Despite spending his 14-year Goodison career largely in the long shadow cast by Ted Sagar, goalkeeper George Burnett’s time at the club is littered with all manner of odd happenings and coincidences.
There was, for instance, his transfer to South Liverpool in 1951, which must surely represent one of the quickest transfers in football history. Desperate for first-team football, Burnett had been transfer-listed earlier that year at £7500 – but unsurprisingly no league club were prepared to pay so vast a fee for a reserve goalkeeper. So instead Burnett joined South Liverpool as an amateur. But within 24 hours of joining, Everton were beset by an injury crisis and so Cliff Britton re-signed him. The hapless Burnett was placed immediately in the team for a relegation showdown with Sheffield Wednesday and promptly conceded six goals without reply as Everton were relegated in one of the most infamous capitulations in the club’s history.
Then there was the time Everton were looking for promotion back to the First Division three years later. They needed to beat Oldham Athletic to secure a top-flight return; by six goals they would have gone up as Second Division champions. Facing them in the Oldham goal was none other than Burnett. By half-time he had let in four and although he did enough to stave off further concessions, for years dark rumours that he had been too generous to his former team-mates followed him.
The Sheffield Wednesday fiasco was the last action in a long Everton career that saw first-team opportunities limited by the war and the ubiquitous Sagar. The local lad had first signed as a junior in the 1930s, but aged 19 – a time when he should have perhaps been looking to the first team – war broke out and changed everything. From 1941 he was Everton’s regular goalkeeper and from April 1943 made more than 130 consecutive wartime appearances – no mean feat when troop movements and guest appearances radically altered the complexion of a team week in week out.
When peace came and the Football League re-commenced in August 1946, Burnett retained his place, but it wasn’t for long. Twelve games in to the 1946/47 season Sagar returned and for most of the rest of his Everton career Burnett played second fiddle to the veteran until his £2000 transfer to Oldham at the end of the disastrous 1950/51 season.
He remained phlegmatic about his fate as Sagar’s understudy. ‘Playing staffs were much bigger in those days,’ he said in 1969. ‘You couldn’t afford to be temperamental if you wanted a game. You had to fight for a place in the team and it was a real honour to pull on an Everton or Liverpool jersey.’