Bertie Freeman was one of the most extraordinary goalscorers in Everton history, an explosive poacher par excellence who became the first player to hit more than 30 league goals in a single campaign, also topping the First Division scoring charts.
HE HAD STARTED out with Aston Villa in his native Birmingham, but left without making an impression to join Woolwich Arsenal. In south London he was prolific but without ever making the centre forward shirt his own.
Woolwich Arsenal were perpetually cash- strapped and to sell was to survive. In 1907/08 Everton eyed some of their players with avarice as they sought to rejuvenate a disappointing league campaign. In February 1908 the Everton board made a double bid for Arsenal’s England international inside forward Tim Coleman and Freeman. Coleman was allowed to leave for Goodison, but for Freeman Everton had to wait another two months. Then, £350 was enough to buy the player. For the London club it was, reflected Tony Matthews in the Arsenal Who’s Who, ‘one of the great transfer blunders of those early years’. Freeman and Coleman were an incredible success together.
They appeared briefly at the end of the 1907/08 season, but it was only with the onset of the following campaign that Goodison witnessed their full potential. A brace apiece on the opening day at, ironically, Woolwich Arsenal set the tone. Once they started scoring they couldn’t stop – 57 league goals combined, with 38 from 36 appearances for Freeman. This included four hat-tricks and seven braces, including one in a 5-0 hammering of Liverpool as well as a run of ten straight scoring appearances.
THERE SEEMED to be no great elegance to Freeman’s technique. He got the ball and put it into the goal; he was a finisher, a rabid poacher – there were no thrills other than the ball hitting the back of the net. After scoring both goals versus Bristol City in the second game of the campaign the Liverpool Courier recorded: ‘Freeman has the requisite heights and weights, and though he may not be endowed with the gifts in the direction of knitting the wings together, which distinguish really great pivots, he possesses the happy faculty of seizing an opportunity for forcing his way through by sheer weight and determination, and shooting with deadly effect.’ Later that season, the same publication wrote: ‘Freeman still adopts the same brisk methods that characterised his play when a member of the Arsenal team, but he has improved immensely with his juggling with the ball, and I should say he is now one of the cleverest forwards in the League.’
Freeman was called up to the England team and Everton shot to the top of the league, winning 13 of their first 18 matches and losing just twice. But their form collapsed dramatically in the second half of the campaign and they won just five of their last 20 matches. It was enough for runners-up spot, but they were well behind League Champions Newcastle United.
Freeman started the 1909/10 campaign where he had left off the previous one. He scored ten goals in Everton’s first eight league matches. ‘The great feature was Freeman’s return to form,’ reported the Liverpool Courier after he struck a hat-trick against Sheffield United. ‘Not only was he responsible for the hat-trick, but his play throughout was a marked advance upon anything he has given this season. He distributed the play better, and his trapping of the ball combined with his marvellous dexterity in seizing openings was reminiscent of his best days.’
Although Everton shared the goals out this campaign, they remained heavily reliant on Freeman’s prowess. When he plundered Everton shone; when he struggled for goals and form, the team laboured. Everton finished tenth and reached the FA Cup semi-final, but the Everton board had started to refashion the team. Coleman had started to be edged out and Jack Sharp retired; Freeman would struggle in this new team.
He opened the 1910/11 season with a brace, but while the form of the team was good, his was poor. When Everton faced Woolwich Arsenal in early November he had gone two months without scoring. ‘Freeman’s play was erratic,’ reported the Liverpool Courier. ‘Early on he gave us a taste of his old time dash and good intention and worked for openings, but the spectators are still waiting for that goal. Frequently they concluded that this was forthcoming, only to be disappointed, however, by the centre’s wild kicking over the bar.’ Freeman, it added, ‘made a miserable attempt with a splendid opening’.
A WEEK LATER, against Bradford City, he was dropped and Sandy Young returned as centre forward. Freeman played just once more for Everton. Less than 18 months had passed between him topping the First Division scoring charts and his axing from the Everton first team.
In April 1911 Freeman was transfer-listed for £800. Burnley moved quickly and with Harry Mountford he moved across Lancashire later that same month for a joint fee of £850. There was, however, still plenty of life – and goals – in the forward. His staggering prowess returned at Turf Moor and he scored 64 league goals in his first two seasons for Burnley. In 1914 and before King George V – the first reigning monarch to attend an FA Cup Final – he scored the only goal of the match when Burnley beat Liverpool to lift the cup for the only time.
War interrupted his career, like so many others of his era, but he returned to football afterwards, putting in another season with Burnley before dropping down to non-league with Wigan Borough. Shortly before he left Turf Moor, he received the following newspapertribute, which is worth recalling in full, because it says much of the player, the man and his achievements:
Freeman may justly be described as one of the most remarkable players of the past 20 years, a centre-forward who was a leader in deed as well as name. The modern tendency is for the leaders of attack to wait for opportunities to be provided for them. They have to be spoon fed to succeed, merely relying upon pace, weight and ability to shoot. Freeman could burst through with the best; moreover he could also engineer openings for his colleagues and was an artist with the ball at his toes.
That queer, short step of his misled many defenders and it was one of the surprises of football when in 1909 Everton decided that his playing days were over. So far from the fact did the Everton judgment prove that Freeman led Burnley to promotion and to victory in the English Cup.He has been with the Turf Moor club for 11 years and has taken part in 300 games for them in which he has scored 174 goals – a wonderful record for a player supposed to be at the end of his career. He will be greatly missed at Turf Moor, where he made himself one of the most popular players the club has ever possessed.