Johnny McIlhatton was one of the most highly regarded prospects of wartime football. An old school Scottish winger who was diminutive, skilful and quick, his performances on Albion Rovers’ wing, notably against Rangers’ Scotland international full back John “Tiger” Shaw, brought him growing renown
He was scouted in Spring 1946 by Everton’s former captain, Jock Thomson, whose enthusiastic report to Goodison saw the director Ernest Green dispatched to Lanarkshire to check him out. Green reported that he was ‘small, quick, clever and well built,’ and recommended Everton buy him.
With hindsight, this was not the smartest move. In pursuing McIlhatton the board agreed to overlook Carlisle’s Ivor Broadis and Bristol City’s Roy Bentley -- both would be England regulars the following decade. The £5,000 fee was also a vast sum to pay for a largely untested footballer who had never played beyond amateur level. Later that year Joe Mercer –England’s wartime captain no less – would be sold by Everton to Arsenal for just £9,000.
McIlhatton was charged with the difficult job of filling the number seven shirt, worn with such distinction by his countryman Torry Gillick in Everton’s pre-war title winning side. Untried and coming into a struggling side this was always going to be something of a thankless task.]
The winger, like his new team, started the 1946/47 season slowly, but pressure quickly gathered on his young shoulders. After a 4-1 defeat to Charlton in October, ‘Stork’ complained in the Liverpool Echo that he had had ‘his worst game to date…He did absolutely nothing for the full ninety minutes.’
There were, nevertheless, by Christmas some brief signs of a return to the form that won him such plaudits as an amateur in Scotland. He was at his best when interchanging with Jock Dodds at centre forward, and their interplay flummoxed opponents.
In an FA Cup third round tie against Southend in January 1947 he had his best game yet, scoring his first goal in a 4-2 win. ‘He opened with a fervour and feint and centre quite foreign to his work in recent weeks,’ recorded Ernest ‘Bee’ Edwards. ‘His method of tip-and-run beyond a defender succeeded in most instances. As a critic… it is my pleasure to put on record the winger’s display and his forging ahead. He was one of an eleven that revelled in a softish turf.’
But the form did not last. Although he continued to feature regularly in a poor Everton team until the Autumn he eventually lost his place to Jackie Grant. His irregular appearances dried up all together following Cliff Britton’s appointment as manager in September 1948.
In 1949 McIlhatton joined Dundee and a year later signed for Raith Rovers. At neither club did he succeed in holding down a regular place and he drifted out of football, becoming a marine engineer.
His name re-entered Evertonian minds just a few years later, in February 1954, when supporters learned news of his tragic death, aged 33, from tuberculosis. When news reached Merseyside, the Everton Supporters’ Federation immediately sought permission to take a collection at a home game for the benefit of his widow.
But with that mixture of cack-handedness and inherent sense of Evertonian values with which they frequently governed the club, Everton’s board refused the federation’s request, while simultaneously investigating the widow’s circumstances. When it was reported back that she and her four children were surviving on an income of less than £3 per week, they decided to pay her a grant of £2 per week. Even when she found full time work as a schoolteacher Everton continued paying her a benefit until Autumn 1956.