Like their lives, the careers of the brothers William and Robert Balmer are so inextricably linked that is appropriate to consider both men in the same entry. Both rugged full backs, between them they made more than 500 Everton appearances, with William earning international recognition and winning the 1906 FA Cup – a triumph that came at the expense of his younger brother, who was dropped for the match.
William first broke into the Everton team in the 1897/98 season, ousting Peter Meecham from the right back position and making it his own to such an extent that the novice was selected for all of Everton’s games in an FA Cup run that took them to the semi-finals. He impressed immediately for his tenacity and ruggedness. He was a player, wrote one correspondent at time, who ‘simply revelled in downright hard and effective work’. This may be seen as the motto that dictated his whole career.
Everton’s back line at the time had a reputation for its footballing principles, but the addition of William Balmer added some steely resolve that was probably much needed. Sometimes this would get him into trouble. Of the September 1898 derby match, the Liverpool Courier’s correspondent noted: ‘Balmer early in the game showed indiscreet tactics, and he never recovered; for all through he failed to do himself justice and a kindly admonition from the skipper Owen proved abortive. The climax was reached when he whipped Robertson’s leg from under him when only a few yards from the posts, and the game was then decided. Otherwise the contest was remarkably free from foul play especially considering the high tension, which the combatants were working, and probably the lesson will prove salutary to the capable right back, as it was decisive.’ On another occasion, the same journalist wrote admonishingly: ‘Balmer would do well to control himself, even when under trying conditions and ablutions of temper are not conducive to the best interests of one’s side, particularly when occurring within the penalty limit.’ William’s play saw him pick up a solitary England cap in February 1905, when he was picked against Ireland in a 1-1 draw at Ayresome Park.
He was joined in the Everton squad for the 1902/03 season by his brother Robert, who was four years his junior. The younger Balmer was two inches shorter and stockier, but just as uncompromising and hard-working in his play. From being a bit-part player and occasional reserve for his elder brother, by the 1905/06 season he was starting to establish a regular berth.
This would lead to one of the most difficult dilemmas to ever face an Everton official. Robert had been ably deputising for his brother and also Jack Crelley through large parts of the campaign and had played in the FA Cup semi-final win over Liverpool alongside Crelley. His brother, by contrast, had missed that match and been in and out of the team ahead of the final against Newcastle at Crystal Palace. Crelley would definitely play in the final, but who would be the other full back: William or Robert?
Everton’s preparations in a country hotel in Chingford were based on the total relaxation of its squad, but the question over which Balmer would play hung heavily. On the morning of the match the Liverpool Courier reported: ‘The men will take the field fresh as paint, eager for the fray, and confident of victory. The exact constitution of the team will not be decided until the morning, there being just a doubt, so Mr Cuff informs me, as to which of the Brothers Balmer will partner Crelley at back. The younger brother, Robert, has so greatly improved that he may possibly fill the position.’
Not until half an hour from the start of the game did it transpire which Balmer would appear in the right back position. ‘A short consultation on the part of the Everton directors resulted in the elder Balmer being selected to partner Crelly,’ recorded the Courier. William did not let Evertonians down as the club lifted its first FA Cup. ‘W. Balmer probably never played a better game than on Saturday,’ the same newspaper reported. ‘He tackled coolly, and kept a good length with his punts. He was a trifle shaky at the close, but on the whole his performance was of a sterling character.’
The following campaign Robert ousted Crelley from the Everton starting XI. When Everton made the FA Cup Final for a second year running there was no dilemma for the directors and both brothers were picked to play against Sheffield Wednesday. But it was not a happy day. Everton were outplayed and beaten 2-1. The Balmer brothers, moreover, were picked out for criticism. ‘The backs on both sides were curiously weak, the mistakes being quite extraordinarily frequent and the two Balmers made fully their share,’ noted one correspondent. ‘The defence they presented was not steady, and with the Wednesday forwards playing right up to them they were often in extreme difficulty.’
Both brothers played together through the deeply disappointing 1907/08 campaign. At the season’s end many of the squad’s more established names were transfer-listed, but both Balmers were retained. And yet William never played for the first team again and disappeared from view. Quite what happened is not clear, but it may be linked to an incident prior to the start of the 1908/09 season, when he was disciplined for missing training. The club transfer-listed him for £100 and he played several games for the reserves during the 1908/09 season. Some sources say that he played for Croydon Common in the Southern League but Everton certainly retained his playing registration until 1911. In October 1909 the Everton board agreed to a loan move to Southport Central, although the club’s minute books don’t record whether the transfer went through. By 1911 William Balmer was listed in the census as a West Derby newsagent.
Robert continued playing for the Everton first team for a further three years. In December 1908, while his brother sat in the footballing wilderness, he was awarded a benefit match, which he shared with Harry Makepeace. It earned both players £500 and the club hosted a dinner in honour of the beneficiaries.
He was ultimately edged out of the team by William Stevenson, who added new resolve to the Everton defence as the club pushed hard for League Championship honours. These would prove elusive, as would further games for Robert, whose registration was nevertheless retained by Everton until at least the summer of 1915 – four years after his last appearance in a blue shirt.