‘Easy’ – The Mick Heaton Story

On the 25th anniversary of his untimely passing, celebrating the life and achievements of a man who was a vital part of the managerial team which led Everton to an unprecedented period of glory in the 1980s

Rob Sawyer 11/04/2020 21comments  |  Jump to last

Mick Heaton was an ebullient and wholehearted full-back who captained Blackburn Rovers to promotion to the Second Division in 1975, later assisting player-manager Howard Kendall as the Ewood Park club came tantalizingly close to reaching the top flight in 1981.

On Merseyside, he was a vital part of the managerial team which led Everton to an unprecedented period of glory. To a younger generation of football supporters, Mick’s name might not ring any bells, so, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of his untimely passing, this article celebrates his life and achievements.

A Yorkshire Terrier

James Michael Heaton was a son of Tinsley – a district of Sheffield which lies close to Rotherham. He was born on 15 January 1947 to Louise and Jack (who worked at a nearby steelworks). He attended Tinsley County School and it was here that he met his future wife, Maureen (they married in 1968, going on to have a son and a daughter).

In football, he was selected for Sheffield Schoolboys (along with Alan Burgin, with whom he would be reunited at Blackburn Rovers) and Yorkshire Schoolboys. He was thrilled to join his boyhood club, Sheffield United, as a 15-year-old apprentice professional straight from school in 1962.

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A fellow Blades apprentice was Alan Birchenall, whose career took him from Bramall Lane to clubs including Chelsea and Leicester City. He recalls: “Mickey was a terrific lad and a great little player. We had some good times there in the same squad with Len Badger, Mick Jones, Alan Woodward and the Wagstaffe Brothers.”

Len Badger, a year older than Mick, had known his club-mate since childhood: “We go back to being kids of 9 or 10. He lived 2 miles away from where I did and we were in the same Boys Brigade outfit together. I have very fond memories of him; he was very active – always on the go.

“I went on a couple of club tours with Sheffield United to places like South America and he was the life and soul. Mick was a bundle of energy – if anyone says anything less than him being full of life, there is something wrong with them!

“He didn’t play much in the first team but you wanted him in the dressing room as a local lad. The humour was there – and he was in the forefront of it with his personality. Years later, he kept coming back to visit Sheffield and we’d meet up and have a chat about old times.”

Mick Heaton at Sheffield United in 1966

Mick Heaton at Sheffield United in 1966
(credit Colorsport)

At some point in this era, Mick’s easy-going manner and willingness to assist people (nothing was too much trouble for him) gained him the nickname ‘Easy’ – it stuck throughout his life in football. His Sheffield United debut came from the bench on 15 October 1966 for the visit of Sunderland (a 2-0 win) but he would have to wait until January 1968 for his first starts.

He made 12 League and FA Cup appearances that season, normally at left-back – although right-back was his natural position. A further 21 appearances were made in the 1969-70 season but, in the following two seasons, he struggled to get into the side. In all, he clocked up 37 appearances for the Blades before seeking pastures new.

Reborn at The Rovers

Mick swapped Yorkshire for Lancashire on 7 October 1971 when Blackburn Rovers manager, Ken Furphy, paid £7,000 for his transfer. This was a frenzied period of transfer activity for the Ewood Park outfit – no less than nine players arrived and five departed over a 2-month period.

These were dark times for Rovers – relegated from the top tier in 1967 and now dealing with the ignominy of the drop to Division Three the previous season. Entering the Blackburn dressing room for the very first time, Mick was re-acquainted with Gerry Farrell, a player he had crossed swords with 2 years earlier. They would put this behind them to become firm friends, as Farrell recalls:

“I was at Wolves then and Sheffield United reserves came to play at Molineux. I was just 16 and on the bench. It was a really tough game which got nasty at times, then, with 15 minutes to go, I got put on in the middle of the park.

“I was running around trying to impress, really getting stuck in. Well, it came to the crunch when me and Mick went in for a 50-50 challenge and we ended up scrapping a bit. He was absolutely off his head – it spilled over in the tunnel after the final whistle.

“A couple of seasons later, I joined Blackburn Rovers – at the same time Mick had joined – and he was his making his debut with me. We sat next to each other in the changing room and got talking. I told him that I’d been at Wolves and he said: ‘Oh yeah, I played there once in a right tough Central League game and some effing idiot came off the bench and started kicking everybody.’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘It wasn’t you was it?’

“He jumped up shouting: ‘I can’t believe it. I hate you. I hate you!’ in front of all of his new teammates. So that’s how we met and we ended up as best mates!”

Mick Heaton as a player at Blackburn Rovers

Mick Heaton as a player at Blackburn Rovers

In his first few weeks in digs in Blackburn (the family would move over from Sheffield a little later), Mick was treated by the club dentist, John O’Connor and became acquainted with John’s son, Kieran, 15 years his junior. Kieran would babysit for the Heatons and later became a close friend for Mick outside of the football fraternity.

Mick went straight into the Rovers team at right-back, making 37 league and cup appearances in the 1971-72 season. In the following campaign, he made 45 appearances as Rovers finished in 3rd place (in the final season of two-up & two-down). Blackburn’s record appearance-maker, Derek Fazackerley, recalls Mick’s immediate influence:

“He had a big impact because of his personality and his enthusiasm for the game. Both on and off the field, he was the life and soul and always saw things in a positive light. His football knowledge and understanding of the game with organisational skills endeared him to people.

“He was one the lads who was able to draw the dressing room together and made everybody feel better. I was a bit younger and I learned quite a bit from him – he tried to help and guide you.”

Gordon Lee came in as manager in January 1974 and promoted Mick to team captain. He later said: “Mick, who turned out to be a wonderful inspiration in his captaincy, was all bubbly and full of fire and enthusiasm.”

Kieran O’Connor reflects on his friend’s elevation to captain: “Mick was not a star player but he was very much about hard work and dedication. So he was made captain for a reason – not because he was the best player on the pitch but because of the way he was in the dressing room.”

In the 1974-75 season, with Mick making 40 starts as skipper, the longed-for promotion back to Division Two was achieved. One of the most memorable matches occurred on 15 February against promotion rivals Plymouth Argyle. Rovers went 2 goals down but gritted their teeth and stormed back to win 5-2. With the ovation raining down from the stands, Mick led his teammates to the Riverside Stand touchline to return the compliment.

Promotion was guaranteed with four games in hand when Chesterfield were defeated 2-0 at Ewood. After the final whistle, the crowd advanced towards the Main Stand. In response, Mick led his men into the Directors Box and acknowledged the applause.

Of the events of that happy afternoon, he said: “It was fantastic, unbelievable. Come to think of it, I did cry a little. I felt more for the crowd than myself – you could tell that was what they had been waiting for.”

On the final day of the season, Matt Busby attended Ewood Park as the guest of honour and saw a 0-0 draw confirm Rovers as Champions by just 1 point. After the team’s lap of honour, the managerial legend joined Gordon Lee and the players in the changing room as the celebrations began in earnest.

Lee would reflect on the togetherness behind the promotion bid: “One of the reasons for our success was that most of the lads were Lancashire or Yorkshire lads – I think that it had a big impact in the group. They were all down to earth and they welded well together – and you need that in a football team.”

The Blackburn Rovers promotion-winning team with Mick Heaton in 1975

The Blackburn Rovers promotion-winning team with Mick Heaton in 1975

Gordon Lee moved on to Newcastle United that summer and toyed with taking Mick and left-back Andy Burgin with him. In came Jim Smith, to occupy the Rovers hot seat. Looking back, he was full of praise for his fellow Yorkshiremen:

“Micky was the extrovert, full of life and enthusiasm and a tremendous captain for the club. Not only did they (Mick and Andy Burgin) serve the club well on the field, but they were always ready to go out as ambassadors of the club at sporting – and non-sporting - functions. I have nothing but the highest praise for them.”

Sadly, the wonderful high of promotion was soon followed by the desolation of forced retirement from playing. Hampered by a chronic knee injury, Mick played his final League game in a blue-and-white shirt on 27 December 1975 in a 4-1 reversal against Nottingham Forest. Although he tried to battle back to fitness, he had to bow to the inevitable a little over a year later (in all, he had made 183 outings for the club).

Derek Fazackerley recalls how it hit his friend: “It was a massive disappointment to Mick as he loved football and got so much pleasure out of playing it.” Alongside fellow premature retiree, Andy Burgin, he was given a testimonial match against Manchester City in May 1977.

In this period, Mick had been running Mick Heaton Sports – a shop in Blackburn’s Brownhill area. Frankly, Mick made a lousy businessman as he was too kind-hearted. Gerry Farrell recalls him giving discounts to customers he did not even know whilst on other occasions he’d stay open late just to accommodate a customer. He did work briefly with John Waddington as a sales rep for a greetings card company but, after consideration, chose not to go into business with the fellow ex-Rover.

Although no longer able to cope with the rigours of full-time football, he did take the well-trodden path by ex-Rovers to Great Harwood FC and, finally, Morecambe where he was reunited with Gerry Farrell (and also played alongside former international full-back, Keith Newton) before hanging up his boots for good.

In 1978, he was offered a return to Ewood Park as reserve team coach by manager John Pickering. A few months after Howard Kendall’s arrival as player-manager, in the summer of 1979, he promoted Mick to first-team duties. It was the start of a close and very productive relationship. Mick later told Ken Rogers of the Liverpool Echo:

Mick Heaton John Bailey Bobby Mitchell and John Wadington in 1977

Mick with (L-R) John Bailey Bobby Mitchell and John Wadington in 1977 with greetings cards

“Although that was his (Kendall’s) first job, he walked in with authority and determination. It wasn’t a case of waving the big stick, he simply let the players and coaches know that he had definite ideas about how he wanted things done… everybody immediately gave him respect. At the same time, he wanted to listen to our ideas and we immediately struck up a good relationship.

“He had different ideas to most people at that level. The lads might have thought that the training was the easiest they had ever done, in a physical sense, but they had to do a lot more thinking.

“I realised after the first few months that he had the ability to become a really top boss. Right the way through, he has remained a nice bloke and it’s easy to get close to him, whether you are a coach, player or supporter.”

Derek Fazackerley offers a player’s perspective on the duo: “They had a good working relationship (and got on socially, of course) as they saw the game in the same way, in so far as how they liked it to be played. Howard set out his ideas of how it wanted it to be done and then Mick would take over the organisation whilst Howard was training.

“On match days, there was an understanding that, if Mick could see something on the pitch that needed addressing – in terms of a substitute or something like that, he had the power to do it. We had quite a successful time under their leadership and we got used to Mick being in charge on a daily basis with Howard overseeing it.”

The Toffees Years

The pair got Rovers promoted back to Division Two – against the odds – in the 1978-79 season. Next, on a shoe-string budget, Rovers missed out by goal difference on getting into the top flight in the spring of 1981.

The up-and-coming Blackburn manager was being watched closely from Merseyside and that summer, Everton took Kendall back to his spiritual football home. He promptly told Mick that he’d be going with him. He was soon on the phone to his buddy Gerry Farrell to break the news.

Farrell, a lifelong Evertonian, recalls: “It was a big thrill when Mick rang me up and said: 'I bet you can’t guess where me and Howard are going.' And I said: 'I don’t know. Are you going on holiday or something?' To which he replied: 'No, you pillock, we’re going to Everton!' It was fantastic for me as a Blue, through and through.”

Mick told the Liverpool Echo how it felt to switch clubs: “I had been at Blackburn for 10 years and, in the same way he (Howard) had a feeling for Everton, I had the same feeling for Blackburn. But I wanted to experience the big time which eluded me as a player with Sheffield United.”

Ken Rogers told me of his early impressions, in his role with the Echo, of the new Everton first team coach: “I had an instant liking for him – Mick was one of those characters who would just light up a room – and that goes for a dressing room in a tense situation.

“He wasn’t like John Bailey’s style with a funny line – Mick was just this bubbly enthusiastic person who you were instinctively drawn to. Clearly Howard Kendall held Mick in high esteem as a great friend and a real football person.”

Mick Heaton 1982-83 season and 1986

Mick Heaton in the dugout in the 1982-83 season and at Bellefield in 1986

A major overhaul of the Everton playing squad soon got underway as Kendall tried to halt the slide of the previous two seasons under Gordon Lee. Heaton would later admit that they tried to change too much, too soon, with a slew of signings. It was Mick who – after some nagging – persuaded the manager to don his football boots again and bring the benefit of his skill and experience to the first team.

He said: “I wanted Howard to play much earlier than he did because of the organisation he could bring to the pitch… I think the players learned more of what he wanted them to in the games he played in, than we would have put over in the rest of the season, had he not played.”

Kevin Ratcliffe concurred with Mick’s view:

“The midfield was pretty young – there was no Peter Reid or Paul Bracewell back then. Mick realised that that the younger lads were missing that bit of experience to get through games. Howard took a bit of persuading but it was very valuable experience to have someone playing who had been there and done it.”

After an 8th-place finish in 1981-82, the following season was one of incremental progress – aided by the astute signing of Kevin Sheedy. However, after a poor start to the 1983-84 season, the pressure was ratcheting up for Kendall. Graeme Sharp recalls the role that Mick played in these difficult times:

“It wasn’t great when Howard was struggling. When things were not going well, the dressing room could become quite flat. So, part of Mick’s job was to get the dressing room up and running again and gee the lads up.

“A dressing room isn’t a pleasant place to be on a Monday after a defeat on a Saturday so his job was to say: 'Right, that’s gone now. Let’s look forward to the next match.'”

It is an opinion shared by Ken Rogers: “He helped to take the pressure off Howard, who went through a very difficult time when he came within an inch of the sack. While Howard was great at handling pressure and the media, it’s clear that Mick helped him by coming into the training ground every morning with a smile on his face.”

A 3-0 loss at Anfield in November left the Blues in a lowly 17th spot. At this point, Kendall decided to formally promote his erstwhile Everton midfield partner, Colin Harvey, from reserves to joint-first team coach. Kendall would admit to it being a difficult decision but such tough calls are the mark of a great manager.

As history demonstrates, it was the right one as it introduced the missing element to the backroom team. Kendall told the press when the change was announced:

“We have worked as a threesome since I came here, but now we want Colin to be more involved. He’s been doing a tremendous job with the reserves and just wants the best for Everton. We think it’s a positive move and one that will give us an important boost.”

Harvey, meanwhile, was quoted as saying: “We work well as a team. We are all about the same age and all think along the same lines. But in the end there is only one man responsible – the manager.”

In his autobiography, Andy Gray (who arrived at Everton that same week) wrote of the promotion of Harvey:

“That was a great decision. Mick was a nice guy, a bubbly personality and so soft. But he was more or less Howard’s assistant. He made sure everything was taken care of for the manager. Harvey was much better on the tactical side.”

The change was a blow to Mick’s self-esteem; he considered walking away from Everton before being persuaded to remain by his friend and boss (both were mindful that, as things stood, they were in line for the sack anyway if results did not improve). Ken Rogers recalls how stoical Mick was in dealing with his disappointment whilst also supporting his under-pressure friend:

“Mick might have been disappointed that Colin was appointed as Howard’s right-hand man – but he was not the type of person who would sulk about it. I travelled home and away with the team and I saw the important part of the coaching jigsaw puzzle that Mick Heaton was.”

Ken elaborated on the balance required a backroom team to create the foundations of success on the pitch: “All successful football clubs that I have dealt with have had a balance on the coaching staff. Take Liverpool with their successful set-ups down the years, with Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Moran. They were all steeped in football but had very different characters.

A manager always needs different types of people in his coaching staff who would do those jobs in key moments. Colin was a great thinker about football – the players respected him to a man. Mick would have a say about football and would not hold back – but he was also a great person to lift the dressing room and not take anything too seriously.

“Managers do not suffer fools gladly; Howard looked to Mick, again, later in his managerial career so, clearly, he was a valued coach, a trusted ally and an all-round great bloke.”

With Colin Harvey on board in the first-team set-up, Mick was given some specific responsibilities, as Howard Kendall recalled to James Corbett:

“One of the additional jobs I gave Mick Heaton was to work with the full-backs. That was Mick’s position as a player and I knew his experience playing there, combined with his excellence as a coach would benefit the players.

“The one to profit most from Mick’s input was Gary Stevens. He had been a left-winger or left-sided midfielder when I went to Everton… Mick worked with him after training and gave him special coaching for the full-back position.”

After getting through choppy waters as Christmas 1983 approached, Everton turned the corner early in the New Year. By the spring, Everton had been to Wembley twice, and won the FA Cup.

When asked later how the club turned from despair to triumph in several months, Mick’s reply was concise: “Confidence, hard work and two players… Peter Reid gave the team a pattern; Andy Gray gave it passion.”

The approach to training fostered by Kendall and his tight-knit backroom team was at odds with some clubs where ‘beasting’ players was the norm – especially in pre-season. A lot of the training sessions were concise, enjoyable and focussed on ball work and spatial awareness – as opposed to hard running.

Kevin Ratcliffe recalls: “Howard's philosophy was that you’d go home wanting to come in the next day without feeling too stiff or tired to do anything. He was well ahead of other coaches who wanted to flog you like a greyhound – he just had you topping up.”

Former Manchester City boss, Malcolm Allison, was a Monday morning guest a Bellfield on one occasion and was bemused when training got underway with a 15-a-side game in which you could only score if all your players were in the opposition half.

“Perhaps he felt we should be a bit more technical in our training, but we tend to be uncomplicated and put the emphasis on enjoyment.” – was Mick’s response to Allison’s puzzled reaction.

The club’s greatest season would follow in 1984-85. A few days in advance of the European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final first leg, Mick was assigned the reconnaissance duties in Bavaria. He took in a German Cup semi-final match so that Everton could better understand better the Bayern Munich style of play.

Mick identified striker Dieter Hoeneß as a particular threat and noted the team’s ability from corner kicks. For a normally camera-shy man, he found himself pressed into the spotlight in Germany, as he recalled to the Everton programme:

“I wondered why the chap who picked me up at the airport said he’d collect me at the hotel at 6 o’clock when the game didn’t kick-off until 8:15. When I got there, he introduced me to the TV people and they asked me to do an interview at half-time.

“I was in illustrious company too. First they talked to Gerd Muller and Sepp Maier – then me, followed by a German pop star. I don’t suppose anyone had a clue who I was amongst that lot!”

Mick’s ‘dossier’ helped Everton to a goalless draw in Munich four days later – setting up the famous 3-1 victory over the German Cup holders in the second-leg at Goodison Park.

Three weeks later, flying back from the Cup Winners’ Cup Final triumph over Rapid Vienna in Rotterdam, Howard and Mick were photographed in the aircraft cabin, toasting their success with champagne, smiles beaming.

Mick Heaton and Howard Kendall toast victory on the plane home from Rotterdam

Mick and Howard toast victory on the plane home from Rotterdam

Everton also wrapped up their first League title since 1970 and came close to a unique treble – only to fall to an injury-time defeat in the FA Cup final.

Looking ahead to the next season the proud coach declared: “We’ve achieved the success we came here for and we will keep working hard for more.”

Heaton, Kendall, Harvey and Southall await their luggage at the airport carousel

Heaton, Kendall, Harvey and Southall await their luggage at the airport carousel
(Photo courtesy of Bren Connolly)

After near misses in 1985-86, a further League crown would follow in 1986-87 as the management team did superbly to manage an injury-depleted squad through the season. Neville Southall is quick to acknowledge the key ingredients Mick brought to the successful chemistry of the managerial triumvirate in this golden era at Goodison Park:

“Take Mick, Colin or Howard out of the mix, we’d have been stuffed, but having the three of them together worked perfectly. Mick’s personality was vital to Everton football club. He knew what players were like. He’d muck in with everybody and his positivity was what bound everybody together.

“Then there was Colin’s desire to win – and be magnificent when doing it – and finally you had Howard at the top pulling it all together. That’s why we were successful. They approached things in different ways but you need different things to get the best out of different people.”

Southall continued: “Colin was great – the best fella I have ever met in football, to be fair. Howard was brilliant and then you had Mick. I don’t think that he was the best coach in the world but what he did was as important as anything else that we had at the club.

“If you took Mick out of the equation, there would have been desperate days with desperate faces. People do not understand how good Mick was at doing what he did. He never came into work being negative – and when you think about it, that is really hard to do.

“Mick was like one of those game show hosts – like Ant and Dec – who could come down and get everybody going. You’d be coming in on the Monday morning after a defeat and he’d be buzzing around, talking to everybody – just being there and being positive – which was a good tonic.”

The Welshman went on to explore how Mick fostered an inclusive spirit throughout the squad: “You talk about mental health awareness now, but he kept an eye on everyone’s wellbeing. Mick cared that everybody was happy and enjoying it. When Richo (Kevin Richardson) or Harpo (Alan Harper) had played fantastically on the Saturday and were told that they’d not play on the Tuesday, Mick would go down and buzz them up. He softened the blow and was there for them as support. He provided something that nobody else could.”

Bobby Mimms, who joined Everton as back-up to Southall and had a run in the first team when the Welshman was injured on international duty in 1986, concurs with his fellow goalkeeper’s views:

“Mick was a pleasure to have around the place. He enjoyed his work at the club and was a sounding board for Howard – his input was vital at the time. His demeanour about the place, win, lose or draw he was very much the same and, for a player, it was a good constant to have at the club.

“Colin and Mick backed Howard, no matter what. You never saw any cracks between them the three of them. From working in management myself later on, I know that there must have been disagreements – but the beauty of it was not letting the players see any cracks. It was a pleasure to work and play at Everton and Mick had a big part in that.”

Mick had time for the fans too, as an anecdote recounted by another 'Mick' on the Where are they Now? website illustrates:

“I remember waiting for autographs outside the Bellfield training ground. I was doing the typical ‘Scouse’ thing and asked Mick if he could get me a player shirt. He asked me what number I wanted and I told him: 'Any number'. I was 14 at the time and wasn't allowed into the training ground.

“True to his word, next time, he called me inside and handed me a brown bubble-wrap bag with a shirt inside. Inside the bag was the famous Number 9 shirt – I still keep that shirt as my one of my most keep-safe possessions!”

Mick Heaton at Goodison Park, 1986-87 season

Mick Heaton at Goodison Park, 1986-87 season

When Howard Kendall dropped the bombshell in June 1987 that he was leaving Everton to try his hand in the European arena at Athletic Bilbao, Mick announced that he, too, had decided to quit Goodison. He wished to make it clear via the Liverpool Echo that he had been mulling over his position for some time, feeling that, perhaps, he was not enjoying the recognition that his efforts warranted:

“I had reached the point at which I wanted to have a go on my own. I had played my part at Goodison without receiving the recognition and publicity that I felt I deserved. It made me feel as if I had not contributed anything and encouraged me to think about a new start.

“I’m taking a hell of a chance – I might regret it at the end of the day, just as Howard might. But these decisions have to be made in life…

I’m prepared to sit it out for the right opportunity, preferably on the management side. I went in to Bellefield today to wish both Colin and Howard all the very best. Working with them has been an unbelievable experience.’

Kendall asked his old pal to join him as his Number Two in the Basque Country but Mick elected to remain in England. Having been a vital cog in the Everton machine for 6 years, he could have been forgiven for expecting to get a managerial role at a lower-division club. He had several job interviews – at Grimsby Town, for example – but failed to land a role.

His partner at this time, Alison Hannon, believes that his honesty and disinclination to offer ‘flannel’ in interviews counted against him. Perhaps, also, clubs were reluctant to gamble on appointing someone without previous managerial experience, no matter how decorated he was as a coach?

So, Mick found himself unemployed – and missing football desperately; according to Gerry Farrell, “It broke his heart.” Finally, in November 1988, he got back into the game when appointed manager of Northern Premier League club, Workington Town.

He got his friend Derek Fazackerley to turn out on occasion but was dismissed after 11 months after being at loggerheads with the board over funds for wages and transfer activity.

Mick would later confess to Ken Rogers to it being hard – even for a man of his sunny disposition – managing at the grassroots level after sampling the dizzying heights on Merseyside: “I obviously set my sights higher than Workington but nothing materialised. It’s easy to get disappointed, and at certain times I did feel very low, but I didn’t let it show.”

Howard Kendall’s return from Bilbao in December 1989 offered his pal a way back into the big time. He was duly recruited – along with Peter Reid – to assist Kendall at Manchester City. It was a happy time as they steadied the ship at Maine Road – drafting in former Everton players such as Alan Harper, Peter Reid, Neil Pointon and Adrian Heath.

However, after just 11 months at City, Kendall’s love of Everton tempted him to return to Liverpool 4. Back at Bellefield, he made a clean sweep of the Everton coaching staff, so a return for Mick was never on the cards. Mick stayed on for a period at Maine Road, helping Peter Reid to settle in as player-manager before leaving.

Peter Reid, Howard Kendall and Mick Heaton at Manchester City in 1990

Peter Reid, Howard Kendall and Mick Heaton at Manchester City in 1990

Later Years

After parting company with Manchester City, Mick would not work in a full-time capacity in football again. Derek Fazackerley, who was at that time with Kevin Keegan at Newcastle United, fixed him up with some scouting work and had Mick over to help decorate his flat on Tyneside. Wherever possible, they would take in a football match together – underlining Mick’s enduring love of the game and his hope that he might get back into it at some point (in fact, his knees were ‘shot’ by this time, making a return to training ground duties only a remote possibility).

Alison Hannon recalls that, away from football – and beyond the fun-loving exterior – Mick was a bright man who was very dexterous and able to turn his hand to all manner of DIY, from assembling or disassembling items to painting and decorating (and tinkering with VW cars). Gerry Farrell put Mick’s handyman skills to good use at a hotel he ran in Ingleton and he also did restorations of vintage furniture as an additional source of income.

Mick was even able to cut his friends’ hair very proficiently, having enrolled on a hairdressing course (at his mum’s insistence) whilst serving his apprenticeship at Sheffield United. Kieran O’Connor recalls: “He cut all of his friends’ hair and he was good at it. It was a social thing – he’d cut your hair, have a glass of wine afterwards and life was good.”

Another long-standing passion had been searching for and collecting vintage glass and pottery bottles – most Sundays he would head off to a field and start digging – coming home muddy but delighted with his haul. He’d be an occasional visitor to Ewood Park and happily attended functions with former teammates.

In the mid-1990s, Mick was employed by a Rossendale-based firm of High Court Enforcement Officers. It was not work he relished but it helped to make ends meet. At 9:15am on 10 April 1995 - 10 years to the day since he had been on the touchline with Howard Kendall at Munich’s Olympiastadion – Mick was driving to work in Lancashire. As he rounded a corner, by the Grey Mare pub near Haslingden, his Mercedes van was struck by a Warburton's lorry coming in the opposite direction. Mick suffered severe head and internal injuries plus multiple fractures – he was ferried to Blackburn Infirmary for emergency surgery.

Loved ones and his close friend Gerry Farrell rushed to his bedside where they were given the bleak prognosis. The next day’s Lancashire Evening Telegraph carried the devastating front-page headline that the popular former footballer and coach had died that morning as a result of his injuries. He was just 48 years old.

Everton paid respects in their subsequent home fixture against Crystal Palace by holding a minute’s silence before kick-off. The public funeral service took place, 10 days after Mick’s death, at St Silas’s Church in Blackburn. All of Mick’s former clubs were represented with Blackburn Rovers players and officials – past and present – there in considerable numbers. Derek Fazackerley and John Waddington were two of the pall bearers. Heartfelt eulogies were delivered by Kieran O’Connor and Gerry Farrell, which touched on Mick’s warmth, modesty and generosity.

Other notable faces in the congregation were Howard Kendall (who had just been dismissed by Notts County), Colin Harvey, Graeme Sharp, Gordon Lee, Tony Currie and Gordon Taylor – himself a former Blackburn Rovers player – who represented the PFA. Friends from Mick’s childhood in Yorkshire were also in attendance as were many football supporters, wishing to say a final farewell.

Kieran O’Connor recalled recently: “You can have rose-tinted glasses about people after they pass away but, for Mick, it is true that very few people had a bad word against him. From the highs to the lows, his attitude to life never really changed – and he never got too big for his boots. He would be down to his last pound but, if you needed it, he would give it to you. He was always great fun to be around and has been sadly missed for a long, long time.”

A quarter of a century may have elapsed since Mick’s sudden and tragic demise but Evertonians and Blackburn Rovers supporters owe him an ongoing debt for the significant contributions he made to success at their clubs.

Thanks for the good times, Easy.

Memories of Mick:

Gordon Lee:

”Mick was a wholehearted player who you’d rate at 7 or 8 out of 10 every week. Hardworking, enthusiastic, honest – a good team-player rather than playing for himself. He made the best of his ability and gave everything that he had – and you can’t ask for any more than that. He was a typical northern lad – his enthusiasm and likeability rubbed off on other lads which is one of the reasons he was made captain.”

Mick Rathbone:

“Mick was from Tinsley in Sheffield I think and was super proud of that. When Howard appointed him assistant manager, he was terrific. Funny, full of energy and he worked great with Howard – a great foil for him. I was with him for 2 years until he went to Everton.”

Tony Parkes (in 1995):

“He was so enthusiastic at the club. He was such an effervescent kind of person, things just rubbed-off onto everyone else. But he had a lot of bad luck after leaving football and I don’t think he ever recovered his standing in the game.”

Andy Burgin:

“We both played in Sheffield Boys together when we were 15, so that’s how I knew him. Ever since being a kid, he loved football. He was enthusiastic, got on with people, could talk and was one of the boys, basically. On the pitch, he was a good competitor.

“He’d lose his rag sometimes and dive in when he shouldn’t have done. He said to me once: ‘Why don’t you get booked? You kick them as much as me but I get caught!’ And it was just because he went in like a bull in a china shop straight after being ticked-off. That’s what his competitiveness was all about.”

Howard Kendall (in 1991):

“The man I wanted at my side as I attempted to transform Everton into a major footballing power once again was Mick Heaton… He knew the way that my mind worked and we developed a very close working relationship over a couple of years at Ewood Park.

“I felt it was important that I had my own man at my elbow. Although Mick and I are both enthusiasts, we are different characters in many respects and, as often happens, it was a case of chalk and cheese complementing each other. Mick and I have always worked well together which is why I had no hesitation in offering him a job at Manchester City shortly after I returned home from Spain.”

Kevin Ratcliffe:

“Mick was laid back, liked a bit of fun and a joke, and he was that voice in-between the players and the manager – and he played that part well. I thought that it worked well but maybe there was just something missing.

“When Colin came in, his demands were really high – he’d get that little bit extra out of you. So the blend was a good mixture. The team was built around having a good spirit and Easy was part of that. We were lucky to have him and people like John Clinkard, the Gaffer and Colin.”

Peter Reid:

“Howard, Colin and Mick had to work incredibly hard and be incredibly resourceful to allow us to get the results that we did… You get managers and coaches who want to be at the forefront when things go well, and who want to tell the world how they’ve inverted the triangle and reinvented football.

“Those three got on with their jobs, and that’s probably one of the reasons why they’re not celebrated anywhere near as much as they should be. The players who worked under them know how special they were.”

Graeme Sharp:

“Mick was a smashing fella and a very good right-hand man for Howard. Mick came in as Howard’s friend and coaching partner and everyone was taken by him. He had his own ideas but was very much Howard’s disciple – singing from the same hymn sheet. That is taking nothing away from Mick – he had his input in the dressing room such as at half-time or full-time.

“When Colin moved up, Howard had two very good coaches. Colin out of the three of them was the most aggressive – although Mick could lose his temper. Mick was the most easy-going and approachable out of the three of them. When Colin came in, he was the ‘bad cop’ and Howard was the ‘good cop’ and Mick was the one in between.

“You could always speak with him and have a laugh with him – but you also knew when not to cross the line – so he had the respect of the players. Mick wasn’t really a 9-to-5 hands-on coach but was always there if you needed to chat to explain things to you – if the gaffer had said something that you didn’t agree with, he would explain why.

“It wasn’t great when Howard was struggling – when things aren’t going well, it was difficult at times and the dressing room could become quite flat – so part of Mick’s job was to get the dressing room up and running again and gee the lads up.”

John Bailey:

“Colin Harvey and Mick Heaton combined to give us the best coaching any group of players could have wished for. I think that was reflected in our play.”

Colin Harvey:

“Mick was a happy-go-lucky lad who always worked with a smile on his face. Training was a joint effort between the three of us. We all did different things but worked together.”

Peter White (Lancashire Evening Telegraph journalist – 1995):

“Mick Heaton was a bubbly, competitive character whose love of life was reflected in the way he played football. He simply never gave less than 100 percent on almost 200 occasions when he pulled on the blue-and-white shirt.

“When Ken Furphy paid a few thousand pounds for a reserve full-back, he signed much more than a mere footballer – he got a leader. His untimely death will have stunned a lot of people… They will miss him; I know I will.”

Kieran O’Connor (eulogy given at Mick’s funeral):

“Through all the success that Mick had, he never changed and never forgot his closest friends. Although he was a hard man on the pitch, he was always able to show the other side of his character, his warmth and generosity. Whether he was winning the League championship or out of work, he was always smiling.”

Fred Cumpstey (Blackburn Rovers supporter):

“For me, Mick Heaton was just the right player at the right time. At arguably the lowest point in the history of the club, he was the embodiment of the lively and fighting spirit that Rovers supporters wanted to see. He could never claim to have the silkiness of skills possessed by a Keith Newton or a Bill Eckersley - but at that level he defined what was needed to climb back into the second tier.

“He was an exuberant character, who I could liken to the effects of someone throwing a lighted match into a box of fireworks. He was short and stocky but this belied his agility, where he was quick on the turn and had an innate ability to recover his position quickly if beaten. In addition, what he lacked in inches he more than made up as he was as tough as teak, tigerish in the tackle (much like a Jack Russell snapping round the ankles) and possessed a prodigious work rate.

“You just knew that he was destined to be a successful leader and, of course, he achieved this as captain of the Rovers 1974-75 Third Division Champions team, where he led by example and was both vocal and vociferous in his encouragement of the team. Mick Heaton was not only a players' player but a godsend for any manager.”

My thanks to:

Len Badger, Gillian Baker, Andy Burgin, Colorsport, Brendan Connolly, Fred Cumpstey, Gerry Farrell, Derek Fazackerley, Alison Hannon, Colin Harvey, Maureen Heaton, Gordon Lee, Bobby Mimms, Kieran O’Connor, Kevin Ratcliffe, Mick Rathbone, Ken Rogers, Graeme Sharp, Simon Smith, Neville Southall, Scott Sumner (10,000 Holes fanzine)


Blackburn Rovers: The Complete Record (Mike Jackman)
Blackburn Rovers' Mick Heaton/Andy Burgin testimonial programme
Cheer Up Peter Reid: My Autobiography
(Peter Reid)
Colin Harvey’s Everton Secrets (Colin Harvey with John Keith)
Everton Football Club (Ric George)
Faith of Our Families (edited by James Corbett)
Lancashire Evening Telegraph
Liverpool Echo
Love Affairs and Marriage: My Life in Football (Howard Kendall)
Nothing but the Best is Good Enough: The Howard Kendall Story (Howard Kendall with Ian Ross)

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Reader Comments (21)

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Mike Gaynes
1 Posted 11/04/2020 at 18:58:12
You are a magnificent historian, Rob, and it's a gift to this site and this congregation every time you sit down to craft one of these stories. Thank you.
Michael Kenrick
Editorial Team
2 Posted 11/04/2020 at 22:51:39
That is indeed a fantastic piece of work, Rob. It fills a big hole for me as I left the UK for the USA in 1986 and missed a lot of that precious era. You portray his personality brilliantly through your words and the abundant quotes from those who knew him. Brilliant stuff, but it leaves you sad as that was a horrible way to go.
Peter Mills
3 Posted 12/04/2020 at 08:52:18
A great article. Thank you, Rob.
Eddie Dunn
4 Posted 12/04/2020 at 08:54:21
I very much enjoyed this piece, Rob, during an era I had the pleasure to watch a lot of first-hand.

In today's game (current circumstances apart), it would be unbelievable for a coach to be so successful for a good period, and then need to do odd jobs to pay the bills.

Paul Birmingham
5 Posted 12/04/2020 at 09:35:40
Thanks, Rob, for a superb article.

Where do the years go, it's like five minutes ago.

All stay safe and well.

Christy Ring
6 Posted 12/04/2020 at 10:48:36
A very enjoyable read, Rob. Reading between the lines, Mick's role with the players back then is like a modern-day Psychologist.
Michael Coffey
7 Posted 12/04/2020 at 12:00:58
Rob, thanks so much for a very touching article.

I saw Mick Heaton play in Great Harwood's midfield a number of times in 1977-78, their last season before they sadly folded. He was a thoughtful reader of the game and was obviously respected by the rest of the team. I was very pleased, for sentimental reasons, when he came to Goodison 3 years later.

As your article suggests, football can be cruel, but it needn't be cynical. Happy Easter one and all.

Jay Wood

8 Posted 12/04/2020 at 12:51:38
This is a smashing read, Rob.

I wasn't aware Mick had died so tragically and prematurely. He was evidently much loved everywhere he went and quite clearly a key man in those heady days of the mid-1980s.

Alasdair Jones
9 Posted 12/04/2020 at 14:29:54

A wonderful article so carefully researched. An excellent all-round read and with some valuable insights into the trophy-winning Howard Kendall teams.

Gavin Johnson
10 Posted 12/04/2020 at 15:54:27
Thanks for the article. It was an enjoyable read. I didn't actually know Mick was dead.

As a youngster, I always remember him as the curly topped coach sitting on the bench or being on the annual team poster. It's sad that he never got his chance to manage a professional club when he left Goodison in 1987. It sounds like he was a valued member of the coaching team and Howard, in particular, held him in very high regard.

Jay Harris
11 Posted 12/04/2020 at 16:46:33
Rob, a great read and thanks for brightening up what must be the most depressing Easter on record.
Derek Knox
12 Posted 13/04/2020 at 08:21:22
What a good and interesting read, Rob, especially in these times we are living in with no football to argue over. I remember the Kendall (Mk1) era vividly and with fond affection and memories.

I must confess my ignorance in that I didn't even know that Mick had died, and 25 years ago at that, shame on me!

Thanks for your great contribution and giving us all an insight into the man, and for your research and time!

Danny ONeill
13 Posted 13/04/2020 at 14:53:37
Fantastic insight Rob, thank you. I remember Mick Heaton's Everton day well, although never knew much about him beyond he was in the dugout and celebrated like a mad-man at the 1985 Villa Park semi-final!! Amongst the many interesting parts to come out of this read, I found the reference to Howard's leadership style intriguing. Stepping away from football for a moment, he clearly was a leader in the true sense. Empowered his middle-management and let them get on with organising and delivering. Be prepared to step in where necessary to guide or direct but then step away and maintain that oversight position. Seems this was Kendall's way. Those who try to do everything themselves (micro-managers) often won't succeed as they get sucked into the day to day business rather than being strategic (Moyes dare I say?).

Also, another interesting insight was the building of a management team of different characters. They all shared the same philosophy, however were different; Kendall the leader, Harvey the Sergeant Major and Heaton the link man. We all know them from our own world of employment. The middle manager who sits you all down and says: "look lads (lasses), this is what the boss wants to achieve. That lunatic is going to push you hard to do it. We all want to achieve the same thing, so put up with it, listen, learn and if you have any problems, you come to me and I'll take it to them"!!

Again, if I compare to the Moyes approach (not Moyes bashing or straying from thread by the way), if I recall, he seemed best having Irvine in the supporting role, who could challenge decisions and make him think again rather than often just being surrounded by yes men or people of the same ilk who just agree with you right or wrong.

Once again, a great and very well researched piece.

Frank Sheppard
14 Posted 13/04/2020 at 16:01:10
Great article.
Tony Abrahams
15 Posted 14/04/2020 at 17:26:09
Very thorough article this, Rob, an excellent read, and I can't believe it's got so few comments, especially because it was the last time our club was truly successful!
David Currie
16 Posted 16/04/2020 at 18:26:00

One of the best articles I have read on here, thanks. I really enjoyed it and it brought back wonderful memories. Mick certainly played his part in our success.

Rick Tarleton
17 Posted 18/04/2020 at 07:57:33
Well Done, Rob, Mick Heaton was a name I remembered from the early eighties, but this article brings him alive as a personality and for his role in that hugely successful era.

Was Andy Burgin the son of Ted Burgin, the Sheffield United keeper before the diminutive but brilliant Alan Hodgkinson?

Rob Sawyer
18 Posted 18/04/2020 at 14:20:28
Thanks for the comments and nice feedback, everyone.

What a great coaching team Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey and Mick Heaton made (supported by John Clinkard as physio etc). Although Colin became the main coach in late 1983 in terms of training routines etc., Mick's 'holistic' role should not be over-looked (in terms of morale and looking after the players). It is only right that we remember him.

Rick (17) Andy Burgin is not Ted's son - he might be a distant relative as they hail from the same neck of the woods.

Rick Tarleton
19 Posted 18/04/2020 at 16:30:05
I have just been checking on the two keepers I mentioned in my comment.

Alan Hodgkinson was, I think the shortest ever England keeper at 1.75 m. Ted Burgin was 5 cm shorter at 1.70 m. Burgin was an England B international, so was one of the top keepers around at approximately 5'-6" tall, a good half a foot shorter than Pickford who is regarded as being rather too short for a modern keeper.

Burgin and Hodgkinson had the very skilful Joe Shaw as their centre-half and he too was no more than 1.74 m. One wonders how Sheffield United coped against Lofthouse, Hickson and the like. Though, of course, they too, while great headers of the ball, were not particularly tall.

Vince Walsh
20 Posted 19/04/2020 at 08:34:41
Great article many thanks Rob.
Jack Convery
21 Posted 26/04/2020 at 01:54:31
Only 20 comments – this well-researched article deserves more than that. A really interesting piece about a forgotten hero of the 80s management team.

A great shame he never truly got the recognition he deserved for what he did as a player, Captain and Assistant Manager / Coach, though those who knew him had a lot of time for him and that says an awful lot about the man.

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