Val Harris (Vailintín Ó hEarchaí) represented the first of a strong tradition of top class Gaelic footballers – which would encompass the likes of Kevin Moran, Niall Quinn and Ronnie Whelan – crossing codes to serve at the highest level of association football. His remarkable playing career would extend into his forties and he later found success as a club and international manager.
Harris was an outstanding teenage Gaelic footballer, winning the All Ireland Championship – the sport’s highest accolade – in 1901 with Dublin. As a club player he had also won the Dublin Championship twice with Isles of the Sea before even reaching adulthood. He made the crossover to football with Shelbourne in 1903, still aged only 19, and made his international debut three years later. During this period he also signed for West Bromwich Albion but never actually played a game.
Harris was nominally a right half but fitted in across a range of positions. He was a player, wrote one correspondent, ‘neat and clever in every move.’
It was this versatility and soundness of technique that made him attractive to the Everton board, who in Spring 1908 moved to sign him.
His transfer was, however, complicated by this earlier deal with West Bromwich Albion. The exact details of this are confused, but it seems as though he had signed some form of contract with the Baggies around five years earlier but left without playing a game. Under football’s draconian retain and transfer system Albion retained his Football League playing registration and upon hearing of Everton’s interest in Harris tried to obtain £150. Everton refused and sought adjudication from the Football League, which found in their favour.
Harris’s arrival to the Everton half-back line effectively marked the end of Walter Abbott’s Everton career. He was virtually ever-present as his new club finished his debut season in 1908/09 runners up, a near-miss which they would repeat three years later.
Everton’s backline was the foundation upon which their side was built and made them viable challengers for high honours and Harris played his part in this. He was a tough player and could handle himself when challenged. He was physically brave too. Reporting on a game versus Manchester City, the Liverpool Mercury correspondent recorded how Harris clashed heads with an opponent ‘with considerable violence’ and both players withdrew with cut heads. Harris, however, ‘was quickly back in the field, but the City went on to play with ten men.’
Besides trophies – to which he came tantalizingly close – Harris’s Everton career had everything. Everything that is but a goal. He broke his duck in spectacular fashion four-and-a-half years into his Everton career in a game against Spurs, a 4-0 thumping on the opening day of the 1912/13 season.
‘Val Harris during his five years useful service with Everton, has never had the satisfaction of scoring a goal,’ reported Cosmo in the Liverpool Evening Express. ‘He has tried hard, but somehow up to this afternoon ill luck has attended all his efforts. Twenty minutes after the start he scored as brilliant goal as one could wish to see. He had wriggled his way right across to the left wing and then finding himself clear of the opposition he screwed in an oblique shot which entered the goal just under the bar. Iremonger being taken completely unawares. It was a great goal and at length the spell of ill-luck, it is to be hoped, has been broken. The spectators delight knew no bounds and the cheering and waving of hats continued for several minutes.’
Harris was at the height of his powers but quite abruptly his Everton career came to an end. Following the end of the 1913/14 season he became embroiled in a pay dispute with the Everton board, who eventually acceded to his demands. But when they relaid their offer there was a shock in store. ‘The Secretary read a letter from Harris in which he intimated that he had signed for Shelbourne,’ recorded a board meeting minute. ‘The Secretary also reported that he had written to the President of the League on the matter and that owing to some misunderstanding between the English League and the Irish League the arrangement alleged between the two Leagues had not been ratified.’
Harris’s timing was poor and within a year of his departure Everton were champions again. But back in his native Ireland he served Shelbourne with distinction. In 1920 he won the Irish Cup a second time, and a year later was part of the team that were founder members of the League of Ireland. In 1926, aged 41 – the same year he represented the League of Ireland XI – he lifted the League of Ireland Championship.
The following year he turned to coaching with Shelbourne and the Ireland national team. He managed Ireland versus the Netherlands in 1932 and found success with Shelbourne again, winning the FAI Cup in 1939, in which they overcame a Sligo Rovers team that included Dixie Dean.
Almost exactly a century after Harris’s arrival at Goodison, the club’s link with Gaelic football continued with the signing of Seamus Coleman, who gave up GAA to pursue a career in the association game.