After a succession of physically imposing, hurly-burly centre-forwards in the traditional mould through a generation starved of Goodison glory, the slight, unathletic figure of Royston Vernon was the unlikely figure to propel Everton back to success in the early-1960s. ‘He was about 10 stone wet through and looked about as athletic as Pinochio,’ Brian Labone once said, conjuring a less than complimentary image of his former team-mate and captain. ‘He had no left peg and couldn’t head the ball,’ added Alex Young. And perhaps such jibes bore some truth. Afterall, Vernon was a player who was once accused by a fan of smoking on the pitch (he was inhaling an ammonia capsule), was a poor trainer and was once sent home from a tour of America for breaking a curfew. However such off the pitch antics in no way detracted from his superb goalscoring prowess. He was, acknowledged Labone, a ‘brilliant player.’ In five years at Goodison he scored 110 goals in 200 games and captained Everton to their first post war League Championship. Asked in the mid sixties to name the county’s most talented goalscorers, Vernon answered, ‘There’s Denis Law, there’s Jimmy Greaves and there’s me...!’ Such self confidence had more than some basis in fact.
Born in 1937, as a schoolboy Vernon had originally turned down the chance of joining Everton, preferring instead to sign professional terms with Blackburn Rovers where he was first aquatinted with Johnny Carey. Under his tutelage he emerged as one of the most deadly young goalscorers in English football and was recognised by Wales, with whom he travelled to the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. Carey became Everton manager in October 1958 and as the Moores millions started to make an impression upon his new club the search for a top class forward was a priority. Attempts to buy Denis Law and Joe Baker were thwarted, but when the Everton manager heard that his former charge was available, in February 1960 he made his move. A part exchange, which saw Eddie Thomas and £27,000 go to Ewood Park, saw Vernon sign for Everton.
Vernon’s impact at Goodison was immediate and he helped revive the fortunes of Carey’s struggling side by scoring six times in his first five games. His performance in the 6-1 defeat of Chelsea in March 1960 led the Daily Post to marvel, ‘Vernon was man of the match and is destined to play a leading role in the good things which promise to come Everton’s way.’ He was indeed set to have a key role in the Blues’ revival and was to finish top scorer for four successive seasons.
His best football in an Everton shirt came after the arrival of Alex Young from Hearts later on in 1960. Vernon was primarily a penalty area player feeding off the supply of balls from the brilliant Scot. ‘He developed into a tremendous runner off the ball which suited me down to the ground,’ recalled Young. ‘Roy loved to make surging runs down the middle, just like Eusebio, and could slip through defences like sand through fingers. He claimed that it takes two to make a pass, one to strike the ball and another to receive it. We honed our inter-passing and reaped the rewards with nets full of goals.’ Vernon’s shot was one of immense power and from an early age he developed the technique of rifling the ball low and hard into the corner, with little backlift. He was also an outstanding penalty taker, missing just one of the twenty he took in a royal blue shirt. ‘It could be said that Vernon made Alex Young, rather than the other way around,’ this author’s grandfather, Charles Mills, told me. ‘I rather think he made Vernon: he provided the flicks and the through balls and Vernon was of course dynamite anywhere in the penalty area.’
Vernon scored 26 league goals in the 1961/62 season and to add to his growing goalscoring burden came the club captaincy following Bobby Collins’ shock departure to Leeds United in March 1962. And yet his off the pitch behaviour seemed in stark contrast to the responsibilities one would expect the Everton captain to assume. He was a heavy smoker and it was reckoned that he could hold a cigarette at such at an angle as to be able to smoke in the shower. He was outspoken and his sharp tongue had a propensity to upset the club management. One of his first encounters with Carey’s successor, Harry Catterick, saw him sent home from Everton’s 1961 tour of America [check] for breaking a curfew.
And yet his formidable talent saw such waywardness tolerated, even by an arch disciplinarian like Catterick. This is unsurprising for through the 1962/63 season Vernon, in concert with Young, was exceptional. Missing just one league match between the two of them, they scored 46 league goals, 24 of which came from Vernon’s boots. These included a hattrick on the last day of the season, against Fulham, which effectively sealed the title win. ‘I was delighted – for everyone’s sake,’ Vernon reflected to Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly. ‘The pressure had been on since Easter when we knew we had a good chance of the title and we all felt it was in our grasp when we scored two goals in the first eleven minutes of this game.’ He claimed that the single biggest factor in the win was ‘team spirit, of which we have plenty at Goodison’, adding ‘Not that we always agree – we don’t. But our differences are thrashed out at meetings. They REALLY are discussions, with everyone chipping in.’
Vernon and Young’s partnership was exceptional and from the start of the 1961/62 season to the midway point of the 1963/64 campaign it yielded more than 100 league goals. But Catterick was never satisfied and in March 1964 he went back to Blackburn to buy their centre forward, Fred Pickering, for a British domestic record fee. Vernon retained the captaincy and Young seemed to be the one the Everton manager sought to replace. But over the next year it was Vernon that was edged out and he was allowed to join Stoke City in the summer of 1965, Young later saying that ‘his tongue must have upset Harry too many times.’
Without him, Everton went on to win the FA Cup a year later – the trophy that Vernon coveted the most. He enjoyed good times in the Potteries, later playing out his career with Halifax Town. Post-football he went in to the antiques business, but the years of heavy smoking left their legacy and he died when only in his mid-fifties. Goodison mourned the death of a man that had left so deep an impression in only a relatively short period at the club. ‘When a great player leaves the club,’ wrote Young, ‘there is a period of mourning. After emptying Roy’s ashtray, we all grieved so much that someone forgot to replace him.’