Wing half Hunter Hart was a colossus for Everton through the 1920s, captaining the team for several years in a career that saw him make more than 300 Everton appearances, lift the League Championship in 1928 and serve the club in a variety of off-the-field roles.
The Glaswegian was a prodigious talent and despite only being born in the last years of the nineteenth century his career traversed both sides of the First World War. Spotted playing junior football by Airdreonians’ famous manager John Chapman, he was signed up and thrust into senior football still aged only 15. War intervened, but in his early years he was one of the most highly rated young players in Scotland and many expected him to follow Chapman to England when he left to manage Manchester United in 1921.
It was Everton, however, that were the beneficiaries of his signature in January 1922, the fee £3,100. ‘English football should agree with Hart, and if he displays the same form at Everton as he did in Scotland, the Scottish selectors will not overlook him when the Internationals come round,’ recorded the Liverpool Courier when he signed. Of his debut against Bolton Wanderers a few days later they reported: ’Even under such trying conditions he proved that he is a great footballer, both by his tackling and calculating way in which he pushed the leather up to his forwards. With further understanding of the men in front he should make the base of a scoring triangle.’
Hart was a powerful and tenacious half-back, who would – as his career progressed – add some bite to a weak rearguard. He was capable of looking after himself too and sometimes the aggression of his play caused problems. In a match against Bradford six weeks after his arrival he was sent off for attempting to kick an opponent who had irked him. ‘The decision seemed to be rather a severe one, as Hart had not hurt Hargreaves in any way, and many were of the opinion that a caution would have met the case. In any case, if one man deserved marching orders, one would imagine that they should have been given to both players,’ recorded The Courier.
Everton only narrowly avoided relegation in Hart’s first season at the club, but his first full campaign – 1922/23 – was rather more promising as Everton finished fifth, with Hart captaining the team. He was to retain the captaincy for five seasons but some suggested it was a burden, not least when Everton again narrowly avoided relegation in 1926/27. When Warney Cresswell succeeded him the following campaign, Ernest ‘Bee’ Edwards wrote: ‘Hart; if anything played a better game than usual, thanks to being relieved of the cares of a side that was last season struggling from the first moment to the last kick.’
Having started as a left half, Hart had by then migrated to the centre of the Everton team. He was, wrote one admiring journalist, ‘masterly in the centre –a skillful tactician’. The Daily Courier described him as ‘the genius of the halves. His ideal place is pivot, although he has played at left-half.’ However, the Scottish FA’s preference for native-based players meant he was never picked to represent his country.
With Cresswell ascendant as captain and Hart thriving in the heart of the team, Everton – inspired by Dixie’s 60 – romped to the League Championship in 1927/28. But their form was mystifyingly inconsistent. A year later they finished eighteenth and in 1929/30 succumbed to the humiliation of relegation for the first time. Hart’s season was ended in January after a 4-1 hammering at Blackburn and he never regained his place.
He was to remain at Goodison for a further decade as a Central League player at a time when reserve attendances regularly reached five figures, and subsequently as reserve team manager, scout and member of the club administration.
His two decades at Goodison seems to have come to an ignominious end in November 1939. Everton’s arch-Machiavellian secretary Theo Kelly reported to the board bookkeeping discrepancies totaling £34. Hart and another employee were called in for questioning. ’The Sec'y. had interviewed Mr. Hart regarding these shortages & that Mr. Hart had declared himself responsible for two shortages, namely, the Petty Cash (£10.6.7) & Programme Petty Cash (£12.8.6),’ reported a board minute. ‘In reply, Mr. Hart agreed that he was responsible for those two accounts, but while he could not explain the full shortage, he stated that he had taken £7 (Seven pounds) from the Programme Petty Cash account, which he had not replaced.’
Hart had regularly reported to the Everton board on player matters, but his name disappears from board minutes thereafter. The incident appears to have marked the end of Hart’s long and multi-facetted association with the club; a sad end to a great and dedicated servant and an exit which – given Kelly’s role in ousting the likes of Dean, Joe Mercer and T. G. Jones – may have even been devoid of wrongdoing.