Perhaps the defining image of Brian Harris came late in the 1966 FA Cup Final. Everton had just scored an improbable equaliser, having earlier trailed Sheffield Wednesday by two goals, and for one exuberant supporter, Eddie Kavanagh, the emotion famously became too much. Embarking on a mazy run across the Wembley turf, he evaded one policeman, who groped forlornly at his empty jacket, before being rugby tackled by a second, who lost his helmet in the process. As the still ecstatic supporter tried to free himself to embrace Brian Labone, a beaming Harris could be seen in the background, trying on the policemen’s helmet for size.
The interlude was a very public exposition of Harris’s wicked sense of humour, which even in moments of high drama was never far from the surface. Everton went on to beat Wednesday 3-2, and for Harris the day became the crowning glory of a 20 year career.
Born in Bebington on the Wirral, Harris was an outstanding schoolboy sportsman: an ace cricketer and as a footballer, an England youth international. Perhaps surprisingly, he evaded the scouting networks of Merseyside’s three league clubs until the age of 18. When Everton recruited him from non-league Port Sunlight in January 1954 for £10. The fee was to prove one of the finest bargains in the club’s history. Initially a winger, Harris possessed great positional versatility and occupied every outfield position in an Everton career which spanned more than a decade.
While he spent much of his career as a left-sided wing half, the era’s tactical shifts saw that position evolve so that he became a forerunner of the modern midfield destroyer. Even in a defensive role, however, the vision honed as schoolboy winger was still occasionally in evidence and a searching through ball would often pick out the run of Alex Young or Roy Vernon.
Harris made his Everton debut in August 1955, in the midst of a difficult period for the club. The great Dixie Dean and Tommy Lawton-inspired teams of the 1930s were a fading memory and the investment of John Moores, which would transform the club’s fortunes in the 1960s, was still to come.
In a team of journeymen, Harris at first struggled to make an impression, but following the appointment of Johnny Carey as manager in October 1958 he flourished. As a player with Matt Busby’s Manchester United, Carey had changed position from inside forward to wing half and, perhaps seeing something of himself in the young Harris, moved him from the Everton flank to a more withdrawn role at wing half.
In his new position, occasionally deputising at full back, Harris excelled, and even when the Moores money began to buy up some of British football’s best players, the £10 signing kept his place among the ‘Mersey Millionaires’ – as Everton became known. Indeed, the underrated Harris was central to Everton’s transformation from fifties strugglers to one of the most accomplished English teams of the following decade.
In December 1962, midway through a League Championship winning season, Harry Catterick, who had replaced Carey a year earlier, signed Sheffield Wednesday’s wing half Tony Kay, in a record transfer deal. Harris, who had performed impressively in the opening half of the season, was harshly dropped.
Rather than demand a transfer, he bade his time in the reserves and his perseverance paid off in April 1964, when Kay was found to have been part of a match-fixing scam. Subsequently jailed and banned for life, Harris returned in Kay’s place and went on to provide the best form of his career, culminating in the FA Cup win, where his was a calm head in an afternoon of high drama.
Catterick was a ruthless manager, however, and moved quickly to break up the Cup winning team. Harris was sold to Cardiff City the following October for £15,000, and over five years at Ninian Park, his experience contributed hugely to one of Cardiff’s most successful periods. In the 1967/68 season, Harris appeared in all of Cardiff's European Cup Winners Cup’ games as they reached the semi final, losing narrowly over two legs to SV Hamburg.
In 1971 he dropped down a couple of divisions, playing out his career with Newport County, whom he briefly managed. He returned to Cardiff as assistant manager in the late-1970s, then coached briefly at Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town.
On dropping out of professional football he returned to Wales, settling in Chepstow, where he managed the town's non-League club and ran a canvassing business with his sons. A gregarious, fun-loving character, always popular with team-mates and fans, in his later years Harris was a popular guest at Everton reunion dinners. It was with his first club that his heart lay, and it seemed appropriate that his funeral service in February 2008 was held at St Lukes Church, located at the corner of Goodison Park.
Westcott, Chris, Brian Harris: The Authorised Biography, Tempus, Stroud, 2003.