Some called him a jinx, citing that he never won a trophy or even a derby match. Others, including Gordon Lee, used to say that if you cut Mick Lyons, he would bleed blue. Of course, this was an oft-used cliché, but – jinx or not –the sentiments underlying it were true: for few men have been as devoted or offered such courageous service to Everton as Lyons.
Born in Liverpool and bred an Evertonian, Lyons worked his way through the club’s youth system to fulfil a life’s dream and make his debut against Nottingham Forest in March 1971, scoring in a 3-2 away defeat. As a boy he had watched Everton from the Gwladys Street, witnessing the 1963 title win and the dramas of the 1966 FA Cup Final. Such was his devotion to his hero, Jimmy Gabriel, that at his confirmation he adopted his name.
Lyons had progressed through the Everton youth teams as a centre forward, but the emergence of David Johnson restricted his progress and Tommy Casey converted him to centre half. Through the early stages of his first team career, he would alternate between the two positions. Called upon to assist in an injury crisis during the 1971/72 campaign, Lyons seemed to deputise for John Hurst one week and Joe Royle the next. It was a similar story until mid decade, when Billy Bingham decided that he was most effective deployed as centre back on a permanent basis. Even then he was often thrown up front as an emergency striker if Everton were chasing a late winner or equaliser.
Lyons goal-scoring abilities saw him finish leading scorer during the 1973/74 season, the first campaign in which he could call a first team shirt his own. Nevertheless his technique was often questioned by exacting sections of the Goodison support. The implication from his critics was that he was a ‘crude’ player and ‘all heart and no brains.’ Yet this dismissal was harsh. Not since Dave Hickson had there been a player willing to put their head in places where other players thought twice about putting their feet. And his kamikaze approach was often inspirational at a time when Everton were said to lack spirit.
Lyons prospered under Gordon Lee, who preferred solid players to extroverts such as Duncan McKenzie. He was ever present during the 1977/78 season as Everton finished third –their highest position during his Everton career – and virtually a permanent fixture the following season, when Everton finished fourth. But thereafter, his career went into decline as Everton waned during Gordon Lee’s final two seasons at the club. A 40 yard volleyed own goal in a 1979 derby match marked him as an object of derision, and only a television strike meant that his blunder wasn’t captured for posterity.
The simultaneous emergence of Mark Higgins, Kevin Ratcliffe and Billy Wright at the turn of the decade brought Lyons’ first team place under threat. Midway through the 1981/82 season, Howard Kendall, dropped him in favour of Wright. He returned briefly to the first team, marking his final start in an Everton shirt, against Manchester United in April 1982, with a goal – just as he had announced his arrival eleven years earlier.
That summer Kendall sold Lyons, now aged 30, to Sheffield Wednesday, where he spent three years. There was a spell as player manager of Grimsby Town, before he returned to Goodison as reserve team coach under Colin Harvey. Later he filled a similar position at Wigan Athletic. In the 1990s he emigrated to Australia where he is now a highly regarded coach.
In Three Sides of the Mersey a (possibly apocryphal) story was recounted by a supporter who claimed to have met Lyons in a pub the day he was sold. The player had been crying his eyes out. ‘It was as if his wife had left him,’ recalled the fan. ‘Of course she hadn’t, he’d been sold by the club he loved, but I wonder whether he would have been as upset if she had ditched him!’ But such are the realities of football: spirit and devotion are no guarantees for success.