“Boys from the Blue Stuff: Everton's Rise to 1980s Glory” by Gavin Buckland

Gavin Buckland's new book picks up where Money Can't Buy Us Love left off, delivering again in spades. Despite the academic levels of research behind it, this is easy to read and reflects on the club under three managers, culminating in those heady days in the mid-80s

Rob Sawyer 28/09/2021 17comments  |  Jump to last

Reviewed by Rob Sawyer

Boys From the Blue Stuff – Gavin Buckland
My history books of preference are not those that merely trot out long-accepted narratives – they’re the ones that take a fresh look and offer up thoroughly-researched arguments, which invite the reader to reflect and, potentially, draw new conclusions. Boys from the Blue Stuff: Everton's Rise to 1980s Glory hits the spot.

Everton’s history, when recounted, is often shoe-horned into decades. For example: 1960s: golden. 1970s: painful. 1980s: euphoric. But, of course, things are far more nuanced, and the decades far from compartmentalised. So, I am delighted that the second instalment (published on 28 September 2021) of Gavin Buckland’s epic analysis of the club in the John Moores era, spans much of the 1970s and 1980s.

Gavin is a familiar voice for many Evertonians through his articulate contributions to several podcasts. In 2018, he brought out Money Can’t Buy Us Love: Everton in the 1960s.

That weighty tome has become, for me, the definitive and most comprehensive analysis of the then ‘Mersey Millionaires’ era under Johnny Carey (briefly) and Harry Catterick, with the success-hungry and demanding Moores looming large. It took us through a period delivering two League titles and two FA Cup finals before ending on a sombre note in 1973, with ‘The Catt’ vacating the hot seat after a period of illness and an alarming slide in form on the pitch.

Boys from the Blue Stuff (another inspired title) picks up where its predecessor left off and, over the course of 175,000 words, reflects on the club under three managers – through barren times and agonising near-misses, plus some amazing highs. Beginning with the prolonged and bungled search for a successor to Harry Catterick, which culminated in the appointment of the far-from-first-choice Billy Bingham, it ends with Howard Kendall’s Toffees sat at the pinnacle of English and, arguably, European football.

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The author eschews interviewing people who were there are the time, instead relying on newspaper articles of the period and occasional interviews on radio or TV. One benefit of this approach is that it avoids the pitfalls of ‘selective’ memories or those dulled by the passage of time. The book gives a balanced and considered take on the tenures of the three managers featured, and challenges than the oft-accepted wisdom. So, did Billy Bingham really produce a team of automatons? Was Gordon Lee a dour manager who disliked flair players such as Duncan McKenzie? And was Kendall really a brilliant Everton manager from the get-go? In considering these questions, Gavin uses well-sourced evidence to acknowledge their weakness as well as highlighting their positive attributes.

We learn that Billy Bingham was a refreshing change for the media after the taciturn Catterick. The Ulsterman is given credit for revamping an ageing squad – clearing out the remaining vestiges of the 1970 championship-winning squad (including, controversially, Howard Kendall) and, within two seasons, crafting a side pushing for the title. But here’s the rub: the team was not good enough, or ready, for the pressure that came with a title race. It fell short of the finish line. Not quite Devon Loch territory, but costly defeats to Carlisle (twice!), Sheffield United, Luton and Middlesbrough still haunt supporters of a certain age,

It’s clear, reading the passages, that there was little love within and outside of Merseyside for the functional, if generally effective style of play, favoured by Bingham. As results went awry in 1975-76 and player unrest surfaced, pressure rapidly mounted. The embattled Irishman not only had supporter and press criticism of the so-called ‘Clockwork Orange’ playing style to contend with – at The Hawthorns in November 1976, a Jack Russell even got in on the act. The tenacious terrier carried out a high-press on the Everton back-line – helping to set up a goal for the Throstles’ David Cross. This canine calamity is one of many amusing snippets and asides unearthed and shared by the author.

There is a convincing case made for John Moores, the saviour of the club 15 years previously – but then just turned 80 – becoming part of the problem. The sacking of Bingham shortly after sanctioning his big-money moves for Duncan McKenzie and Bruce Rioch is a case in point, as was the messy search (yes, another) for a managerial replacement early in 1977 (which saw Bobby Robson slip through the Toffees’ grasp). By the time of Howard Kendall’s appointment, Philip Carter is Chairman (a Littlewoods man, it must be said) and he shows more patience in the dark days of 1983-84 than Moores may have done.

Gordon Lee – like Bingham – had glory and Everton immortality in his reach but couldn’t quite grasp it in the league or cup competitions. His record in the first full two seasons was pretty impressive – as were many team performances, but there was always the albatross (or should that be Liver Bird?) around his neck – in the form of the successful team across the park. The Lee quotations sourced from newspaper interviews and press conferences are fascinating for their candidness – there is none of the PR filter applied to most managers’ pronouncements these days.

Another eye-opener is the illustration of how, even before the proliferation of agents, disgruntled players sought transfers in a very overt manner. For example, Bob Latchford – now considered a club icon – was publicly seeking an Everton exit from the summer of 1976 onwards. His dispute with his employer continued through much of his golden 30-goal 1977-78 season – with a new contract only signed with half-a-dozen matches left to play. Gavin makes valid points about the Birmingham man’s time with the Toffees which followed a pattern of feast and famine.

The departures of Dave Thomas, Martin Dobson, Mike Pejic and Colin Todd (a thoroughbred centre-half who never saw eye-to-eye with Lee) etc appear baffling. The failure to secure the services of a top-class goalkeeper, along with increasingly questionable transfer activity from 1979 onwards, plus a dollop of further rotten luck in cup competitions, led to the former Newcastle boss shuffling along the ship’s plank for the latter half of the 1980-81 season.

Gavin portrays Lee as a decent man who didn’t deserve to receive an ignominious end – a good and hugely committed manager, but one lacking the vison and skill to mould the club to his will and vision. Yes, he was unlucky – witness the ‘Clive Thomas’ semi-final (which merits six pages of dissection) – but it’s well-argued that he became fatalistic rather than ‘owning’ his (and the team’s) destiny.

Perhaps, most alluring for many readers will be the Kendall years, after Lee’s long Goodison death rattle. With only 2 years as a manager under his belt (at Blackburn Rovers), the former Everton captain inherited one of the toughest jobs in British football. Still learning his trade, his task (to win silverware) was one that had proved too great for a pair of experienced operators but, in his favour, he had a patient board of directors, and supporters who adored him for his displays in the royal blue shirt. The (not-so) ‘Magnificent Seven’ brought to the club in his first summer is assessed in the book (spoiler alert: Neville Southall is not the only player deemed ‘not a failure’).

Two seasons of reasonable progress are assessed in the book – with much chopping and changing as the right blend was sought. Kendall benefitted from the maligned Gordon Lee having blooded a number of promising youngsters – which he added to with astute (if not always immediately successful) signings in Heath, Reid and Sheedy. The surprising sale of Steve McMahon is given context while Gavin struggles to find any logic in the return of David Johnson to the club.

The autumn of 1983 finds things unravelling. Here was a manager still learning his craft – and making some errors – under the harshest of spotlights. So, his decision to promote talented coach and tactician Colin Harvey, to work alongside him and Mick Heaton, is revealed to be both inspired and pivotal. The dynamic between Kendall and his coaching team is considered at length. The ‘turning point’ games are covered – with the late Milk Cup comeback against Coventry arguably more important than the Brock - Heath tie against Oxford. Andy Gray’s impact – off the pitch as much as on it – is acknowledged, as is the Peter Reid renaissance.

Even though we know the ending, it’s a thrill to read the unfolding events of March 1984 to May 1985. Week by week, we are taken through events on and off the pitch. Although, looking back, the 1984-85 team was one of the finest collective units in the club’s history, we’re reminded that journalists – particularly those based in London – could be sniffy about this ‘team of no stars’.

The author acknowledges that, away from home, Kendall’s tactics could be pragmatic – effective if not always pretty (basically: keep it tight in the first 60 minutes and then take it to the opposition). Only, belatedly, as Everton won a crucial match at White Hart Lane (famous for ‘that’ Southall save) does praise become far less grudging in some quarters.

We stop the timeline with Everton just missing out on a historic treble – Norman Whiteside’s left-boot putting paid to the impossible dream – and learning that they will not be participating in the following season’s European Cup, in the wake of the tragedy of Heysel. Concluding the book is an analysis of how that Kendall team clicked, and why the turnaround of 1983-84 and subsequent achievements are, one feels, overlooked in the national sporting consciousness.

For someone seeking a concise yet well-researched history of the club, I’d always point them towards James Corbett’s Everton: The School of Science. For those Toffee scholars seeking more meat on the bones, I’d highly recommend an investment in Boys from the Blue Stuff. The bar was set high with Money Can’t Buy Us Love but Gavin has delivered again in spades. Although thesis-like in length and having academic levels of research behind it, this is easy to read – be that cover to cover or by dipping in as the fancy takes you.

To understand where we – as a club and fanbase – are now, you need to understand the past. Boys from the Blue Stuff will contribute to developing your knowledge – and entertain you along the way.

Now, for Volume 3. Who has suggestions for a pop culture-based title?

Boys from the Blue Stuff: Everton's Rise to 1980s Glory is published by deCoubertin Books. RRP £25 but on offer through the publisher’s website for £20

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Reader Comments (17)

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Danny O’Neill
1 Posted 28/09/2021 at 08:06:45
Another excellent review Rob. As always, thank you for taking the time to take me back to my youth again.

Yes, those initial signings didn't quite gel for Kendall. But then he finished a respectable 8th in comparison to the previous season where we were close to the relegation places. What I hadn't remembered was that Latchford went out the door as Kendall came in.

I always seem to remember Alan Biley and Mick Ferguson for some reason. Probably the bleach blonde hair and Grizzly Bear beard look respectively!

Dark times as we approached Christmas in the 1983-84 season. I often wonder how close we were to changing the course of history. Was Carter's finger hovering on the trap door lever?

But on the back of the 8th finish a subsequent 7th and, having turned that season around, 7th again with a trophy. Kendall done fantastic considering what he took over and where he was in December 1983. We all know what happened next.

Great times to be an Evertonian, but difficult times too. Economic struggles, low crowds as a result, bin strikes, miners strikes, riots and Liverpool as a city was on its knees. A shell of it's past and a city centre that was decaying. When I go back now it's fantastic to see what they've done with her.

The title of the next one? If it's going to cover the late 80s and into the 90s and you suggest a Cool Britannia theme, I propose "Don't Look Back in Anger".

Or try not to!!

Chris Hockenhull
2 Posted 28/09/2021 at 09:41:19
Looking forward to this after the excellent “Money Can’t Buy Us Love”. This era of being nearly men grates still. Let’s not forget the few days when Revie was going to replace Catterick until an about turn when the Beast of Bolsover himself- Dennis Skinnner got into the act in The House of Commons!!! The great tragedy was how it all fell apart on many levels in the late 80’s/ early 90’s. It really was a case of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. ( my input to prospective Vol 3!!!)
Dave Williams
3 Posted 28/09/2021 at 10:48:39
I don’t know if the book explains the Latchford transfer issue ( I’m sure it does) but lest readers here get the wrong idea he was agitating for a move because of the pay freeze which applied to the UK at the the time. He hadn’t had a raise in a few years and the club couldn’t do anything about it. I have some recollection that he was able to get his extra pay once he gained a full England cap?
Great striker,nice guy and I have ordered the book!!
Rob Sawyer
4 Posted 28/09/2021 at 11:23:12
Hi Dave (3),

Good point. Gavin's book does explain the context to Bob's context/wages issues (wage issues aside, he was also unhappy in the latter stages of the Bingham era). As you say, Bob is a lovely person, excellent striker and a great servant for EFC.

I was seeking to highlight how public players' issues with clubs (and managers) could be – even before agents really came on the scene. Enjoy the book!

Michael Kenrick
5 Posted 28/09/2021 at 16:56:37
Made me think tangentially of a recent episode of Endeavour which ventured rather anachronistically into the football world for its gory plotline.

Considering it was set in 1971, I think the screenwriters took real liberties by making far too much of the spoilt brat super-star meme, multiple dolly-girl WAGs, his very modern blood-sucking agent, and the poor honest scout who had found him in the first place. I found it ironic as they seem to strive for chronological accuracy with the sets and especially the vehicles.

I was thinking the fixed wage could have hardly ended and players surely didn't have agents then? And as for WAGs, I think we can default to Becky Tallentire's collection of first-hand recollections for a more accurate picture there... personal discretion notwithstanding!

Paul Birmingham
6 Posted 28/09/2021 at 21:49:20
Superb, Rob, and this wets the appetite, and Chrimbo, on the horizon, this will be on my wish list.
John Raftery
7 Posted 28/09/2021 at 22:01:17
My copy of this book is on its way. After thoroughly enjoying ‘Money Can’t Buy Us Love’ I am really looking forward to reading it.
Don Alexander
8 Posted 28/09/2021 at 22:23:30
The third book, especially since the advent of u-no-oo decades ago, should be called "Oops Upside Your Head", by the appropriately named Gap Band.
Roy Johnstone
9 Posted 29/09/2021 at 21:32:53
Really good review. The point about the Milk cup game v Coventry is spot on. 9000 fans sent home thinking the future might be brighter is often overlooked. I appreciate Kevin Brocks backpass was important, but it all turned for me that night. Resilience appeared against a decent Cov side and I was sent home with real hope. Will be reading this.

Ken Kneale
10 Posted 30/09/2021 at 07:09:49
Don - are you sure?

"Tragedy" must feature highly surely – at least for the club and the fans?

Dave Abrahams
11 Posted 01/10/2021 at 20:36:22
Roy (9), I haven't read the book but have previously put on ToffeeWeb, more than once, that it was the Coventry league cup tie which got us going, the night of the pamphlets: “Kendall out”, Peter Reid coming on to change the game and a good win. Was Graeme Sharp hobbling in the closing stages?

The next day, Howard one of his best, if not the best, making Colin Harvey his first-team coach and we were on our way. The Oxford game always gets the distinction of changing our direction but it was the Coventry game for me, and let's be honest: if we'd lost out to Coventry, there would have been no Oxford game.

Dave Abrahams
12 Posted 01/10/2021 at 20:39:54
Sorry @ (11), should have read: Howard made one of his best appointments, if not the best.
David Currie
13 Posted 02/10/2021 at 22:23:10
Dave @11,

Yes, Sharpy did his ankle ligaments in that night game at Goodison.

I was there that night and also went to the Oxford away game without a ticket. Got a train from Burnley at 6:00 am, luckily met some EFC fans in the late afternoon who sold me a ticket at face value. Great away support that night as usual.

Brian Wilkinson
14 Posted 06/10/2021 at 13:59:36
Already thinking ahead to the third volume, chapter one Harvey,everyone else sees nothing apart from Harvey who believes he can see a rabbit in Nevin and co.

Chapter two Mike and the mechanics, the not so living years.

Chapter three Joe I’m only dancing, ok John would not have fitted.

Chapter four the return of the messiah, or was he just a naughty boy.

Chapter five Dads army featuring Smith as Captain Mannering, with his bungling forwards firing blanks.

Only 5 chapters but a very big epilogue at the end.

That should see us nicely through the nineties.

Now to get my hands on this book to take me back to my youth, relive those home and away Days, those glory Days, those struggles beforehand.

Brian Wilkinson
15 Posted 06/10/2021 at 19:07:12
I have not read the book money Can’t buy us love, likewise with the new book.

I know if you order the new book, there is a £5 discount, but cannot help thinking, the author has missed a trick by not offering both books for a special price if you order them together, especially with Xmas around the corner.

Derek Knox
16 Posted 06/10/2021 at 19:50:31
Don @ 8, I believe on the theme of "What Did The Romans Do For Us ?" He is currently researching and doing something along those lines " What Bill Kenwright Did For Us !" I'm confident it will get your approval. :-)
Ken Kneale
17 Posted 06/10/2021 at 20:22:47
Derek - I believe the late Len Shackleton wrote a similar headline for his book chapter about "what directors know about football". He then left the page blank. Don may approve of a similar blank book about BK

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