Often the key to league title success is as much the timely addition of fresh blood as it is the pedigree of the team that started the season. In 1962/63 the mid-season signings of Tony Kay and Alex Scott added fresh impetus to Everton’s successful title challenge. 24 years later Howard Kendall added Wayne Clarke to the Everton squad as they neared their ninth league title, and his goals ultimately did much to push Everton over the finishing line.
But the most dramatic intervention to an Everton season came with the call up of Alan Whittle from the reserves in December 1969. Hitherto a highly rated but virtually unknown teenage striker, the ‘blond bomber’ deputised for the injured Jimmy Husband and breathed new life into Everton’s ultimately successful assault on the league title. By the season’s end he had claimed eleven goals from just fifteen starts as Everton lifted their seventh championship with a record points haul.
Born and bred in Merseyside, in signing as an Everton youth player Whittle rejected the advances of a succession of their north west rivals. On first witnessing Whittle’s accession to Everton’s first team Manchester United’s Chief Scout, Joe Armstrong, admitted: ‘I wish we’d got him. [He is] a great prospect. I’d have felt like putting my head in a gas oven if he’d been Manchester born and gone to Everton.’
His Everton debut came in March 1968, a week past his eighteenth birthday. He made a handful of appearances during the closing weeks of the 1967/68 season and again over the course of the following campaign. But with more senior colleagues playing so well, Evertonians wondered whether the promising youngster would make the breakthrough or simply fall by the wayside like so many gifted Everton youngsters of this era.
Whittle’s big chance came in December 1969 when injury struck Jimmy Husband and he was recalled for the Goodison derby. Everton were beaten 3-0 but Whittle did enough to keep his place for the following week’s fixture at West Ham. Having to play on a quagmire of a pitch, the game was heading for a stalemate until a poor back pass by Bobby Moore was intercepted by Whittle. He sped 50 yards down the pitch, evading challenges by the West Ham full back Alan Stephenson and Moore, before hitting the ball into the back of the Hammers’ net. It was the game’s only goal and the Liverpool Echo reported: ‘All credit to Whittle for the chance was brilliantly taken.’
That winning goal, wrote historian George Orr in his chronicle of the era, ‘was to start a fire in him that not many defenders were able to put out in the following months.’ Likened to Denis Law, Whittle was an effervescent quick-footed forward, who thrived when running at his opponents with the ball at his feet. Zestful, enthusiastic and possessing deceptive strength, he was a fine and, in these early stages of his career, prolific, finisher. His eleven goals were to directly lead to eleven of Everton’s final tally of 66 points that season. But his strikes were to have a more fundamental impact, instilling confidence at crucial stages in the season. Six goals from six games in March and April 1970 effectively sealed the title for Everton.
Whittle retained his place for the first half of the 1970/71 season, but his form suffered as Everton were beset by baffling inconsistency. The following campaign he started 18 league games – often asked to play in midfield – but failed to score once. After barely featuring in the opening stages of the 1972/73 season, he was sold to Crystal Palace in December 1972 for £100,000 on the same day that Harry Catterick paid Aberdeen £180,000 for his replacement, Joe Harper.
Whittle became a firm favourite at Selhurst Park without hitting the same heights he had once scaled at Goodison. Palace were relegated from the First Division at the end of the 1972/73 season and from the Second Division a year later. In 1976 he joined Orient and a year later made a lucrative move to Iran, where he became the first Briton to play. Forced to flee the country after the Iranian Revolution, Whittle played out his career with Bournemouth – a disappointing conclusion to a career that once seemed replete with promise.