Alex Latta was one of the succession of brilliant players Everton reaped from the bountiful Scottish burgh of Dumbarton. John Bell, Richard Boyle, Abraham Hartley and, a century later, Graeme Sharp, all hailed from the same town. Signed after Everton’s first league season, Latta was to be one of the outstanding figures in the club’s final years at Anfield and first seasons at Goodison, winning the League Championship in 1891 and appearing in the losing side at the FA Cup Final two years later.
The summer of 1889 was one of intense rebuilding after Everton’s moderate start to league football. On the eve of the new season the Liverpool Mercury was excited enough by the transfer activity to report: ‘The efforts of the executive, have almost solely been directed to the delicate task of scoring really reliable players, the result of continuous negotiations being the engagement for certain of four “stars” Latta (Dumbarton Athletic and Scotch International); and [Alec] Brady, (Renton and Burnley); will join [Fred] Geary, [Edgar] Chadwick and [Charlie] Parry in forward work, and the attack thus promises to be a very keen one, and altogether different to the incohesive formation, so often seen last year.’ Certainly the optimism was not misplaced and Latta started his Everton career in fine form, scoring nine times from 19 appearances as his new club finished runners-up to Preston.
Accounts of Latta’s pace and incision down the right wing recall memories of Andrei Kanchelskis, the club’s great Russian winger who followed him in an Everton shirt a century later. ‘The outside right combined lightning acceleration with intricate dribbling skills and also packed a powerful shot in both feet,’ wrote David France and Dave Prentice in Virgin Blues, the history of Everton’s first years. ‘His pairing with Alec Brady was often overlooked by the fans of Chadwick-Milward but was equally as productive throughout the title- winning season.’ That came in 1890/91, although Latta would be missing for over half of Everton’s games through injury. He scored four times in ten appearances in what was a great team effort.
‘In the cherished opinion of many veteran enthusiasts this was one of the best teams that ever played for the Club,’ wrote Thomas Keates. ‘Every member of it has some rhapsodic eulogists; Geary for his electric runs, tricking out opponents; Chadwick and Milward (left wing) and Latta and Brady (right) as superb exponents; Hannah and Doyle as giant barriers, tacklers and sensational kickers; and the half-backs as reliable resisters and feeders.’
When the trophy was handed over by the club president, John Houlding, he was joined by members of the team. ‘As each mounted the stage,’ reported the Liverpool Mercury, ‘The cheering was terrific.’ Houlding said he received the trophy with ‘great pleasure’ and gave a speech to the assembled crowd. ‘Since the Everton Club had been started they had scored many brilliant victories, the crowning point was reached when they brought home the League Championship. It was only by continued perseverance and pluck that this cup could be won. The committee had surprised him by the knowledge they displayed not only as regards the game but also as regards players. If a good player were to be had they would capture him, and when they had them it was their duty to keep them.’ Houlding then gave out gold medals to each of the players and Latta ‘met with a tremendous reception’ from the assembled masses.
If the League Championship winning season represented the collective highpoint of his Everton career, 1891/92 was one of personal triumph for Latta. He finished Everton’s top goalscorer with 17 goals, including hat-tricks against West Bromwich Albion and Notts County. It provided conclusive proof that he was an ace finisher as well as a creator of goals.
The hat-trick against Notts County came when he was partnered by Geary on the wing. The pair, wrote a local correspondent, were ‘especially prominent as they made rings around the Notts defence’. Latta’s first goal came after he ‘had the best of a hot tussle with Henry’ and combined with Milward to score ‘a clinking goal’. The winger then ‘got round Henry, and sprinting down with the ball at his toe, finished up by beating Toone for a second time’. The third – and his final goal – came after he was set up by Kelso. It was a brilliant display of pace, power and precision.
Latta’s contribution from the wing in the first seasons at Goodison Park were equally telling. He scored 18 league goals in 1892/93 and nine a season later. He started the 1894/95 season – like his team-mates – in irrepressible form as the club shot to the top of First Division. But when injury ruled him out after Christmas it seemed to impact the whole team. The top spot Everton had held for most of the first half of the season was never regained and they finished runners-up to Sunderland by five points. Hamstrung by injuries and erratic form, pressure was mounting on certain players. Of a friendly at Glasgow Rangers the Mercury reported ‘the wretched and terribly aggravating shooting form of the visitors’. Perhaps the selectors held Latta responsible; certainly they increasingly favoured Latta’s fellow Dumbartonian, John Bell, on the Everton right. After making just five appearances in the 1895/96 season he was sold to Liverpool for £35 in September 1896. But his return to Anfield was unhappy and he never made a senior appearance in English football again.