Billy Scott, missing just two matches on the way to the 1914/15 League Championship. One fixture that season in which the Blues came a cropper was in January at Ayresome Park. Having conceded three goals from consecutive corners, Tom had to be withdrawn with a hip injury. Harry Makepeace, not big in stature, went between the sticks and, in spite of conceding once, performed miracles as he, to quote The Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury, ‘strove manfully to hold the breach’. Tom battled back for the second half but the visitors were humbled 5-1.
A finger injury saw Tom miss that season’s FA Cup semi-final. An error-strewn performance by his stand-in, Fred Mitchell, saw the Blues eliminated and any hopes of the double died. Football historian George Orr, who researched Everton’s championship-winning team for his book, ‘Over the Top’ told me: ‘Will Cuff, the Everton Secretary, said that if he hadn't been injured for the FA Cup semi-final, they’d have done the double. So Tom was vital to the success. It's no coincidence that Everton have only won silverware with an Everton giant in goal - like Fern, West, Southall, Sagar and Scott.’
The 1914-15 championship-winning Everton team (credit: Billy Smith)
Tom enlisted in December 1915 and served on the home front. He joined the Royal Army Service Corps Motor Transport branch and also served in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He was badly injured and hospitalised several times - two football and one equine-related (a nasty kick from a horse). These mishaps led to the issue of a Silver War Badge (SWB) when he was given an honourable discharge. Injuries and military commitments limited him to 40 appearances for the Toffees in the various wartime football competitions
When peacetime football resumed in the autumn of 1919, Tom - now 33 - won back the goalkeeper’s jersey from Fred Mitchell and lived up to the ‘Evergreen’ nickname given to him (originally a pun on his name and the colour of his jersey, no doubt). Sadly, the Blues had lost momentum as a result of the wartime hiatus and became a mid-table team, at best (history repeated itself for Everton after the second global conflict). Tom did have the dubious honour of being in goal for one of the club’s heaviest home defeats - a 6-0 FA Cup capitulation to Crystal Palace in January 1922. In truth, he should not have played as he had a wrist injury - but with the untested Ted Pope as the only other option, he was declared ‘fit’ to play, albeit wearing a splint. By contrast, a personal highlight came a few days earlier (27 December 1921) when Tom made two saves from first-half penalty kicks - and repelled numerous Sunderland attempts with the Toffees down to 10 men through injury in the closing stages. His spot-kick heroics, which helped the Toffees to a 2-1 victory at Roker Park, were commented on in the Liverpool Courier:
Hawkes took the penalty kick and Fern saved finely. Everton were two goals up when the second penalty kick was awarded... As Buchan took the kick, the ball, a fraction of a second before, rolled off the spot through the wind. The whistle sounded, but not quick enough to delay Buchan's kick and the ball entered the net. Of course the kick had to be taken again and this time Fern stopped it and got the leather away.
The 1920-21 Everton team (credit: Brendan Connolly)
Having been a near-ever present since the war, Tom was restricted to 25 appearances in both the 1922/23 and 1923/24 seasons. With Everton on a losing streak he was dropped after a defeat to Sunderland on New Year’s Day 1924. Alfie Harland came in and Tom did not make another first team appearance prior to leaving at the end of the season. After 231 Toffees appearances with 67 clean sheets (6th in the all-time club standings), he extended his career in the Potteries, turning out for Port Vale for three seasons (making 90 appearances) before winding down his career in North Wales at Colwyn Bay United. In all he had made 454 Football League and FA Cup appearances.
Away from football, Tom was a keen cricketer. He’d played as an all-rounder for Worksop and, in the summer of 1912, he had a trial at Trent Bridge for North Notts Colts - scoring 30 in his innings. In 1924 it was noted in press reports that he was secretary of the Fazackerley Cricket Club. Later he became involved with the Liverpool bowls scene - in part due to his pubs having bowling greens.
Tom Fern in goal (credit: Billy Smith)
In the late 1930s the Fern family lived at 10 Coerton Road, in Aintree, with Tom working as a barman at the Derby Arms on County Road, not far from Goodison Park. He then became (like several other ex-Everton players) the landlord of a Threlfalls pub. In this case it was the Alhambra (The Royal Alhambra Hotel, to give it its full title), at 64 Derby Road, on the corner of Esk Street, close to the docks. Cashing in on Tom’s Everton links, the brewery ensured that it had blue and white tiles on the frontage. Tom’s granddaughter, Val, who spent her first 11 years living with her grandparents, remembers sheltering in the pub basement (with the family cat and dog) during air raids. American sailors coming in for a drink would give her sweets and the first banana that she’d ever tasted. Tom would demonstrate his green-fingered skills by growing on the flat roof of the pub kitchen. The establishment was more upmarket than some in the vicinity. Val recalls: ‘It had two bars and a lounge with a fireplace which Tom kept it lit in the winter. There was a curved staircase to the living accommodation with a large glass dome in the centre of the landing, giving light. The pub had a long red carpet on the floor, leading from the entrance. One day two men rolled it up and walked out with it. Tom found out and chased them down Derby Road and got it back!’
After a couple of years, Tom moved to the more spacious Sefton Arms in West Derby - an imposing brick-built establishment which had a snooker room and its own bowling green to the rear. Val would recall trips with her grandparents on Sundays to Liverpool city centre to enjoy a meal, take in a show or visit the cinema. He'd later be the landlord of the Blue Anchor in Aintree - he was succeeded by Ted Sagar in approximately 1958. In retirement he lived in ‘The Bungalow’ at the Blundellsands Hotel - perhaps Threlfalls had arranged this as a token of gratitude for his long-service. One of his last public actions was to write to Harry Cooke, Everton’s long-serving trainer, upon his retirement in August 1961. Thanking Cooke for his support to ‘old boys’ like himself he wrote:
’Thank you for the courtesy shown to me, both as a player in your charge and also since my playing days ended. I am proud to have been a friend of yours, and I am sure that all the old players of my time will echo the sentiments.’
Tom passed away on 21 March 1966; he was 79. He was cremated at Thornton Cemetery.
Special thanks to Val Fern for sharing her recollections
Jamie Yates (proofreading)
Brendan Connolly (for use of images)
Billy Smith (bluecorrespondent.co.uk - newspaper reports and images)
James Corbett (evertonencyclopedia.com)
Steve Johnson (evertonresults.com)
Further reading: Everton FC: Champions 1914/15 - ‘Over the Top’ - by George Orr
Reader Comments (5)
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1 Posted 01/04/2021 at 16:55:25
Oh please yourself.
3 Posted 01/04/2021 at 20:00:08
5 Posted 03/04/2021 at 01:28:05
Is it just me or have goalkeepers become taller since football began (in1992)? I recall Albert Dunlop was only just over 5'-8" as were the England goalkeepers of that era, Bolton's Eddie Hopkinson and Sheffield Utd's Alan Hodgkinson and, a bit later, Sheffield Wednesday's Ron Springett.
7 Posted 03/04/2021 at 03:13:05
And Bill, I completely agree on your remarks re height for goalies but the modern game simply demands 6 ft as the very lowest height a keeper can be, even if he's brilliant otherwise.
8 Posted 03/04/2021 at 04:01:42
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