Fred Pickering was a centre forward for whom scoring came as naturally as breathing. A player who marked his Everton and England debuts with hat-tricks, the powerful Lancastrian was one of the most prolific number nines in Everton history. And yet his Goodison career is defined not by goals, but controversies. His 1964 arrival was supposed to beckon the end of Alex Young, causing protests and utter consternation on the terraces – despite Pickering’s outstanding efforts on the pitch. Later he was infamously left out of the 1966 FA Cup Final side, with Mike Trebilcock, hitherto a Cornish unknown, taking his place. For Everton it was a gamble that paid off, but for Pickering it marked the end of what should have been a glittering Goodison career.
A son of Blackburn, Pickering joined his home-town club in the 1950s. A somewhat pedestrian left back, Rovers manager Jack Marshall experimented with him in the centre forward’s role. The results were dramatic and from being an ordinary defender Pickering emerged as one of the First Division’s outstanding centre forwards. His goals – 59 from 123 appearances – transformed Blackburn from the division’s also-rans to title dark horses. As such, it was with understandable frustration and anger from Blackburn fans – who had already seen Roy Vernon depart for Everton four years previously – that the local boy departed to Goodison in March 1964, for a British domestic record fee of £85,000.
The record move, however, was also greeted with bemusement by Evertonians. It was known on the terraces that Harry Catterick’s relationship with Alex Young was cool, and it was always assumed that the manager considered his artistry a mere decoration to his team rather than an integral part of it. He had been linked with a move for Sheffield Wednesday’s David Layne, a powerful centre forward whose style was not unlike Pickering’s, and the assumption was that Young would be dispensed with as soon as a new signing came.
And so it came to pass. Young, who had just returned from injury, was dropped and Pickering took his place. His impact on a team fighting to retain their league title was immediate: a hat-trick on his debut, a 6-1 win over Nottingham Forest. A week later, Everton’s 2-1 victory over Pickering’s former club Blackburn sent them top for the first time in the 1963/64 season.
Pickering would go on to score nine goals in nine games during the title run-in, but there remained a sense of unease that his inclusion compromised the balance of the team. For all his goals, Everton managed just three points from their final five games and finished third – five points behind champions Liverpool. ‘While it wasn’t Fred’s fault,’ Young recalled, ‘the fan’s reaction to him was tempered. They celebrated his goals then complained bitterly about the sacrificed points.’ Indeed Tony Kay’s match-fixing disgrace – uncovered in the final weeks of the season – was more disruptive than Pickering’s arrival.
Pickering’s form earned him an England call-up for the end of season tour to the Americas. He scored a hat-trick on his debut – a 10-0 romp over the US – and goals in each of his other international appearances, against Northern Ireland and Belgium. And yet despite this formidable record, beyond 1964 further international recognition would prove elusive.
At Goodison, despite supporter suspicions, Young survived Pickering’s arrival and it was Roy Vernon who would eventually be sacrificed. All three players started the 1964/65 season, in which Pickering was the star man – scoring 27 league goals in 41 appearances. Nicknamed ‘Boomer’ for his explosive shot, Pickering was a burly, uncompromising centre forward, completely unlike the lithe and slight Young and Vernon. And yet he possessed considerable skill for one so big – a reminder, perhaps, of his full back days. Some of his best goals were scored after cutting in from the flank and letting fly with a shot.
‘He was free of any serious illusion about his own athletic prowess yet evolved into a top-class striker with shoulders broad enough to carry his bags of skill and courage,’ Young recalled. ‘Fred was more than a bruiser and had developed a wonderful touch as well as impressive close-control for such a big man.’
Pickering’s fine form carried into the 1965/66 season when he scored 18 league goals, plus a further four in Everton’s FA Cup run. However, a knee cartilage problem had proved increasingly painful as the season reached its conclusion. He missed the first of Everton’s quarter-final triple-header against Manchester City, and three of Everton’s last seven league games. Perhaps more crucially he also missed the semi-final victory against Manchester United. Yet he returned to play in Everton’s final three league games.
In the run to the FA Cup Final, Catterick darkly hinted that Pickering would not make the team, saying that he was not ‘playing with the confidence he was showing in his play’ before he was injured. The choice facing him seemed straightforward, however: on the one hand he could play Pickering, an England international who had averaged more than a goal every other game for Everton; on the other he could pick Mike Trebilcock, a novice with just eight Everton appearances and two goals to his name. But Catterick was never predictable and in the end he plumped for Trebilcock.
Pickering was said to be ‘angry and upset’ at the decision, as well he might. Decades later, the snub still seems to define memories of the player.
He returned for the start of the 1966/67 season, but injuries were to limit the impression he made. Yet even when fit, Catterick used him sparingly. At the season’s end he accepted a £50,000 offer from Birmingham City. At St Andrews, Pickering kept on scoring, and his experience helped ease the progression of Bob Latchford – a future Everton number nine. There was a spell at Blackpool and in 1971 a brief return to Blackburn, where he retired.