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Everton’s 1937/38 Season: Seeking the Right Chemistry at the School of Science

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Everton romped to the 1938/39 league title and were hailed as purveyors of football in the finest scientific traditions. Yet, on paper, this was an unlikely triumph as the club had been flirting with relegation just a year earlier. So how did Everton’s 1937/38 season serve as a prelude to glory?

Rob Sawyer, author of The Prince of Centre-Halves: 'The Life of Tommy T.G. Jones', nominated for Biography of the Year at the 2018 Sports book awards, provides the background...

Everton had entered the 1930s in sensational style: relegated in 1930, promoted straight back as Second Division Champions in 1931. Improbably, this was followed by the League title in 1932 and capped by the club’s second FA Cup victory in 1933. With Ted Sagar becoming one of the leading exponents of goalkeeping, Cliff Britton developing as an artist with the ball at his feet, Albert Geldard storming down the right wing and Bill ‘Dixie’ Dean still proving an effective offensive bulwark, it was reasonable to expect the good times to keep rolling. However, some star players were ageing, whilst others were injured or misfiring. With Dean starting to feel the effects of wear and tear, Everton became also-rans in the annual title race.

It is hard to believe, in this age of managers lauded for their tactical acumen, that in the 1930s Everton’s squad was shaped by the club’s directorate and kept fit by the venerable Harry Cooke. As for tactics – the team stuck rigidly to the, de rigueur 2-3-5 (W-M) formation of two backs, three half-backs and a five-man forward line. It was left to the players themselves to agree on the finer points of game plans, with senior professionals such as Bill Dean, Warney Cresswell and Charlie Gee all instrumental.

The omens were not promising when Everton kicked-off the 1937/38 season on the back of a disappointing 17th place finish in the previous campaign. Fears were borne-out with the side pointless after the first three fixtures. The opening day’s defeat to Arsenal was notable only for the final senior goal that Bill Dean would score for his beloved club. Two games later he was dropped for Tommy Lawton – the teenage prodigy brought in from Burnley to succeed the master goal-scorer. Lawton thrived, netting 28 times in 41 starts, whilst Dean would only get two further outings, bringing his tally to 399 league appearances.

Notwithstanding Lawton’s goal output, Everton lurked in the lower echelons of the 22 team table. The team was chopped and changed with regularity and the board strove for the elusive alchemy that would bring precious metals to the trophy cabinet. A Goodison goal-fest on 30 October, in which Everton went down 3-5 to Preston, was the signal for Tommy ‘T.G’ Jones to be drafted in at centre-half in place of Charlie Gee. Jones had been snapped up from Wrexham in March 1936 after a meagre six first team appearances. Jack Sharp – Everton director and one-time football and cricket superstar – had been impressed by the rangy teenager when on a scouting mission to The Racecourse. He recommended that Jones’ services be secured, forthwith, as ‘one for the future’.

Jones had that rare mix of power (with foot and head), precision, skill and confidence in his own abilities. He had deputised once for Charlie Gee in his first full season at Everton, but had struggled to adapt to life on Merseyside, citing homesickness. It was only when he was allowed to return to live in his native Deeside that he blossomed with the Toffees. He played briefly alongside exit-bound Dean in the reserves – their limited time together enough for Dean to declare that the Welshman was the most complete player that he had ever seen.

Jones seized his chance at Gee’s expense and received praise, and a nod to his coolness, verging on recklessness, from the Liverpool Echo for his part in the 2-1 victory over Middlesbrough:

Jones had made a good impression, even though he had put our hearts in our mouths when he elected to trap a ball in front of his own goal when there were several Borough men in the vicinity. He got away with it...

A week later Jones played his part in a 4-1 defeat of Chelsea at Goodison which had the Evening Express reporter cooing: ‘Jones (T.G.); the former Wrexham pivot was the personification of coolness.’ The unfortunate Gee, a fine centre-half himself, would hardly get a look-in thereafter as T.G. missed only one match for the rest of the season. Early in the New Year Everton were bolstered by the arrival of full-back Norman Greenhalgh from New Brighton and England international left-winger Wally Boyes from West Bromwich Albion. An era ended on 11 March when Bill Dean was ushered out of the exit door to Notts County. He sent a telegram with best wishes to Cliff Britton, who assumed the club captaincy in his stead.


(Left to right): Billy Cook, Albert Geldard, Jock Thomson, T.G. Jones.

Courtesy of Jane Jones. 

Results remained frustratingly inconsistent and relegation remained a distinct possibility as April dawned. In the aftermath of a defeat to Chelsea, with the team preparing for a run of crunch matches, Stork wrote for the Liverpool Echo about the spectre of relegation enveloping Goodison:

Everton are at Harrogate toning up for the big flight which is ahead of them. For whichever way one looks at it, their position is not a happy one. I am optimistic enough to think they will avert disaster but the battle to retain their senior status is going to be a stern one... Everton therefore most beat the Albion at Goodison tomorrow. There must be no draw this time, but a clear and convincing victory.

For the visit of the Throstles, Joe Mercer was selected in place on Cliff Britton, teaming up with Jock Thomson, the veteran of the 1933 Cup Final, who had been recently recalled after a year’s hiatus. The two brought with them a solidity to compliment T.G. Jones’ artistry in the half-back line. Albion were duly defeated 5-3 in a thriller, with Lawton netting twice. Everton, in losing only one of the final eight matches of the season, claimed a perhaps flattering 14th position in the League (just 3 points above the relegated teams).

Although it was not immediately obvious to most onlookers, the nucleus of a good side had been formed. This would be cemented in the post-season Empire Exhibition Tournament. Thrust together for a fortnight, the squad bonded off the pitch and clicked on it. Jones later told Rogan Taylor: ‘We went to Glasgow for a couple of weeks… and all the top Scottish teams were there and one or two English teams... It did something for us, that competition, because the next year we walked away with the First Division.’ On the tour, Young guns like Jones, Torry Gillick and Tommy Lawton were the victims of pranks by jokers-in-chief, Alex Stevenson and Wally Boyes. On the pitch the team defied expectations – reaching the final against Celtic at Ibrox – going down to a late winner for the host city team.

The two final pieces in the jigsaw fell into place before the new season kicked off. With Jimmy Cunliffe still nursing a knee injury sustained at Ibrox, Everton turned to Stan Bentham. The Newton-Le-Willows man amply compensated for his lack of finesse through a perpetual motion approach to play – a role mirrored by Dennis Stevens when Everton won the title in 1963. Bentham’s selfless, honest endeavour provided the perfect foil for the artisans in the team. These included Torry Gillick, that gifted yet mercurial winger, who established himself at outside-right in place of the recently departed Albert Geldard. So the team which lined up in August 1938, and was virtually unchanged for the entire season, was: Sagar, Cook, Greenhalgh, Mercer, Jones, Thomson, Gillick, Bentham, Lawton, Stevenson and Boyes.

The Class of 38/39 hit the ground running with six straight victories and, after a wobble early in the New Year, cantered to the league title. Jones, reflecting in 1990, said ‘That was a truly great side. We never seemed to have to run about. We just pushed the ball to each other and everything went like clockwork.’ Jones expanded on this point to Rogan Taylor: ‘They called us “The School of Science”. Believe me when I tell you, there were games when I went on the field and didn’t break sweat – it was that good.’

The Prince of Centre-Halves has been nominated for Biography of the Year at the 2018 Sports Book Awards, and is available to buy here

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